In my 40 years of covering sports, I’ve encountered various types of leadership from many types of leaders. More than a few times, that type has, if not been the equal of, at least been aligned with Michael Jordan’s tough leadership, tough love.
Maybe it’s not love at all. Maybe it’s just tough.
If love is involved, it’s the love of, the need for winning, as Jordan said in episode 7 of his 10-part documentary on ESPN, “at all costs.”
Tim Duncan did his share of leading — and winning, too. He was fierce as a competitor with the Spurs. And former teammate Steve Kerr said of him, “He is genuinely a nice guy.”
Jordan’s explanation, an interesting study and one of the most honest and informative moments of his series, on Sunday night went like this:
“Look, 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 … You ask all my teammates. The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f——-g 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 wanted anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win to be a part of that as well. 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.”
The plumbing in his eyes backed up as he said it.
That way was high intensity, high energy, high care-factor, high expectation, all of it emanating from Jordan outward in all directions, pointed straight at his teammates, spilling over at times into ridicule, into fear and into fighting.
Sometimes he straight took it too far.
Even as the Bulls won six NBA championships, the final two against the Jazz, a fair question is: Did they win those titles because of Jordan’s insecurity/direction/control or in spite of it? Another: What is the price of winning?
Jordan’s way isn’t the only way.
A dude who knew a little something about the subject once told me:
“There’s nothing wrong with playing to win, if you know what winning is. My definition of success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable. Only the person can know that for sure. It’s like the difference between reputation and character. Reputation is what you’re perceived to be by others. Character is what you are. Only you know.”
John Wooden spoke those words, and he meant every one of them.
Others cared so much about the count on the board, and only the count, that they couldn’t bring themselves to be quite so philosophically pure.
After LeBron James and the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs just over a decade ago, he was so despondent in the immediate aftermath that he couldn’t bring himself to bump fists with any opponent. He just walked off the court, saying later:
“It’s hard for me to congratulate somebody after [I] just lost to them. I’m a winner. It’s not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you’re not going to congratulate them. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m a competitor, that’s what I do. It doesn’t make sense for me to go over and shake somebody’s hand.”
Some 13 years ago, directly into the face of all his success with the Jazz, Jerry Sloan was feeling down about his team never having won it all, always having fallen short of an NBA title.
“I’ve never won the last game of the year,” he said. “That’s what I want. Until you do that … I’ve never felt like I’ve accomplished anything.”
When I told Jazz owner Larry Miller, one of the most competitive people anyone would ever want to meet, what Sloan had expressed, he shook his head and said: “It’s a curse. It would be great to win a championship, if that’s what drives him, but he’s done way too many things already to be cursed by it.”
He added: “In his life as a player and a coach, it’s like if Jerry acknowledges anything, he thinks he’ll jinx himself. There’s got to be something there, as though if he admits he’s done anything, it will come back to bite him. …”
“… I almost feel sorry for him.”
Some great achievers, great champions are maladjusted enough to believe that they have to conquer all comers in order to quench their competitive thirst. Something or someone from somewhere in their background lodged into their minds and hearts that winning is a choice and that nothing else is acceptable.
That’s Jordan, at least as a player. The failings of the team he owns, the Charlotte Hornets, must drive him crazy. For all his criticism of former Bulls executive Jerry Krause, Krause won a lot more as an executive than Jordan has as an owner.
Urban Meyer used to lead his teams as though winning was the only adequate thing. A lot of his players loved the winning, but hated Meyer. He said he made practice circumstances so difficult that many of his players quit the team. And those who stayed were so hardened by his methods that “there was no way they were going to give up late in the fourth quarter.”
Meyer had to win that last game. If he didn’t, he was miserable.
That kind of need, that kind of push, when coupled with talent, can lead to a whole lot of winning. A whole lot of great play. Jordan was the most physically talented and most mentally tough athlete I ever covered, perhaps that ever was.
But as LaVell Edwards, a most well-adjusted man, once put it, “Football was important to me, winning was important, but they were never the most important things.”
Edwards’ teams won 257 games.
Leadership comes in many forms. And as it turns out, so does winning.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.