Michael Jordan was the most compelling avatar for a certain professional basketball mentality. But it’s not the only way to be, and kindness can be just as powerful.
I didn’t watch a single episode of the Michael Jordan documentary. At one point, I turned it on briefly only to hear Phil Jackson in the middle of a truly inappropriate tangent about Native American culture and decided it probably wasn’t for me. I also either saw a clip of Jordan boasting about defeating O.J. Mayo one-on-one or dreamt that in the madness of self-quarantine.
That’s not to criticize anyone who has been watching and enjoying The Last Dance. Respite from the boredom or anxiety of our current uncertain reality should be welcomed in whatever forms it takes. I’m actually shocked by how uninterested I have been in it; I’d assumed my current basketball-starved existence would crave the footage and storylines of one of the best athletes to ever live. Perhaps, I’ll someday binge through it eagerly.
But for the past month, I’ve been uninterested in the complexities and moral entanglements of competitive greatness. And I think that’s probably because never in my life have I felt less like I’m in competition with anyone. I don’t feel like I’m in a fight with a pandemic. I feel like I’m trying to survive one, mentally, economically, and in a not-dramatized-way, literally. I’m also witnessing or communicating with people who are failing to survive in those three ways every day. I feel like I’m weathering collective losses each week that can’t be alleviated by any personal victories.
So the notion that Jordan was able to break the spirits of Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley because they simply couldn’t match his will to win is just a very unrelatable distraction to me at this particular moment in time.
I understand that any tale of greatness is messy, and I’m sure that fuels a compelling narrative of Jordan’s career. Documentaries are meant to frame events so as to form an arc, and as a writer, I can obviously respect that mission. But with sports, as much is the case with anything else, we’ve always taken and digested them in moments. I can go on and on about the significance of a game-winning shot (I’m sure I have before), but I can also just show it to you without saying a word and you probably won’t get any less out of it.
So when I say that I’d rather see moments of kindness and humanity in basketball, I’m not ranting about the sport; I say that because they were actually commonplace in the game that went on hiatus with everything else. Michael Jordan is more famous and significant than the Chicago Bulls, and his story is bigger than anyone who’s ever been associated with that franchise. But the Bulls content I’ve come back to repeatedly since basketball went away just to feel something is this video of last year’s seventh overall draft pick, Coby White, finding out his North Carolina teammate, Cam Johnson, was drafted in the lottery.
You can call everything I’ve said up to this point corny, and accuse me of showing you the sports equivalent of an adorable video of a dog and cat becoming friends in order to prove a fairly intangible point. But I’d argue that the content of that video is substantially more “real” than a lot of the messaging in the story of the greatest basketball player of all time.
Competitive vengeance is deliberately theatrical more often than sports fans would like to admit. To call Jordan’s obsession with winning disingenuous would be ridiculous. But if you find yourself rolling your eyes at Jimmy Butler’s performative competitiveness, I’d suggest that’s not because Jordan’s was more authentic, it’s simply because Jordan was better at basketball. So when he exuded This Is My Path To Greatness we overlooked the fact that he might as well have written it on his hand that morning in order to remember to exude it to whoever was paying attention. It doesn’t make it less true that it was probably pretty rehearsed.
It’s easy to scowl and express emotional impatience and pass it all off as spontaneous. Genuine joy in the success of others is harder to fake, though. You can do it, and it’s corny or unmemorable or whatever. But put it next to the real deal and there’s an unmistakable earnestness that transcends personal branding or #personalbranding.
Debates centered around Jordan vs. LeBron are generally reductive. If you think Jordan was demonstrably better, there’s no point in my disagreeing with you. But if you suggested he got there by working harder than LeBron then I’m probably uninterested in talking about basketball with you. And for whatever LeBron has ever lacked as a basketball player or celebrity (note: very little in both regards), he has carried the players of the NBA into an era of increased empathy that rarely seems to reflect the divisiveness of the times. And the game’s arguably more entertaining from a personality standpoint than when it was ruled by a maniacal champion. It’s constantly packed with storylines of THIS LEAGUE!-pettiness that’s all cushioned by an understood respect for each other.
LeBron wasn’t responsible for Coby White’s happiness for his friend, but in small ways, he empowered him to express it publicly. LeBron tried his hand at playing the villain a decade ago and failed, and he came out the other side figuring out how to sell a lot of shoes and win a lot of games with public decency. And while Jordan’s legacy of unquenchable competitiveness lives on in basketball in players like Chris Paul and Diana Taurasi, it always feels, to me at least, expressed as savvy gamesmanship; it leaves you with the sense that being improbably one-upped on the court would leave a reluctant smile on their faces as much as one-upping someone else would leave them with a condescending smile.
LeBron’s message to Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Sabrina Ionescu isn’t Be Great. It’s essentially Have Fun, not because he thinks greatness is an attribute reserved for those who can shoulder it, but because he knows that they didn’t become as good as they are before legal drinking age by accident. Like him, they were built for this before they graduated high school. He knows that none of them has to be as good as him, because when any of them has the ball in their hands in the fourth quarter of a game in 2025, no one will be talking about LeBron James. That’s how he escaped the burden of Michael Jordan.
Sports don’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. So the ideas we want to (or choose to) see reflected in them are up to us. You can find complicated protagonists in Tony Soprano or Walter White. And sure, have fun with them. They’re not real people. There can probably be more kindness in basketball. But we can also celebrate it as a selling point and hopefully manifest more of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.