On Sunday night, ESPN aired Parts 7 and 8 of ‘The Last Dance’, and we all got a chance to see the tough-love leadership that Michael Jordan bestowed among his teammates. He was not the kind of guy who was going to give someone a pat on the back if they had a bad game to make them feel better. He was the kind of guy that pushed his teammates to their breaking point, and he wasn’t worried about hurting people’s feelings.
During the 1997-98 season, Toni Kukoc said that the team was on high-alert around Jordan when they lost because they knew that they would get an earful from him. Steve Kerr added to that sentiment saying, “His theory was if you can’t handle pressure from me, you’re not going to be able to handle the pressure of the NBA Playoffs.” Jordan’s intensity was usually at its highest points during practices, where he went at his teammates and would constantly talk trash.
Scott Burrell was one of the biggest recipients of being picked on by Jordan. Jud Buechler said that Jordan constantly targeted Burrell, but that didn’t faze him.
Jordan described the reasoning behind his tactics, saying, “Scottie Burrell was a talented guy, [but] what Scottie was lacking was commitment, determination, [and] seriousness.” Jordan made it his job to keep pushing Burrell, and at times he even tried to get into a fight with him to get Burrell to stand up for himself.
When talking about his philosophy Jordan said, “My mentality was to go out and win, at any cost. If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside me, ‘cause I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don’t get on the same level it’s going to be hell for you.” Jordan would stop at nothing to get his teammates to go push themselves to their limit.
When describing Jordan from the perspective of being one of his teammates, Buechler said: “People were afraid of him. We were his teammates and we were afraid of him.” It’s astonishing to think of something like that because it’s rare for a player to have that kind of power over his teammates.
Will Perdue, who played with Jordan for six years said: “Yeah let’s not get it wrong. He was an asshole. He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, [and] you’re like yeah he was a hell of a teammate.”
B.J. Armstrong, who played with Jordan for five years, was asked if he was a nice guy and said: “He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, you can’t be a nice guy. He would be difficult to be around if you truly didn’t love the game of basketball.”
When Jordan talked about how he was perceived he said, “Winning has a price, and leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less. Now if that means I had to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that.”
He added to that saying “You ask all my teammates. The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f—ing do. When people see this, they are going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ No, well, that’s you. Because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win to be a part of that as well.”
Part 7 would conclude with Jordan emotionally saying, “Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
While Jordan was saying this he was noticeably emotional, fighting back tears, as he called for a break to get himself together. That emotion is a prime example of how Jordan wanted his teammates to experience just as much success on the court as he did.
In the middle of Part 8, we go back to the training camp from the 1995-96 season where the Bulls were coming off an early playoff exit to the Orlando Magic. The summer going into that next season, Jordan was on a mission to get back to winning a championship. It all started during training camp in the summer where Jordan realized that he had to set the tone for the new guys who weren’t a part of the first title run.
One time during a practice where Kerr was defending Jordan, Kerr was getting frustrated due to his team getting killed and Jordan’s constant trash talk. Jackson was starting to call “ticky-tack fouls” which made Jordan upset because he felt that there was no point in doing that because in the playoffs they would be facing physical teams. As the tension rose Kerr shoved Jordan in the chest, which resulted in Jordan punching Kerr in the face.
Later on, Jordan realized what he did was wrong and he and Kerr talked it out over the phone. Kerr said that “In a weird way, it was the best thing I ever did, was stand up for myself with him.” Jordan said that when Kerr did that “He earned my respect, … because he wasn’t willing to back down.” That season the Bulls went on to have a record-breaking season with a remarkable 72-10 record along with their 4th NBA title.
Jordan said it best when he said, “winning has a price,” that’s definitely true. One of the reasons Jordan was worried about this documentary coming out as he was worried that people won’t like him as much.
Some people may call him a tyrant because of how he treated his teammates, and you can say that he was wrong for doing that. But, what you can’t dispute is that his methods were effective, and they usually led to his team winning championships. It makes you wonder if Jordan wasn’t as hard on his teammates, would the Bulls still have achieved the same amount of success?