Michael Jordan is the greatest player ever to lace up sneakers.
You can argue all you want for anyone else, but I assure you, your thoughts will fall upon deaf ears.
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern said it best when awarding Jordan his third MVP in 1992, tell MJ; “You are simply the standard by which basketball excellence is measured”. Jordan would go on to win the award three more times.
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It’s now been 13 years since Mike retired for good (well who knows, the comeback rumours continue to surface periodically and not just on April 1st) and no one has been able to touch his Airness.
Some have flown close for sure, but like Icarus and the Sun, they seem to fall away whilst Jordan’s legacy continues to shine.
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When describing Jordan’s game, the phrases often used include; 'champion', 'legend', the 'ultimate competitor', and 'the greatest of all time'. All traits that support MJ’s genius as a basketball player. Make no mistake,
Make no mistake, Mike was a genius, but to paraphrase Oscar Levant, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity”.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the G.O.A.T was mad – not at all. However, for all the superlatives used to describe Jordan’s game, there are (almost in equal measure) a number of darker descriptives often linked to him.
Obsessive, maniacal, predator, killer instinct and ruthless, to name but a few.
Tim Grover, Jordan’s long time trainer, believes the man known to his friends as the “black cat” was what he calls a “Cleaner”.
In his book, 'Relentless – from good to great to unstoppable', Grover explains that a Cleaner is someone whose thirst to dominate is unquenchable, they are “addicted to success”.
Jordan was certainly addicted to winning, that’s why he couldn’t stay away from the league during his first two(!) retirements.
This addiction ran so deep that he was unwilling to lose at anything which had a competitive aspect, it didn’t matter whether it was ping-pong, golf, card games on the team plane or even practice (just ask Steve Kerr).
One of a kind
This characteristic was so ferocious that it separated Jordan from all of his team mates.
In Chicago, it took years for him to be able to trust his cohorts, and to understand that no matter how great he was, he was unable to deliver a championship without the support of others.
This is where stories in the Jordan legacy such as “There’s no I in team, but there is in win” and “Whose open Michael, Pax is open” originate from. Even when in the unfamiliar Washington blue, Jordan, whose body was aching and failing, could not adjust to or comprehend the attitudes of his team-mates.
At 39 and in his final, final, final season, Michael played in all 82 games for the Wizards. Regularly having to have his knees drained of synovial fluid, he took to the court when most others would not.
And to what end? Were the Wizards a championship contender? Of course not. Were they in contention for a playoff spot? Well, yes and no.
Although the Wizards finished ninth in the Eastern Conference that season, the five-game gap between them and the Magic was significant enough for Washington to have been mathematically eliminated sometime before the regular season ended.
So why play through the injuries when the outcome has already been determined? The only reason can be the momentary respite Jordan experienced feeding his competitive desire.
We have not had a player since whose drive to succeed has come close to the same level as Jordan’s. Of the dominant players since 2000, Kobe had it – but only momentarily, Iverson came close, Shaq lacked a consistent focus, Duncan was too much the consummate team mate, LeBron hasn’t yet shown the killer instinct and Curry is just too nice.
Perhaps it was Jordan’s embrace of the darker aspects of winning which drove him to become the greatest ever. Maybe MJ was the basketball embodiment of Yin and Yang, balancing light and dark as complementary forces to create greater whole.
Just because he’s been away now for over a decade, doesn’t make him any less of an addict.
Even when he retired from the Wizards in ’03, he was only “99.9 percent sure I won't play again." To this end, there are still stories of him turning up to the Hornets’ scrimmages and taking guys half his age to school.
Perhaps Grover summed it up best, “Greatest makes you a legend, being the best makes you an icon”. You can’t be any better the being the standard everyone else is compared to.