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 But his leadership style, such as it was, feels outdated.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

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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Don’t Box People In

My advice to myself after reading this short article, “Emotional Michael Jordan unveils first of two medical clinics in Charlotte”.

One day in the spring of 1984, MJ walked into UCLA’s Wooden Center where a scrawny senior history major, who would one day become a famous blogger, was on fire. After helping my team hold court again, I stopped to watch MJ run with an assortment of professional and UCLA varsity ballers. In town to accept the John Wooden Award, he was on another level, even compared to me.

Like any basketball fan I suspect, I always admired his talent, the ease in which he moved, got open, shot, defended. Simultaneously, I was always dismayed by his refusal to use his platform and incredible wealth to benefit others. Did he have his social conscious surgically removed I wondered?

I shoulda been more patient. I apologize MJ for not giving you the benefit of the doubt that someday you’d most definitely give back in the most meaningful of ways. Good on you.

 

LeBron James > Michael Jordan

We kid ourselves when we think we know public figures—whether actors, politicians, or professional athletes. Hell, our next-door neighbors seem like the nicest people possible, but I have no idea what goes on in the privacy of their home. All of us have inner lives and see into the mirror dimly. Despite this, we can make tentative judgements about pro athletes in the media spotlight based upon what they say and do outside of competition.

For the life of me, I do not understand the American sport fan who makes judgements about athletes based entirely on statistics and championship titles. Forget whether an athlete treats people well, obeys the law, inspires fans, and uses their fame and fortune to help others also succeed. Character is irrelevant. Championship rings trump social consciousness.

This is odd. In real life we gravitate towards specific co-workers, friends, and family based upon holistic judgments about their personal attributes—are they kind, generous, positive, self-effacing, humorous, caring? But in sports, job competence trumps everything. That’s why, to the American sports fan, LeBron James isn’t even close to as good as Jordan—two NBA championships versus six.

In the game of life, LJ has MJ beat already. By miles. Many sports analysts are not taking LJ’s letter on face value*. Their cynicism makes them suspicious of his motives for taking his talents to Northeast Ohio. I’m prone to cynicism, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt—he likes living in NE Ohio, feels a sense of obligation to the people and place that cheered for him before he was famous, and wants to inspire Cleveland third graders to also defy the odds of what society expects from them**.

And Jordan? He quit basketball to “spend more time with his family.” Immediately afterwards he signed a contract to play minor league baseball in a different state. What does he stand for besides basketball excellence? Gambling. Hanes underwear. Unbridled ego. Tennis shoes. Cash money.

Granted, I was a third grader in Northeast Ohio, so I might be biased, but LJ’s letter was so beautifully written I might ask my writing students to analyze it this fall. Then, for extra credit, he stuck it to Ann Coulter by acknowledging the World Cup final was a much more important athletic competition than any NBA championship series.

Call me naive if you must, but I’m down with LJ. And it’s important to note he’s not the only basketball superstar whose excellence is even more evident off the court. In sports, as in life, we should make holistic judgments. Magic and Durant (zero titles) also have Jordan beat by miles. There are lots of others.

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* I find this economist’s perspective interesting.

** I suspect there’s one other reason, that I haven’t heard a single person mention, why LeBron chose Cleveland. His wife wanted to return home.