I grew up watching Michael Jordan. But I was not a Michael Jordan fan. I was an Indiana Pacers fan, and therefore could not be a Michael Jordan fan. I could respect his obvious ability and accomplishments, but I could not root for him. Still, I remember that era with relative clarity. And so, I am more than a little perplexed by the slant that has been placed on his career from a historical perspective in recent years. It seems like any time you have a guy that dominates the ball offensively (and isn’t a point guard or center), people point to MJ as the example. The belief is that you have to have this guy that will take every shot when it matters. And that might well be true. But that is not what made Jordan truly great.
Jordan was a superstar almost from the day he walked in the door. Part of it was rep and image, but also he was just really freaking good at basketball. In fact, he was very clearly the best player on the Bulls from a very early point in his career. When you combine that with an insatiable desire for victory, it should be no surprise that he dominated the ball at the end of close games. The problem was, he did it to the point where it hurt his basketball team. It came down to trust in his teammates, and in the system they played. That trust took a long time to develop and it was a key storyline in The Jordan Rules, a book that fascinated me as a young basketball fan. It had never really occurred to me that Michael Jordan might simply just not trust his teammates to make the right play. And what finally allowed the Bulls to transcend the role of “contender” and become a dynasty was the building of a real trust between Jordan and his teammates.
When we think about Jordan now, we think about him winning games with clutch shots. Because that’s what happened in many circumstances, but also because that is the narrative that is presented to us. MJ himself told us via commercial that he missed plenty of game-winning shots. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the MJ story has reverted to “MJ took all the shots” and that is simply not true. Some of the biggest moments of his career involved passing the ball at the right moment with the game on the line. In Game 6 of the ’93 Finals, Jordan (who had all 9 Bulls points in the quarter at the time) brought the ball up on their final possession, but he quickly moved the ball to Pippen who fed Grant down low, who kicked it to a wide open John Paxson for a title-winning three pointer. In Game 6 of the ’97 Finals, Jordan drew multiple defenders and then hit a wide-open Steve Kerr for a title-winning jumper. In his much-ballyhooed MSG comeback game where he scored 55 points, and yet with the game on the line he drew a double team and dished it inside to Bill Wennington who jammed it home for the victory.
Yesterday against the Celtics, Carmelo Anthony made the smart basketball play. Having played a phenomenal game himself up to that point, he could have been well-justified in taking a contested jumper. Instead, he moved the ball to the open man. As he should have done. Unfortunately for him and the Knicks, the final result of the play was a turnover and a loss. The idea that Carmelo should take that shot is ridiculous. In the past, he has been vilified for taking exactly those kind of shots. Yesterday Carmelo Anthony chose to trust his teammate. Those are the kind of choices he will have to continue to make if he is ever going to lead this Knicks team anywhere. Nobody in the NBA can do it alone over the long haul. Not Kobe Bryant, not Carmelo Anthony, not LeBron James. Some players recognize this easier than others. Watching him play, I would say that Kobe still struggles with it every single night.
But I digress. This is not really about Carmelo Anthony and what he did or didn’t do right. It’s not even really about Michael Jordan. This is really about the NBA’s Hero Complex, and how the portrayal of the greatest basketball player of all time has affected the generations of players that have followed him into this game. It is easy to talk about Michael Jordan and all of the shots he made. It is easy to talk about Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James passing on a shot, and questioning their leadership or ability in the clutch. People seem to have forgotten that Jordan passed on some of those shots too, and that’s exactly how he became the greatest. Trust.