Still Want to Be Like Mike? The Origins, Upsides and Underbelly of Michael Jordan’s Legendary Drive
By Seth Shugar
One of the most fascinating things about the Netflix hit The Last Dance is the bright light it shines on the origins of the celebrated drive that propelled Michael Jordan to become one of the greatest basketball players, if not one of the greatest athletes, of all time.
When MJ was at the height of his powers, the novelist Scott Turow expressed what almost everyone was marvelling at: “Michael Jordan plays basketball better than anyone else in the world does anything else.” The man had it all: talent, genes, intelligence, focus, work ethic, poise, looks, charisma, style, swagger and luck. Yet almost everyone agrees that the x-factor that arguably made him the G.O.A.T was his all-consuming competitive drive.
Veteran basketball scout Tom Konchalski’s observation is representative: “That’s what set Michael Jordan apart from other players, that he was an obsessively competitive player.” (Lazenby 2014, 100)
In fact, Konchalski echoes what many others have said when he states that Jordan’s obsessive drive not only “defined him” as a basketball player but actually “transcended his athleticism.” (Lazenby 2014, 100)
So where did it come from?
Jordan tried to answer this key question himself in his notorious 2009 hall of fame induction speech when he called out nearly every person in his life who had challenged or underestimated or excluded him: his siblings, his high school coach, his college coach, two of his pro coaches, and several teammates and rivals.
But there’s one critical source of his obsessive competitive drive that he identifies, albeit in passing, in the second episode of The Last Dance. It gets skimmed over quite quickly (because The Last Dance is more hagiography than biography), but MJ’s actual biographies leave no doubt about the crucial significance of his father’s painful disapproval of him in childhood combined with his dad’s favouritism for his older brother Larry.
Shame shame shame
“My father is a mechanical person,” Jordan once explained. “He always tried to save money by working on everybody’s cars. And my older brothers would go out and work with him. He would tell them to hand him a nine-sixteenths wrench and they’d do it. I’d get out there and he’d say give me a nine-sixteenths wrench and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He used to get irritated with me and say, ‘You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Go on in there with the women.’” (Lazenby 2014, 64)
According to Jordan’s biographer Roland Lazenby, this one sexist and emasculating sentence captured the way that MJ’s father treated him throughout his childhood. Indeed, Lazenby says it “represented a contempt articulated almost daily in manner and attitude in the Jordan household throughout Michael’s tender years.” (Lazenby 2014, 64)
For this reason, Lazenby contends that the sentence is one of the skeleton keys that unlocks the many facets of Jordan’s obsessive competitiveness: “Of the millions of sentences that James Jordan uttered to his youngest son,” he writes, “this was the one that glowed neon-bright across the decades.” (Lazenby 2014, 64)
Michael’s sister Deloris concurs. “[D]uring the early days of his NBA career,” she said, “he confessed that it was my father’s early treatment of him and Daddy’s declaration of his worthlessness that became the driving force that motivated him.… Each accomplishment that he achieved was his battle cry for defeating my father’s negative opinions of him.” (Jordan 1996, 28)
Another closely related source of Jordan’s competitive fire is addressed, again in passing, in the second episode of The Last Dance: his father’s open preference for his older brother Larry.
All MJ fans know that his game was forged in the crucible of adolescent combat with his older brother. MJ himself once said, “When you see me play, you see Larry play.” (Halberstam 1999,18)
After their father made a basketball court in their backyard when Michael was eleven, Michael and Larry played one-on-one, day after day. Even at that age, Michael was taller than Larry, who was almost a year older, but Larry was stronger and he used his strength to dominate his younger brother mercilessly for years.
By all accounts, the battles were heated and brutal. “We never thought of brotherhood at all,” Michael once said of the games. When the yelling and arguing got too loud, their mom would go to the back door to keep the peace. Sometimes the brothers would come to blows anyway. As Larry said, “If you beat me back then, we had to fight. That’s just the way I was.”
The repeated thumpings from his shorter brother seared themselves into the young Jordan’s psyche. But the yeast that made his competitive dough rise and then transform into a critical obsession was his father’s open favouritism for Larry.
Michael himself has admitted that, as a kid, he was aware of his father’s preference for Larry. “I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention,” he says in The Last Dance.
On other occasions, he has shared memories like these: “When I was twelve years old, my brother Larry and I were the starting backcourt in Pee Wee League.” Larry played defensively, while Michael was the scorer. On one particular occasion, Jordan recalled, “I hit the winning basket, and as we were riding home, my father said, ‘Larry, that was great defense you played.’ I’m saying, ‘Damn, I stole the ball and scored the winning layup.’ In my mind I’m thinking that evidently my father didn’t see what I did, so I had to show him.” (Lazenby 2014, 72)
It was the same in baseball. Michael would go for a home run while Larry would settle for a base hit, yet his father would always say, “Larry, that’s a great attitude to have, going for the base hit.” (Lazenby 2014, 72)
It’s not hard to guess how this affected the adolescent MJ. Michael himself explains it best, shifting briefly into the present tense when he does so: “When you’re going through it, it’s traumatic, because I want that approval, I want that type of confidence, so my determination got even greater to be as good, if not better, than my brother.”
The Unlived Life
Michael’s desire to finally win his father’s approval, and perhaps wrest it definitively away from his older brother Larry, also seems to have been at the heart of his decision to leave basketball at the peak of his career to take a crack at playing major league baseball.
Michael’s father played semi-pro baseball himself, and he always dreamed of Michael playing in the big leagues one day. As Lazenby writes, “James Jordan couldn’t wait for his boys to be big enough to hold a bat. He was always eager to get them into the backyard so he could toss a baseball their way and teach them how to swing.” (Lazenby 2014, 57) At seventeen, when his basketball talent was really starting to attract attention, Michael told a reporter, “My father really wanted me to play baseball.” (Lazenby 2014, 178)
After his father was randomly murdered while napping in his car at a rest stop in 1993, Michael desperately wanted to feel close to him again. How did he go about it? By attempting to fulfill his father’s childhood vision for him. As Phil Jackson observed, “When his father passed away, I think Michael was kind of living out his father’s dream.”
It worked, in a way. As soon as he decided to play baseball, MJ said, “All of a sudden I felt like a kid again.” He often sensed his father’s presence with him on the field, telling himself, “We’re doing this together, you and I, Pops.” (Lazenby 2014, 698)
And what number did he choose to wear as a baseball player? 45. The same number his older brother Larry had worn when they were kids. (In fact, the only reason MJ chose his iconic number 23 in the first place was because it was close to half of his brother Larry’s preferred number 45.) (Lazenby 2014, 129)
Trying to play in the big leagues wasn’t just Jordan’s attempt to feel close to his recently deceased father by living his dad’s unlived life. It also seems to have been his way of retroactively winning the paternal approval that had so painfully eluded him in childhood and perhaps finally prying it away from his older brother, once and for all.
Still want to be like Mike?
More than anything else, it was the way Jordan responded to the most painful experiences in his early life that transformed him from a chubby-cheeked, nearly friendless fifteen year-old Mike Jordan into Michael “Air” Jordan, the icon.
From early on, he learned to sublimate the burn he felt from his father’s disapproval into a competitive fire that blazed so bright it wound up fuelling one of the greatest careers in sports history.
Again and again, he channeled the pain from his father’s open favouritism for his older brother into a cold, steely desire to utterly decimate his opponents on the basketball court.
The content changes — his high school coach chooses Leroy Smith instead of him for the senior team, Dean Smith chooses not to include him on a 1981 cover of Sports Illustrated, and so on — but the pattern remains the same: a paternal figure appears to disapprove of him in favour of another fraternal figure, and Jordan reacts by dominating the fraternal figure to prove his worth to the paternal figure.
It is to Jordan’s eternal credit that rather than being bowed or broken by the pain of adversity, he repeatedly transformed that pain into a competitiveness so all-consuming it awed and delighted the world.
Yet the same source that served as a nearly bottomless well of motivation for him also seems to have poisoned many of the other wells in his life. When transposed to other contexts, his greatest strength not only ceased to be a strength but became his greatest weakness.
For instance, because as Lazenby puts it, “each opponent would loom as a Larry to be conquered” Jordan sadistically tormented innumerable Larry-like teammates and rivals over the course of his career. (Lazenby 2014, 69)
James Worthy recalled that when Jordan was a new freshman on the University of North Carolina team, “He was a bully and he bullied me.” (Lazenby 2014, 69)
One of Jordan’s former Bulls teammates called him “the most viciously competitive player I’ve ever seen.” Like so many others, this teammate acknowledged, “That’s what makes him, I think, the greatest player ever,” but in his next breath he also observed that Jordan’s viciousness had led him to psychologically cripple one of their fellow teammates by repeatedly getting in his face during scrimmages, screaming, “You’re a loser! You’ve always been a loser!’”
He did something similar to the Larry-like 5’3” Mugsy Bogues. With the game-winning shot on the line, Jordan simply stepped back, gave Mugsy the shot, and said, “Shoot it, you f***ing midget.” Mugsy not only missed the shot, but later said he never recovered from the incident.
This win-at-all-costs competitiveness is also what seems to have fuelled MJ’s gambling addiction.
Chuck Klosterman recounts an anecdote about a time Jordan’s North Carolina teammate Buzz Peterson invited him over to play a friendly game of no-stakes cards with his mom. When she got up to go to the bathroom, Peterson caught Jordan trying to look at her cards.
When Jordan went on a losing streak playing golf against Richard Esquinas, the part owner of the San Diego Sports Arena, MJ insisted on going double-or-nothing on games until he was over $1.252 million in debt to Esquinas, and then refused to pay. (Lazenby 2014, 620)
In a 2005 edition of 60 Minutes, Jordan seemed to acknowledge the problem. “Yeah, I’ve gotten myself into situations where I would not walk away and I’ve pushed the envelope,” he told Ed Bradley. “Is that compulsive? Yeah, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re willing to jeopardize your livelihood and your family, then yeah.”
This is the dark underbelly of Jordan’s legendary drive. And even though he is one of the greatest athletes ever to walk the face of the earth, when you look into his sad, 57 year-old eyes it’s still somehow hard not to wonder if it was all worth it.
I know, I know: “Of course it was! He’s the G.O.A.T.”
Sure, but his weary eyes are, among other things, a stark reminder of how little success, even of the most extraordinary kind, can do to remedy early wounds.
And for every 6’6” athletic genius who learns to alchemically transform his feelings of shame and inferiority into a terminator-like determination, how many millions of others have burnt-out or fallen into isolation or addiction trying to be like Mike, labouring under the weight of the giant chips on their shoulders, attempting to assert their dominance over others rather than over their own difficulties, muttering to the ghosts inside their heads, “I’ll show you. You’ll see. I’ll prove it to you.”
There are certainly other, much healthier sources of motivation that don’t produce such toxic by-products.
But the question is… can they produce an MJ?
Halberstam, David. 1999. Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. Open Road Media.
Jordan, Deloris, and Gregg Lewis. 1996. Family First: Winning the Parenting Game. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Lazenby, Roland. 2014. Michael Jordan: The Life. Little, Brown and Company.