In the absence of live sports to watch over the past two months, we’ve had to find other ways to entertain ourselves while stuck in our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing millions of people have done over the past five Sunday nights was watch the riveting ESPN docuseries, “The Last Dance,” which chronicles the career of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s.
The series provided a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes to share what drove Jordan to be the greatest basketball player (and arguably greatest athlete) ever, and what made those teams successful. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to marvel at the greatness of Jordan, and that team in general.
While there are certainly parts of the show we wouldn’t advise kids to do, there are a lot of great lessons too. These are the lessons that jumped out to us, and can serve parents and athletes in any sport.
The Big Picture
By now, you’ve heard how kids should play many sports for as long as possible, before committing to one. One argument you probably never heard made was, “Sure, Jordan was good at basketball, but he would have been so much better if he didn’t waste so much time playing baseball up until his senior year of high school!”
It’s safe to say, Jordan’s time spent playing baseball didn’t hurt his future basketball prospects. Jordan’s parents both worked full time, and his father, James, wanted all five kids involved in youth sports to get them out of the house “to learn more about life” and “keep them involved in the community.”
James also said he dropped the kids off at youth sports, and simply let the coaches and players figure it out.
That didn’t mean Jordan’s parents didn’t have lessons for their kids, who were also ultra-competitive in their backyard games.
“You get knocked down, you gotta get up. And you always give it your best. You always try to win,” said Michael’s brother, Ronnie of the family philosophy.
“Don’t wait for someone to give you something. You’re strong. You’re intelligent. Go out and earn it and work for it,” was another lesson from Jordan’s mother, Deloris.
If Michael wasn’t behaving, it was on Michael to fix it, or sports weren’t going to be part of his life. In ninth grade, Jordan was suspended from school three times. His father pulled him aside and told him, “You don’t look like you’re headed in the right direction. You wanna go about doing all this mischievous stuff, you can forget sports.”
“And that’s all I needed to hear,” recalled Michael. “From that point on, it was like tunnel vision, and I never got in trouble from that point on.”
Those champion Bulls teams would have been nothing without players who were true late bloomers.
Scottie Pippen, one of the best players in the world, played his youth basketball on an old, dusty court in the backyard with this family members.
He went to a small college, University of Central Arkansas, after being a 6-foot-1 point guard in high school, but he was not even on the team. In fact, he was the equipment manager! When a few players became academically ineligible, Pippen asked the coach persistently and got a scholarship.
He started working out more, shooting more and improving more.
Between his freshman and sophomore year of college, he grew five inches and became the best player on his team. He kept his guard skills that he learned as a young player, and when he added in the skills that went along with being 6-foot-7, he could do everything on the court. He became the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Dennis Rodman, the third spoke in the Bulls’ “Big Three” wheel, wasn’t playing organized basketball for two years after high school. In fact, he was basically homeless, staying at houses (or in backyards) with friends.
Instead of getting caught up in doing drugs, Rodman decided to go to the gym on a daily basis. “I was just fortunate to just pick up a basketball and start playing. And I just got lucky that some guy from some college (Southeast Oklahoma State in the NAIA) said, ‘Dennis, do you want to come play for us?”
Steve Kerr, a key role player on those Bulls teams, was not heavily recruited by any colleges to play for them and took a last-minute offer from the University of Arizona. Despite being undersized and overlooked, Kerr’s persistence led to him becoming the player that made the winning shot to clinch a championship in 1997.
It was well known before the show aired that Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team as a sophomore. Upon getting cut, he went home and told his mother he didn’t want to play anymore and felt the coach didn’t like him.
Deloris felt awful, and she cried with Michael because of how much it meant to him. But unlike many stories you hear in today’s world, she didn’t point fingers. She didn’t call the coach or move him to another town so he could make a different team. Instead, she challenged him to overcome adversity.
In her words to Michael, “If you really want it, you work hard over the summer. And he did. That summer, he focused. He would practice all day. That basketball never left his hand.”
He also grew, and like Pippen, he added more to his already solid guard skills. Soon, he became the most heavily recruited player in the country. And he did so without leaving the program or the coach that cut him the first time.
There are multiple examples in “The Last Dance” of how important work ethic is.
As an inconsistent freshman, Michael Jordan told North Carolina Assistant Coach Roy Williams he wanted to be the “best player that’s ever played here.” Williams challenged him by saying he would have to work harder than he did in high school, to which Jordan replied, “I’m going to show you. No one is ever going to work as hard as I work.”
“Michael Jordan is the only player that could turn it on and off. And he never turned it off,” added Williams.
As the best player on the Bulls, he was also the hardest worker and led by his work ethic and holding others responsible if he didn’t see their work ethic matching his.
“When you see your leader working extremely hard in practice, you feel like if I don’t give it my all, I shouldn’t be here,” said longtime teammate, Horace Grant.
When he was the best player in basketball, he had an amazing work ethic. When he retired from basketball to play baseball, he was nowhere close to being the best player on his minor league baseball team. But his work ethic never changed, and it was because of that and his constant will to learn and get better, that he became a very good baseball player who some thought had a chance to get to the Major Leagues had he kept playing.
“His work ethic was the best I’ve ever been around,” said his minor league hitting coach, Mike Barnett.
Jordan wasn’t the only player whose work ethic was highlighted in the show.
Look at what Rodman did when he realized his best attributes weren’t exactly the most visually appealing. But they made him and his team better.
“By my second year in the League, I figured out what I could do best…rebound and play defense,” said Rodman. “I started learning how to perfect that.”
Rodman and a friend would go to a gym until 4 in the morning. The friend would just take shots, Rodman would rebound. Over and over and over. He learned about the angle and the trajectory of the ball. He studied different players and how they would shoot and where the rebounds would go.
Champions need players to do the dirty work, and Rodman was willing to become the best at doing the dirty work.
Much was made of Jordan’s love and loyalty to the coach that led the team to all six championships, Phil Jackson. In fact, Jordan’s reason for retiring was because he didn’t want to play for any other coach. But prior to Jackson, Jordan also had a very close relationship with the coach that preceded him, Doug Collins. And before that, it was highlighted how secure he felt under the tutelage of his head coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith.
With Jordan being one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, Jordan’s mother Deloris was quoted as saying about Smith, “Who was going to help him continue to grow as a young adult, not just basketball, but his education. Because for me the first priority was his education.”
Jordan was the best player on the team, and he always wanted to be the one taking the shots in the big moments. But he also wanted to win, and he bought into a new offense proposed by Jackson, who took over the helm in the middle of Jordan’s prime. The new offense meant that more players would be involved, not just Jordan.
Jordan had a hard time accepting it right away, but eventually, he did. He listened to the coach talk about how they needed to make everybody better. He didn’t listen to outside factors that may have told him he wasn’t being respected or utilized in the right way.
“He made a conscious effort to say that no individual was going to be bigger than the team,” said his teammate, B.J. Armstrong.