Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

The parallels between Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong are fascinating. Both seized on real and imagined slights and then exaggerated them in their minds, making them much more scandalous than they were, in order to, as Lance says in ESPN’s Armstrong documentary “Get my hate on.” The angrier they were, the better they performed. Realizing that, they became expert at sparking their anger.

They also had a win at all costs approach to their respective sports; treating teammates, and in Lance’s case support staff, as means towards that one end. Apart from their athleticism, there was very little to admire about them.

The parallels haven’t been lost on other viewers of ESPN’s recent Jordan and Armstrong docs, which has caused people to conclude that you have to be an asshole to win six NBA Championships or Seven editions of the Tour de France.

To which I call bullshit. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

Among many other examples, Magic Johnson smiled his way to five NBA titles. Russell Wilson, a regular visitor at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, won the SuperBowl. Tom Brady never denigrated his teammates. Jack Nicklaus was universally liked and Adam Scott won the Masters.

And in 2017, Ron Byrnes won the Seattle Marathon’s 50-55 age group. And a lot of people are saying he’s the nicest guy of all.*

*this is potentially misleading

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 But his leadership style, such as it was, feels outdated.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.

Thursday Assorted Links

1. Why I’m Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do In School. By Veronique Mintz, 13 years old. Starts strong.

“Talking out of turn. Destroying classroom materials. Disrespecting teachers. Blurting out answers during tests. Students pushing, kicking, hitting one another and even rolling on the ground. This is what happens in my school every single day. . . . Based on my peers’ behavior, you might guess that I’m in second or fourth grade. But I’m actually about to enter high school in New York City, and, during my three years of middle school, these sorts of disruptions occurred repeatedly in any given 42-minute class period.

2. Don’t forget the other pandemic killing thousands of Americans.

3. How Yukon’s ‘one caribou apart’ physical distancing campaign became a sensation. I really miss Canada.

4. Was Donald Trump good at baseball? I couldn’t help but smile throughout this one.

Trump said he shoulda, coulda, woulda gone pro, but an intrepid reporter dug deep into the archives only to find:

“Combined, the nine box scores I unearthed give Trump a 4 for 29 batting record in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, with three runs batted in and a single run scored. Trump’s batting average in those nine games: an underwhelming .138.”

Then the reporter asked Keith Law, a senior baseball writer for the Athletic and author of The Inside Game who covers the MLB draft, if Trump’s numbers sounded like those of a pro prospect.

“‘There’s no chance,’ said Law, who once worked in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays assessing high school players. ‘You don’t hit .138 for some podunk, cold-weather high school playing the worst competition you could possibly imagine. You wouldn’t even get recruited for Division I baseball programs, let alone by pro teams. That’s totally unthinkable. It’s absolutely laughable. He hit .138—he couldn’t fucking hit, that’s pretty clear.'”

That may be my favorite quote about Trump of all time. Just flip the bat and touch em’ all.

5. The Best Television Shows To Stream Now.

Is ESPN’s “The Last Dance” The Most Overrated Sports Documentary of All-Time?

ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls is getting serious buzz because there’s no competition. Current sports programming consists of reruns of “classic” games; or in the case of golf, tournaments; and forced National Football League trade and draft drama.

The documentary, based on the first two installments, underwhelms. There’s one way to judge docs. Do viewers with no prior interest in the subject become interested? And how much so? I’m already down with pro basketball, so I’m not the best judge, but I have a hard time imaging basketball agnostics jonesing for it after watching the first two episodes of The Last Dance.

It does have one redeeming value. Jordan’s unbelievable smoothness on the court never gets old. One day in 1984, after class, I was (once again) putting on a clinic in UCLA’s Wooden Center. In walked Jordan, in town to pick up the John Wooden award as college basketball’s best player for 1983-1984. Watching him that day school the UCLA varsity was like watching Baryshnikov in his prime. I can still see him effortlessly filling passing lanes and making steals with ease. It’s a shame no one thought of asking me to check him.

One other thing I’ve found somewhat interesting is Phil Jackson’s player-centered leadership. Which begs a question, what the hell happened to Jackson in New York? That’s the documentary I want to see. How does a coach go from the top of his profession to utter and total incompetence?

One other, other thing of interest, is Magic’s and Bird’s pointed, effusive praise of Jordan. In the LeBron versus Jordan debate, it’s worth noting that LeBron’s contemporaries don’t speak of him with the same reverence.

The fact that Pippen was grossly underpaid, the sole focus of Episode 2, is not nearly interesting enough to anchor the hour. And Jordan’s mistreatment of the General Manager, a subtheme, is just kind of pathetic. Except for learning about Jordan’s and Pippen’s family backgrounds, off the court, nothing about Jordan or Pippen inspires.

Instead of a zoom lens on Jordan, Pippen, and Krause, the producers should’ve used a much wider angle one. So far, viewers have learned absolutely nothing about what it was like to be a teammate of Jordans. Toni Kukoc, the silky smooth 6’11” Croatian great is invisible. Harper, Kerr, Longley, invisible.

Give me more of Jordan splitting defenders and elevating for mid-range jumpers (since we don’t see those anymore) and more of the high flying one arm sideway slams that I always found difficult to pull off. But even more than that, give me some subtleties, nuance, ambiguity as it relates to the whole team. Their success suggests the sum was more than the individual parts, but the documentary, so far at least, fails to illuminate that dynamic. And that is a fatal flaw.

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Sometimes I Amaze Myself

Of the many athletic accomplishments in my life, and a pending ESPN documentary tentatively titled “Wonderbread” will detail them for history’s sake, I might be most proud of my winter 1982 feat.

In mid-December 1982, on break from school in SoCal, I flew to Tampa Bay to visit my parents who had recently moved there.

When I arrived on December 19th, my dad informed me he and I were going to that afternoon’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL game against the Buffalo Bills, a 24-23 win for the home team which is now trending for some reason(s).

A week later, pops came through again with tickets to the Lions game, a 23-21 win. And a week later, a day before my return to the Left Coast, the ticket trifecta, a 26-23 OT win over da’ Bears.

1982 was a strike shortened season, 9 total games, 5 home, 4 away. I was in town for 15 days and saw over half the Buc’s home games.

Pick your parents well.

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My Newer, Younger Girlfriend

I’ve been married a long time. It’s weird to think my parents and many of their peers made one of the most consequential decisions of their lives when they were still teenagers. And that many in my generation did the same in our early 20’s. Young adults today have the good sense to wait a little longer.

In hindsight, I made a good decision, but I’m not so sure the Good Wife would say the same because I have so many faults. The most obvious being the girlfriends on the side.

Don’t judge, a lot of men do it in different corners of the world. Monogamy is hard.

Recently, I ditched a girlfriend of seven years for a new, younger vixen named Blanca.

fullsizeoutput_647 Blanca has an endless number of endearing attributes, most importantly, electronic shifting and amazing gearing range (48/35, 10-28). Also, she’s incredibly balanced and willing to go wherever, whenever.

If the first few months are any indication, it’s going to be a long, beautiful relationship.

Saturday Long Run Press Conference

CNN reporter: Strava shows you ran 9.6 miles in 1:17 for an average of 8:02/mile. What would you say to the American people who are afraid that you’re getting old and slow, now nothing more than a sad “hobby jogger”?

Me: I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people that I’m older and slower. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism and the same with NBC and Concast. I don’t call it Comcast, I call it ‘Concast.’ That’s really bad reporting, you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism.

OANN reporter: How do you run so far, so fast?

Me: I love whoever you’re with. Because that’s such a nice question. I think you write fairly and do very fair reports. A lot of people always ask me, how do you run so far, so fast? I tell them I don’t know, I guess I just have a natural ability.

NBC reporter: How would you assess today’s performance?

Me: When you hear the number of miles I’m running and the pace, it’s incredible. And I’ve heard a lot of governors say the same thing. People are saying I’m doing a great job, the best job anyone’s ever done.

FOX reporter: What makes you such an incredible runner?

Me: Really lots of things, but what no one gives me credit for is when I first heard we were running, I immediately jumped on the stationary bike and got the blood flowing against many people’s advice. No one reports that. But I did, I got right on the stationary bike. Many exercise scientists—and I’ve read, many, many exercise scientists—can’t believe the great job that I’m doing.IMG_5669.jpg