EMBRACE THE MISFITS, CELEBRATE THE ROLE-PLAYERS
If there is a buzzword for the modern team environment, it’s ‘culture’. That’s a short way of saying ‘these are the expectations, they are the same for every player, you either sign on or ship out’. But some of the greatest teams have layer upon layer of dysfunction that rails against the idea of homogeneous personalities and renditions of folk songs around the camp fire. More important was the collective goal and the standards required for that to be achieved. For Jordan, as long as Dennis Rodman rebounded like a freak and exuded defensive energy, he could be forgiven his imperfections and mid-season Vegas jaunts. Winning always trumps controversy. And while he always wanted the spotlight, there was little question Jordan knew the value of the his support cast. John Paxson was among his best friends of that era and after, some some tense moments in early practice, outside gunner Steve Kerr became a valued ally. We’re too quick to undersell those types of contributors these days.
LOYALTY BREEDS STORYLINES AND MAKES WINNING THAT MUCH SWEETER
In a prophetic piece to camera, the NBC broadcaster Bob Costas had this to say soon after the sixth and final championship was decided: “Even on the best teams, there is now so much turnover it’s becoming ever-harder to follow and identify with teams. Loyalty has been fragmented, which brings us to an under-appreciated aspect of this golden era in the NBA.
“It hasn’t just been Bird, Magic and Michael. It was the whole recognisable cast around them that gave the Celtics, the Lakers and the Bulls their texture and made following them all the more interesting.
“We’ll see championship teams in the future, but will see teams that endure this way?”
In the NBA’s superteam era, this resonates even more, as it does across sport in general, which has become more transient and transactional as the years pass. Costas pointed out that the Utah Jazz, who twice lost in the NBA finals at the hands of the Bulls, were headed by John Stockon and Karl Malone, who played together for more than a decade. That sort of longevity across a league breeds deep-seated rivalries and narratives that embellish every outcome they surround.
IT’S GOOD FOR EVERYONE TO BE INVESTED IN THE MEDIA
One of the takeouts, from a 2020 perspective, is the mind-bending amount of media Jordan did during his career. And not only that, his candid answers made much of it compelling, even if the beat reporters of the day would have just treated much of it like the regular fare. If he didn’t want to talk about Scottie Pippen’s potential trade, he just said so and told the reporters to go ask the man himself. If he had a message he wanted to get across, he spoke out. In engaging so much, Jordan was able to help shape his own narrative and some of those that covered his career, like broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, would become trusted confidants and friends. It wasn’t just on camera; Jordan once called over a writer from the Chicago Tribune after practice to let him know that some comments about Paxson were designed to fire him up, not as a stinging critique. He didn’t want a correction, he just wanted to let the reporter know his motivations. In the pre-social media age, you can see the benefits of speaking, talking, communicating in person, not through the blase lens of an Instagram post. It has so much more impact.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE
Sport is better when the rivalries and relationships are real. It mirrors our regular lives and makes it all so much more relatable. Jordan and the Bulls had genuine grudges against rival teams like Detroit and New York and you could see it play out on court. The emotion made it engrossing; it’s why State of Origin works so well here in Australia, why derbies work so well in football, and the matches are often so mind-bendingly watchable. It’s also why it’s virtually impossible to get amped about a match when the entire prelude consists of opposition players talking about how much respect they have for everyone and how wonderful they all are (I’m looking at you, Super Rugby). Can that sort of perceivable ill-feeling still exist in the slick production that is sanitised modern sport? In terms of the NBA, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes isn’t so sure: “I’m not saying it can’t happen in this period,” he told The Ringer. “But a lot of those teams they were going against, they were established, doing this for longer periods of time. And I feel like your team, your squad, your guys, that was built up over years and years of just being in the trenches.”