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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.”

Heat’s Josh McRoberts says he broke foot in Game 6 vs. Raptors, remains out

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Josh McRoberts #4 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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To call Josh McRoberts‘ time in Miami injury plagued might be the understatement of the decade.

Now with Chris Bosh out, the Heat could really use McRoberts at the four, but “shockingly” he is not healthy. Wednesday he finally admitted the reason he has been limited in training camp with foot issues.

McRoberts run of bad luck continues. And foot injuries — when your job involves running up and down a hardwood floor — are something that has to be taken seriously and allowed to fully heal, lest they become chronic. I’m not sure the Heat can bet on a lot out of McRoberts this season.

With no Bosh and McRoberts, expect Derrick Williams, Udonis Haslem, and maybe Luke Babbitt will get some run there. Coach Erik Spoelstra also likely will have some small lineups where Justise Winslow will play the four.

51Q: Will Larry Bird’s renovation of the Pacers pay off?

Larry Bird, Paul George
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

There are two types of basketball analysts: Those who believe the Pacers improved by swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague and those who believe Indiana got worse in the trade.

Teague uses his superior quickness in the pick-and-roll to score and assist more. Hill defends better, commits fewer turnovers and shoots more efficiently.

I prefer Hill. Larry Bird opted for Teague.

I can’t wait to see who’s right.

Though I’m inclined to value Hill’s less-flashy contributions – and like his lead-guard skills if he were called upon for that role – I’m also not arrogant enough to believe I certainly know better than Bird. An all-time great who has excelled as a player, coach and executive deserves some benefit of the doubt.

Bird is leveraging it now.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the team that reached consecutive conference finals in 2013 and 2014, Bird has now fully torn down the roster to build a more dynamic offense around Paul George. The Pacers president has long talked about the change, and we’ll learn this season whether his vision will bear fruit.

In addition to trading Hill for Teague, Bird let Lance Stephenson leave in free agency, deemphasized and traded Roy Hibbert, offended David West into leaving and fired Frank Vogel. In came Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Teague and Nate McMillian.

And Bird hasn’t stopped after jettisoning everyone who regularly started with George in those conference-finals runs. Indiana will miss Ian Mahinmi‘s defense – maybe more than Al Jefferson works as a change-of-pace in the low post. But Bird is fully embracing the course of trading defense for offense.

Debate how he addressed it, but the team’s identity was clear. In the last four years, the Pacers stunk offensively and thrived defensively. Their rank in points per possession:

  • Offense: 20th, 23rd, 23rd, 25th
  • Defense: 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see an excellent defense propping up an offense that could have been better. Bird saw a struggling offense and couldn’t look past it.

Indiana now has a deep squad of players who can break down opponents off the dribble. They will have matchup advantages – if they pass well enough to find the player in favorable position. The ball will move plenty between the hardwood and the dribbler’s hands. Between players? That’s a major question mark.

It’s one of numerous hitches in Bird’s plan.

He tried to fast-track the offense last year by moving George from small forward to power forward. Despite Bird’s demands, George resisted. The plan was largely scrapped early in the season.

McMillian was also a curious choice given Bird’s stated goals. McMillian’s Trail Blazers and SuperSonics teams usually played slow. Still, perhaps the coach can adapt his scheme to fit his players (and appease his boss). Bird chose McMillian for a reason, after all.

Bird chose it all.

This is the team he long desired – for better or worse.

Lakers GM Kupchak tries to brush off Jim Buss’ timeline discussion

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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Consider this a little preview: On Thursday the ProBasketballTalk podcast returns, opening with a discussion of the Lakers and the Pacific division with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. We talk about the young core — D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, etc. — and how Luke Walton fits with them. How this is a team that if handled properly could develop into something of quality in a couple of years as these players come along. Patience is key.

But then we got to what Medina called the “elephant in the room”: Jim Buss’ timeline for returning to contending. He’s the head of basketball operations and vowed to at least make the second round of the playoffs at least by this season. Which is not happening. Will Buss be patient? Is he grounded in today’s NBA reality? Will the woman with the hammer, Jeanie Buss, hold him to that timeline? Does she have the backing of the other Buss children to push him out? (Reportedly she does.) It has Shakespearian drama potential.

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was asked about that Tuesday and wanted no part of the question. Via Medina at the Daily News.

“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff….

“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”

The Lakers should win more than the 17 of last year, maybe climb into the upper 20s, with 30 wins being the goal. That would signify a good season. But what matters is development, and if the Lakers are better at the end of the season, if their young players are on the right track, then that is success for this season.

Everyone around the Lakers understands that.

But is that enough to save Jim Buss’ job? That’s a different question.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”