The mythology of Michael Jordan’s leadership

Seerat Sohi
·6-min read

One of the greatest seasons in professional sports opened with conflict. In training camp, barbs escalated to hard fouls and pretty soon, Michael Jordan was exchanging punches with Steve Kerr.

Then, they’d rip off 72 wins and dominate the 1996 playoffs.

So tells the Jordan-approved “Last Dance” documentary, which frames Jordan’s famed zeal as the driving force behind the Bulls’ intensity, whether he was punching teammates or calling Scott Burrell a “ho.”

In November, on The Ringer’s “Book of Basketball 2.0” podcast, Kerr endorsed Jordan’s relentlessness. “He made me way better,” Kerr said. “‘Don’t be scared. You gotta compete.’ He was just so fearless. He never shied away from the stigma that would come through failure.

“My tendency was to shy away from the big shot and not make a mistake. I just didn’t want to screw up. He put so much pressure on everybody, you just kinda realized, ‘I gotta step up. I gotta take my game to another level.’ You even felt that in practice.”

The Bulls certainly benefited from Jordan’s edge, but it’s telling that 18 years later, Kerr took the mantle of the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors, who sold the public a mantra of joy as motivation — the opposite of Jordan’s hard-edged approach.

In practice, both teams likely share more similarities than the broad strokes suggest.

Fear and joy exist on opposite spectrums, not binaries. Dynasties learn to balance both. People need pressure. Pressure needs relief.

The punch, according to Phil Jackson’s book, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success”, was indeed a wakeup call. Not for the Bulls though — for Jordan, who came to realize his unfiltered rage wasn’t productive. After the fight, Jackson found Jordan and told him he better apologize. Jordan did.

“It made me look at myself, and say, ‘You know what? You’re really being an idiot about this whole process,’” Jordan recalled. “I knew I had to be more respectful of my teammates. And I had to be more respectful of what was happening to me in terms of trying to get back into the game. I had to get more internal.”

Michael Jordan in the locker room looking exhausted after winning his sixth NBA title on June 14, 1998. (Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan sits in the locker room after the Bulls won their sixth NBA title. (Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

From there, Jordan started working more with George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation coach with the Bulls, who said, according to Jackson’s book, that Jordan needed to be a better leader. “That means being willing to adjust so that you can meet people where they are, instead of expecting them to be somewhere else and getting angry and trying to will them to that place, you try to meet them where they are and lead them where you want them to go.”

“He became, I think, more compassionate to everybody, and definitely to me,” Kerr told ESPN in 2013. “He had a different approach than most people and he was such a maniac, the way he would kind of attack the game and the season, that he had to understand that everyone was different and not everyone was as talented as him and not everyone was made up the same way as him.”

Even Jordan came to understand the importance of compassion and vulnerability in professional sports. But in “The Last Dance”, and throughout most of his career, Jordan has sold unbridled intensity.

It’s not just him. We’re used to the sports stories Jordan has spent his career hawking. It’s easy to understand how Jordan motivated his teammates with fear. But take Tim Duncan, who talked teammates through being the subject of coach Gregg Popovich’s fits of rage. In the 2006 playoffs, Duncan dragged Manu Ginobili to dinner when the Argentinian star was brooding after he committed a turnover that cost the San Antonio Spurs Game 4 in the first round against the Sacramento Kings. In Game 5, Ginobili was loose and rejuvenated, and at Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2016, he credited Duncan for forcing him out of his malaise.

Jordan’s terror and Duncan’s compassion both impacted their teams’ performances, but with the latter, we aren’t as quick to draw a through-line from behavior to success — especially when the player isn’t a household name.

Consider Bill Cartwright, who was named co-captain in 1990, before the Bulls ever won anything. “I thought we needed another leader on the team to balance Michael’s perfectionism,” Jackson wrote in ‘Eleven Rings’.”

When general manager Jerry Krause traded Jordan’s teammate and enforcer, Charles Oakley, for Cartwright, Jordan was upset. Jordan considered Cartwright a clumsy loser — maybe because he thought there was only one way to win. But Cartwright, according to Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules”, was deeply motivated to win a championship. Cartwright was willing to sacrifice and sublimate himself to the team concept, first alongside Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, and then with the Bulls. According to Smith, Cartwright actually worried that Jordan’s inability to trust his teammates would prevent them from earning the rings they so coveted. “I’ve got one fear,” said Cartwright, according to Smith. “It’s that I’m going to play all this time in the league and come so close and never get a ring. I only want to win. He’s got so much talent and can do so much for this team, but I keep thinking he’s going to keep us all from it unless he changes.”

Despite Jordan referring to Cartwright as “Medical Bill” and laying out banana peels to mock his clumsiness, Cartwright wasn’t afraid to get in his face. When Cartwright heard Jordan told teammates not to pass to him, he confronted His Airness. “If I ever hear again that you’re telling guys not to pass me the ball,” Cartwright said, according to Smith’s book, “you will never play basketball again.”

In time, the two men grew to respect each other.

“Bill was a quiet, quiet leader,” Jordan said, according to Jackson’s book. “He didn’t talk much, but when he did, everybody listened. He would challenge me when he felt I was out of place. Which was OK. We had that kind of relationship. We challenged each other.”

“Bill’s always the one we look to when things aren’t going right on the floor, or if there’s a problem in the locker room,” said former Bull B.J. Armstrong, according to “The Jordan Rules.” “That’s just the way it is.” According to Smith, Cartwright had the players buy Christmas gifts for the coaches. Johnny Bach, a longtime assistant, said it was the first time in his 20-year career that he’d seen players buy gifts for coaches.

Cartwright channeled what Smith referred to as a “keen sense of observation” to relate to his teammates. “He was like a big brother,” said former Bull John Paxson of Cartwright. “If someone was picking on you, he was going to make sure you knew that he was there looking out for you.”

Jordan fueled the Bulls’ fire. He threw the punches. Guys like Jackson, Pippen and Cartwright put ice on it.

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