Michael Jordan dunk

Talking Jordan’s competitive fire with Roland Lazenby, author of “Michael Jordan: The Life”

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You can’t think of Michael Jordan without thinking about his competitive fire — it was the cornerstone of who he was as a player and what the Bulls became with him leading the way. Jordan wore that competitiveness on his sleeve (well, if jerseys had sleeves back then).

That competitive streak is one of the central, running themes in Roland Lazenby’s new biography, “Michael Jordan: The Life” which was released Tuesday. Lazenby is one of the best, most thoughtful and thorough people writing books on the NBA today, which makes all his books fascinating reads and great looks at the psychology of teams and great players. His stuff is must read.

Lazenby said that Jordan’s fire was something of a family trait, one honed in Michael’s case by family experiences. He talked about it with PBT (the full interview will be available in the PBT Podcast to drop later this week.

On Jordan’s family history and how that was the foundation his competitiveness: “I went back and started with the birth of his great grandfather in 1891. His great grandfather was 5’5” and crippled, but a really bad guy. Jordan was descended from a bunch of hard-core moonshiners on the coastal plain in North Carolina, and they were tough customers. They had a hard life, but corn liquor was their cash crop…

“His great grandfather, who died when Michael was 14, ruled over the whole family and his great grandfather was the original ‘Jordan tongue.’ And Michael’s father James idolized this old man and picked up the tongue from him, and of course Michael picked it up from his old man, and from his great grandfather.”

Jordan’s family and him playing baseball: “His parents were the original ‘helicopter parents.’ They were the kind of parents, and this was back in the ‘70s before people did a lot of this, that they were at every practice, they were everywhere, making sure their son was involved. Baseball was a largely white sport yet they were very much involved and cared deeply, yet they were never the kind of people to say something to the coach or to complain about something. They were just involved all the time….

“Michael, before he didn’t make the varsity team (as a freshman) in basketball, he was a state Little League player of the year in North Carolina. He almost took them to the Little League World Series as a pitcher and a hitter. He was a fabulous, fabulous player as a 12-year-old. Then the next three years of Babe Ruth League, particularly the next year, he hardly got off the bench. He batted four times the whole season. The base paths had lengthened and he didn’t have the arm to play. You know youth sports could be cruel like that and they were very cruel to Jordan. “

How Michael playing one-on-one with his brother shaped him and the Bulls: “His father put up a hoop in the back yard, then put up two facing hoops in the back yard of their house, right out side of Wilmington…

“The battles he had with his brother — and his brother beat him every single day for about a year and a half — were fierce. Michael was taller but his older brother was a lot stronger. But these were not fun battles. George Mumford, the great psychologist who worked with Phil Jackson at the Lakers but before that he worked with Jackson at the Bulls, he said Michael related to his teammates the same way he related to his brother in childhood. He just battled his teammates and it was always about dominating them.

“James Worthy was a junior at North Carolina when Michael Jordan came in as a freshman, and in the interviews for this book Worthy told me ‘Michael was a bully and he bullied me.’”

Michael Jordan’s ability to get into “the zone”: “The thing that George Mumford found, the psychologist working with Michael, is that most people want to be in the zone but they can’t get there, but Jordan could access it on a regular basis. And he had all these devices for pushing his psyche into the zone of really high levels of performance. And if he didn’t have something to get him there, he would just make up things to get himself going, then he would take umbrage at things he had made up, but it didn’t matter as long as it got him into that state of high performance.”

The flip side of that was that Michael held himself accountable to the same standards.

“Michael laid his heart on the line every single night. (Former Bulls GM) Jerry Krause, who loathes Michael — in his interviews for the book he was always pointing out this or that — but when you hear Krause talk about Michael the player and how much he cared and how hard he played, you know if there was anything negative Jerry could say about it he would say it, but he said ‘I have no complaints about how he played for the Bulls.’”

Jordan and Scottie Pippen: “He was brutal on Pippen, but that’s what toughened Pippen up as a young player. They would have fierce battles. Phil liked to pit them against each other like two pit bulls in practice.”

Jordan’s reluctance to take political stances: “North Carolina had more (Klu Klux) Klan members than all the other Southern states combined and African-Americans in North Carolina were violently barred from politics…. Michael Jordan didn’t come from the kind of culture where people felt comfortable getting involved in politics, that was a quick way to real trouble. Once he got older he was willing to do his share, but boy people were all over him as a young player.”

Jordan’s gambling (and why he was never suspended for it): “No one, at any time, had the slightest allegation that Michael bet on basketball or bet on his own team. Michael’s gambling was either in a casino or on the golf course, or playing a card game at his house in Hilton Head. And if they were going to suspend him for that kind of gambling I’m not sure they could have an NBA, because the NBA is filled with people who gamble.”

Michael Jordan the team owner: “He goes to Charlotte and some of his draft picks are called into question. But as time goes on, everybody looks back at Michael the owner, or Michael the executive, and they see that his learning curve is and they see his worth ethic is much more than they realized. He has gone into Charlotte — which is the Chernobyl of the NBA, the old Hornets with George Shinn trashed the place, then the roll out of the Bobcats, which was a horrible roll out, and thanks to that Charlotte was a horrible market.

“I’m sure you saw some of those crowds with Charlotte playing Miami, that place was packed again. It was like the old Hornets. The longer people look at Jordan the owner the more they are going to realize he is there and he is doing a lot better. He is making something happen. People have underestimated him again.”

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.