There was a period when Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls and people didn’t consider him the greatest of all time. It was over 25 years ago, but it happened, and it’s important we call attention to it. Contemporary fanatics in the pace-and-space NBA era often use shooting efficiency as a marker for offensive greatness. They malign those poor perimeter players who aren’t endowed with accuracy beyond 23 feet. The biggest argument in favor of choosing Kobe Bryant during any barroom debate comparing him to his idol, Michael Jordan, is that Kobe was a better shooter from deep. And he was. But early Michael Jordan, who single-handedly brought his Bulls into the playoffs every year during the mid- and late-’80s, was like if the trio of Russell Westbrook, “Vinsanity” Vince Carter, and early Monta Ellis were thrown together in a drink garnished with PEDs. That’s hyperbole, of course, but not as much as you might think.
Yago Colas touches on this pre-GOAT Michael Jordan in his book, Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball. We’re going to do a much longer post on his book because it might be the most important piece of non-fiction basketball literature since David Halberstam was following around the Bill Walton Blazers, but for now we’ll just touch on a section from Chapter six: “The Myth of the Greatest of All Time.”
In that chapter, Colas talks about the media creation of Michael Jordan as the GOAT and how his career arc so comfortably slid into the bildungsroman storyline. We don’t want to get into too much detail, but the early MJ part is germane to what we’re talking about today.
Yago is a professor and he showed the below video to his students before they were going to talk about MJ in his Cultures of Basketball course. Here’s the video:
Here’s how he describes showing the video to his students:
I felt like I was at a fireworks show. As we watched, each of us in our own private world, we emerged periodically, briefly, to exchange a collective “ooh.” It was as if we were staging a skit about the birth of language and society. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in these sporadic, exchanged exhalations we were spontaneously living a moment like the ones from which language first emerged. After flipping on the lights, we adjusted our eyes and minds and eased our way out of entertainment and into analysis.
Professor Colas’ class then looked at Nathaniel Friedman’s essay (previously Bethlehem Shoals) from his collaborative Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History book. The overarching discussion in the book and Friedman’s essay focuses on how MJ’s evolution as a player solidified his status as the GOAT after he supposedly bought into Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense and shared the ball with his teammates. But that’s a larger myth we’ll leave for another time.
Let’s instead focus on the attacking MJ who was at various points earlier in his career labeled a prima donna that was all flash, me-first scoring and little substance (i.e. #Ringz). Let’s also not forget that MJ once wore a gold chain that Big Daddy Kane might’ve rocked in a music video while performing during All-Star weekend. That was young MJ, one a lot of fans missed out on as his exploits following the 1990 season became the prime blueprint for his legendary status today.
Before that, he was simply an extraterrestrial sent to Earth to expand our conception of what was possible on a basketball court. Specifically, his forays through the air to the rim. These dashes to the iron were almost always punctuated by either a rim-rocking jam, or a twisting, turning layup that seemed to break the laws of physics.
This second montage of MJ finishing at the rim is what originally sparked my interest in the topic and the callback to Colas’ book.
The beauty of an attacking, early MJ is important in today’s NBA, too. And so is the onslaught of #takes to such individualistic flare.
Because Jordan Brand’s biggest name, Russell Westbrook, is about to start his first season without the 2014 MVP, I worry that he’ll get pushed into this early MJ category — a version of Jordan that isn’t lauded nearly enough (Colas and Friedman both offer up explanations on why MJ’s narrative trajectory fits the GOAT paradigm so well) — and he’ll be shamed into becoming something else. He can win and be himself, so could Jordan. The dichotomy between the pre-title Jordan and the GOAT version is fictional. They’re the same guy, but Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came along and gave him some other options.
Russ is the closest approximation I can think of to describe the early incarnation of MJ. Westbrook’s efforts attacking the rim call to mind fire and brimstone, while MJ was ethereal like the air, but they’re both aesthetically pleasing to those basketball minds who don’t harrumph at the notion of individual brilliance. Except, because that playing style falls outside the pale, some analysts are left hurriedly spouting off usage rates, points per possession and turnover percentage to show how Russell isn’t nearly as effective in this form. They seem to think he’d be better if he’d just dial down the dangerous dives to the rim and didn’t try to wreck so much individual damage. To offer a shorter version, it’s asking him to pass the ball more; to be less Russ.
To Russ I say, f*ck that noise.
Eat defenses for breakfast, lunch and dinner and don’t apologize for sating that hunger, even if some of your teammates might also want a morsel or two. You’re too rare to try and tame. Young MJ was a revelation on the basketball court long before he became ubiquitous with winning NBA titles as the greatest of all time. But here’s a little secret that’ll help: there’s no right way to play, there is just the spectacular and everything else.
I sincerely hope Russ doesn’t loll into the latter category because his critics want him to pass the ball more. Dribble, dunk, explode, spin, reverse, lay it off the glass going 100 mph. Rinse. Repeat. Never be anything but yourself. If you learn anything from young Michael Jordan highlights, remember that you should always be yourself, regardless of what everyone else might be saying.