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.”