How Michael Jordan altered what we expect from every athlete who followed him

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There were fierce competitors in the NBA long before Michael Jordan ever stepped on a court. Go watch an interview with Bill Russell talking about how he hated to lose read about Jerry West and how big losses would make him physically ill.

But no player in any sport has had an ultra-competitiveness fused with his image like Michael Jordan.

Jordan wanted to win — and he wanted it publically at a time when the media focus on the NBA boomed and the league grew to wild new heights of popularity. Riding a wave of winning titles plus being the face of a then unprecedented Nike branding campaign, Jordan’s persona grew to larger than life levels. It grew and has lasted to the point that we as a sports nation are talking about his legacy as he turns 50 this weekend.

After Jordan, every athlete in virtually every sport — from LeBron James to Tiger Woods to Andrew Luck — gets compared to the Jordan standard. How committed are they to winning? How badly do they want it? Fair or not, Jordan made the mold we expect all athletes to fit.

Roland Lazenby, the author of “Blood On The Horns, The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls” (which is being re-released right now by Diversion Books as an ebook edition in honor of Jordan’s birthday) and also the author of a new Jordan biography due out in the spring of 2014 (by Little, Brown), said Jordan was a perfect storm of the player, the personality and timing.

“As a culture, we’ve always recognized and admired people who care about things on a deeper level,” Lazenby told ProBasketballTalk. “In sports, that was why Jerry West attracted so many admirers, despite the fact that his Lakers lost six times to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics teams in the championship. The idea was that West’s desire to win was almost a holy thing.

“Jordan resonated that and then made it so much bigger because his audience was so much larger. He literally came from nowhere to capture the public’s fancy, first with his ability to fly, then as time went on he was revealed as a competitor who cared on a deeper level than just about all of those around him. That commitment, combined with his theatrical and athletic style, created millions of new fans globally.”

Jordan’s legacy of fierceness becomes enshrined in games like “the flu game” where nothing could stop him from performing. We as fans often seem to care more about the team and a game’s outcome than the players — we want the guys who care like we do and will show that on the court. Jordan did.

“His willingness to play through injury and pain, like West before him and later Kobe Bryant, evidenced this higher level of caring. It meant more to them, so it meant more to us,” Lazenby said.

Jordan told Lazenby that timing was everything, and so it was with his career. In the 1970s NBA finals games were taped delayed and shown after midnight. The rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed that — compelling teams and compelling players that demanded and created a larger, prime time audience for the NBA.

Which served as a launching pad for Jordan.

“With Jordan, the audience was so much larger than what West or Oscar Robertson experienced,” Lazenby said. “Jordan was able to articulate that standard with the way he played.

“So the conversation for the greatest players begins in many ways with, how deeply do they care? How much are they willing to sacrifice? If it’s not immensely important, insanely important, to the star, how can it be that important to teammates and fans?

“As a culture, we marvel at that insanely excessive level of commitment, whatever the sport or endeavor. Basketball is such an emotional game. It attracts the sort of genius defined by physical ability and an unparalleled competitive will.”

Nobody ever combined physical ability and competitive will like Jordan.

With him he changed not just how we perceive basketball players but how fans perceive athletes in every sport. We look at Robert Griffin III and the first thing we fans ask is how deeply does he care? And if you fail to live up to that standard of passion and commitment — we’re looking at you, Dwight Howard — fans’ wrath ensues.

It was Jordan who changed all of that. That is just part of his legacy.

Three Things to Know: Grizzlies finally ready to hear Gasol, Conley trades, but is there a deal?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Grizzlies finally ready to hear Marc Gasol, Mike Conley trades, but is there a deal to be had? Last July, there would have been trades to be made, but the Grizzlies wanted no part of it. Rumors circulated during the summer that the Memphis Grizzlies might finally decide it was time to move on from the “grit ’n grind” era and trade their stars, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, while their value was still fairly high. But then owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners and with full control pushed back against a rebuild, saying he thought this team could win 50 games.

Not so much. The Grizzlies are 19-28, 14th in the West, and have gone 1-12 in their last 13. One of the fears of rebuilding was alienating the fan base of a smaller market, one that loved the grit ‘n grind era and filled the arena to see it. But the fans have already started to move on, the Grizzlies are bottom six in the league now in both attendance and percentage of the arena filled. The market already is unimpressed with the product.

Now the Grizzlies are ready to listen to trade offers for Gasol and Conley. They are ready to rebuild around the promising Jaren Jackson Jr.

However, finding an actual trade in 17 days — before the Feb. 7 deadline — is going to be very difficult. (And despite the fun you can have in the trade machine, it’s not going to be one big three-/four-team trade that moves them both, these will be separate deals.)

There is more urgency for the Grizzlies to trade Gasol, who can opt out of his $25.6 million contract for next season — but that deal also complicates trades for him. How much are teams going to give up for an expensive half-season rental who has shown declining skills this season (father time is starting to win the race, his defense has faded)?

The other challenge: What playoff team needs a center and is willing to trade to take on his $24.1 million salary this season? Not many.

Both Los Angeles teams — the Lakers and Clippers — would see an upgrade at the five with Gasol, and both are pushing to make the playoffs in the crowded West. However, both are more focused on next July and big players in free agency (or, any potential Anthony Davis trades), they can’t risk Gasol looking at the market and picking up his player option for next season, eating up their cap space and spoiling their plans.

Dallas would see Gasol as an upgrade over DeAndre Jordan if they want to make a playoff push, and Jordan is an expiring contract so both sides would not be stuck long term. But if Memphis is taking on Jordan they would want a serious sweetener — a young player or a pick — and why would Dallas give that up? To make a playoff push? With J.J. Barea out and the Mavericks four games out of the playoffs and fading, it’s hard to see a deal getting done.

After that, the options get uglier. Detroit might be willing to swap bigs and move Andre Drummond (thinking Gasol fits better with Blake Griffin), but if you’re Memphis why make that move unless you’re getting young players and picks back? And why would Detroit give those up? Miami, Washington, San Antonio, there are other teams that maybe could throw their hat in the ring, but again why would those teams give up good future assets for at best a mild upgrade now?

If Gasol opts into that $25.6 million next season — and he may — then he could be traded come the summer. At the deadline it’s harder, a deal only gets done if Memphis takes pennies on the dollar back.

Mike Conley will have a lot of interested parties, he is an All-Star level player (he’d make it in the East easy, but in the West probably falls short again), but his contract is bigger than Gasol’s. Conley makes $30.5 million this season and has $67 million the two seasons after that (the second is an early termination option, but Conley isn’t opting out of that money, so consider that $67 million fully guaranteed).

There are a number of teams that would see Conley as an upgrade and believe he is better than what they will find on the free agent market come July. One popular idea is Orlando throwing in the towel on Aaron Gordon and constructing a deal around him — Conley would be the point guard Orlando needs, but they would be going young up front with Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba and even Conley can lift those two only so far right now.

Conley would be a massive upgrade for Detroit at the point as well. Dallas could use him next to Luka Doncic. Conley would be a great fit in Milwaukee at the point (with Eric Bledsoe and maybe George Hill, plus a pick/player, coming back). Phoenix has been involved in every point guard discussion out there. Would Utah take him on and move on from Ricky Rubio? Indiana can be an interesting fit.

All of those Conley trades make more sense than the Gasol ones — and they are all the kinds of trades more likely to happen in July than against the pressure of the trade deadline.

Maybe a deal gets done. It’s more likely, however, that we get a lot of smoke before Feb. 7 but no fire until next summer.

2) Paul George, Russell Westbrook get more help than Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Thunder win. Damian Lillard was looking every bit the All-Star he will be with 34 points on 24 shots.

C.J. McCollum scored 21 of his 31 points in the third quarter and tied his career high with seven three-pointers. Jusuf Nurkic continued his hot run of play with 22 points.

But after that the Blazers got very little — no other player scored in double digits and there was just one other made three.

Oklahoma City’s stars stepped up big. Paul George had a game-high 36, and Russell Westbrook racked up another triple-double with 29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds.

The Difference was five other Thunder players scored in double figures and the rest of the Thunder shot 7-of-13 from three. That was enough to get the Thunder a 123-114 win at home.

My favorite on the court move? Evan Turner scored over Russell Westbrook and went to the rock-the-baby taunt.

Westbrook was not impressed.

3) Gorgui Dieng and Devin Booker get ejected, try to meet in the hallway to finish “fight.” It was another NBA fight — a lot of posturing and jawing but no actual punches thrown — but it was one of the funniest of the season. Were Gorgui Dieng and Devin Booker really going to fight in the hallway?

Here are the close-ups.

There was going to be no fight, but I’ll take Dieng if there’s going to be money wagered on the outcome.

Also, Dieng had the best response to any of it.

Kenneth Faried says the Nets were not honest with him

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Kenneth Faried is no longer a member of the Brooklyn Nets. The burgeoning young squad apparently didn’t have regular playing time for Faried, and things escalated between the former Denver Nuggets forward and the front office as the season went on.

Faried is now a member of the Houston Rockets, and he has contributed some during his first game in Texas. Still, Faried harbors some ill feelings toward the Nets, and made it known where he stood in an interview with the New York Daily News.

In particular, Faried said he felt Brooklyn was dishonest.

Via NYDN:

“It’s very frustrating. A lot of, ‘We’re going to play you when injuries,’ and a lot of, ‘We’re going to play you when in this moment, that moment,’” Faried said Tuesday. “Just tell me when you’re going to play me or tell me if you don’t want to play me. Tell me if you want me here or not. Because I’m a real honest player, I’m going to give you my heart, give you my all. And I wear my emotions on sleeve. I’m not going to be happy if you keep lying to me and telling me false statements.”

Faried appears happy to be in Houston, and remarked in the NYDN story about how coach Mike D’Antoni already came out and told him what his role would be moving forward.

His advanced numbers are still similar to what you’d expect from a player in his 20s, and although he’s probably never going to be the defensive guy you need, Faried is a useful rebounder and offensive guy for the second unit.

I’m glad Faried is happier with another team.

Devin Booker tries to meet Gorgui Dieng in locker room after both get ejected (VIDEO)

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NBA players like to talk a big game about getting into fights with one another. It rarely actually happens, and when things get a little too heated sometimes we get a little extracurricular activity that helps us weave the tapestry that is the story of the NBA.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves took on the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, Gorgui Dieng and Devin Booker decided to have a little chat with one another. The two got into a jawing match after a play in the third quarter when Dieng elbowed Booker in the face.

Booker took exception to that and decided to start flapping his gums at Dieng. Both were ejected after official review, and as they exited to opposite sides of the floor, Booker appeared to make eye contact with Dieng and accept an offer to meet him in the concourse under the stands that lead to the locker rooms.

The Suns guard then had to be restrained from running at full speed to meet Dieng.

Via Twitter:

Devin Booker vs. Gorgui Dieng is the bitter rivalry you didn’t know you needed.

Report: Anthony Davis fears fractured finger, could be out up to a month

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New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis hurt his hand against the Portland Trail Blazers earlier last week. Initial reports had Davis missing 1-2 weeks with a sprained finger.

Now it appears things could be much worse.

Reports surfaced on Tuesday night that Davis could be facing a potential fracture in his left index finger. If that’s the case, Davis could miss anywhere from 2-4 weeks with a more serious injury.

Via Twitter:

The Pelicans cannot afford to have Davis out for that amount of time. The team has not met expectations this season, and are struggling to stay in playoff contention as we near the All-Star break.

If Davis is going to miss significant time, now is probably the best place in the NBA calendar. The real problem is that the Pelicans won’t be able to stay afloat without him. Even with Davis on the floor, New Orleans has struggled to win recent games against top Western Conference opponents like the Blazers and Golden State Warriors.

It’s probably too much to extrapolate this into what this could mean for Davis staying with the Pelicans, but it’s natural to wonder whether a missed postseason could push Davis to ask for a trade out of Louisiana.

If he’s not on the floor, the Pelicans probably aren’t winning games without Davis. That could spell disaster for their playoff hopes, and in turn, alter the future of the franchise.