The GOAT, But At What Cost?

The Last Dance, the ten episode Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls documentary, was a  welcomed oasis in the live sports desert some of us are wandering aimlessly in.

But even at eightish hours, it felt woefully incomplete in that it ignored the the costs of ultimate professional success on personal well-being.

The doc’s one overarching insight was that Jordan’s work ethic, drive, and competitiveness were unparalleled; as a result, none of his teammates ever measured up. And so he beat them down, to the point that they had no affection for him.

Here’s Noam Scheiber describing the dynamic in The New York Times:

“As Jordan himself said of his teammates in ‘The Last Dance,’: ‘I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.’

More than 15 years after Jordan retired from professional basketball — for the third time — the mix of power and grace he displayed on the court remains a breathless thrill. But his leadership style, such as it was, feels outdated.

In the intervening years, a chorus of experts has warned employers, investors and board members against tolerating such cruel or demeaning behavior. Academics and government officials have used terms like ‘toxic worker’ or ‘superstar harasser’ in preaching vigilance against flawed if seemingly talented performers.

‘Every organization needs the ‘no-asshole rule’ because meanspirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves,’ Robert Sutton, a Stanford University management professor, wrote in a 2007 best seller named for that rule.

Watching the Michael Jordan depicted in ‘The Last Dance’ presents a paradox of sorts: The Bulls dominate the league. Yet Jordan is frequently meanspirited. He appears to make light of one teammate’s migraine and uses words like ‘dumbass,’ or more foul-mouthed epithets, to refer to others. He doles out postgame abuse as easily as high fives, complaining, ‘You couldn’t make a damn jump shot all night long.’ He seems to delight in embarrassing a teammate on camera.

One struggles to know whom to believe: the experts or your lying eyes.

According to the studies Mr. Sutton cites in his book, the problems with toxic workers range from the obvious to the subtle. Their belligerence creates costly distractions. Their treatment of co-workers increases turnover and absenteeism. When the demoralized colleagues do show up, they perform apathetically.”

Hey Scheiber, it’s very easy to decide who to believe, IF the question is professional success. Jordan took one of the worst franchises in the league and almost single-handedly turned it into a historic dynasty with six NBA championships. The ends justify the means. Professionally.

But personal success is an altogether different question, and I contend at least as important a one. The little bit of light the doc shined on Jordan’s personal life was telling. In particular, he didn’t have meaningful relationships with his teammates. They seemed largely a means to an end, championship rings, a historic legacy. Steve Kerr, who attributed it to his unrivaled fame, said Jordan lived separately from his teammates, but Kerr also acknowledged there was an “emotional” distance. The picture of Jordan sitting alone of the bus with headphones on spoke volumes.

The question that went unexamined is whether Jordan was too competitive for his own good OFF the court. Interpersonal success hinges on one’s ability to cooperate with others. Can someone as hyper-competitive as Jordan, who at one point admitted to “having a competition problem” throw a switch when the stadium lights go off?

We never hear from his first wife. Or his adult children in any meaningful way.

But we do hear from his teammates and competitors. Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview with Wright Thompson who has a piece out about Jordan’s family history. Talking about Jordan’s relationship with some of his security guards and staff, Thompson said he is intensely loyal, once you’re in his circle of friendship, you’re in it for life.

Tell that to Charles Barkley, who after criticizing Jordan for making some poor decisions as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was deemed persona non grata.* Formerly friends, they haven’t spoken since and Barkley doesn’t expect to reconcile with Jordan.

Fast forward from the bus. The enduring image of present day MJ is sitting alone in his mansion with his drink and cigar in hand. He’s considered by most the greatest basketball player of all time.** The GOAT. His net worth is $2b. And yet, it’s unclear how rich he is when it comes to meaningful friendships.

Through the imperfect, incomplete lens of the doc, Jordan doesn’t appear to have any regrets, and of course, every one gets to decide for themselves how to balance their work and non-work lives. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s living large not just professionally, but personally. Maybe he’s surrounded by people who know him well and who love him unconditionally and who he knows and loves back.

In which case, nevermind.

*Barkley wasn’t exactly making news.

** The increasingly tiresome GOAT debate is whether LeBron is Jordan’s equal. Three-point hysteria aside, I might start my team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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