Have you ever been hanging out with your friends in a crowded bar where the music was blaring and everybody was screaming over everybody else? In those situations, it’s almost impossible to hear yourself think let alone communicate effectively. Well, that’s what writing about Michael Jordan feels like right now. His induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has ignited a firestorm of tributes and memorials and renewed debates about his place in NBA history.
Mind you, those debates are hardly necessary. Jordan is one of the greatest scorers ever (after Wilt Chamberlain and alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant), one of the greatest winners of all time (after Bill Russell and alongside Kareem and former teammate Scottie Pippen) and, without question, the single greatest player to ever put a ball through a hoop.
Let’s face it, there was nothing Michael Jordan couldn’t do on a basketball court, offensively or defensively. You can nitpick flaws in virtually any other all-time great. Russell wasn’t much of a scorer (and his practice habits were on par with Allen Iverson’s). Chamberlain couldn’t hit a free throw and (even more damning) didn’t win as often as he should have. Ditto for Oscar Robertson, who never tasted championship glory until he was playing second-fiddle to Kareem. Speaking of Kareem, there were occasional complaints about his desire to go all-out on defense and rebounding during the regular season. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were never were accomplished individual defenders. So on and so forth.
About the worst you can say about Jordan is that he wasn’t a great three-point shooter (although don’t tell Clyde Drexler and the 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers that). And…that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. (Unless you count the whole “punching out Steve Kerr” thing. But regarding that, as Iverson might say, we talkin’ ’bout practice.)
Now Jordan will enter the Hall of Fame in what is, fittingly enough, one of the greatest-ever classes. I mean, think about it: MJ, David Robinson, John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan. You could pull Dave Corzine and Brad Sellers out of mothballs and that team might still win the Eastern Conference. Seriously.
So yeah, all the tributes are pretty fitting. However, it’s worth remembering that Jordan, as unearthly as he was, didn’t do it all alone. Sure, he tried. For seven frustrating years, he tried to win it all by himself. But it wasn’t until he started trusting his coach (whose “equal opportunity offense” seemed to threaten his individual dominance) and his teammates (or, as MJ called them back then, “my supporting cast”) that he finally won that elusive championship and began to truly forge his legend.
See, despite what some people think, winning an NBA title isn’t an individual accomplishment. Heck, it’s not even a team accomplishment. It’s an organizational accomplishment. Winning takes countless thousands of hours of effort by owners, general managers, coaching staffs, trainers, team doctors, public and media relations staff members…heck, even the ball boys who hand out towels and pass out Gatorade during timeouts play a part in the winning. I’m being completely serious here.
The general feeling about the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s is that it was Jordan and a bunch of other guys, and that those other guys could have been just about anybody. Pippen sometimes gets a little credit, but not as much as he deserves. Given how amazing MJ was, it’s natural that the overall greatness of those teams has been, historically speaking, taken for granted. The reality is, Jordan was blessed to be surrounded by the perfect coach, the perfect second-in-command and a perfect group of roleplayers (shooters, rebounds, etc.). Yes, Michael facilitated for those guys, but they also provided the support he needed to be his very best…the very best.
If you think back to those six championships, there were many examples of Jordan’s teammates coming through. Pippen did a little bit of everything (including shutting down Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals). John Paxson, Steve Kerr and B.J. Armstrong hit critical jumpers. (In fact, Paxson and Kerr clinched the ’91, ’93 and ’97 titles with their shooting. And Jordan wasn’t even directly involved in the play that led to Paxson’s series-clinching three-pointer against the Phoenix Suns in 1993.) Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman grabbed key rebounds and did the dirty work in the paint. Everybody on those teams got after it on defense (and defense, as they say, is what wins championships). Phil Jackson installed the system and repeatedly made the coaching adjustments necessary for victory. And Jerry Krause, as maligned as he may be, brought them all together.
Now consider Jordan’s contemporaries, the men who “failed” to dethrone him. Clyde Drexler. Charles Barkley. Karl Malone. When did their roleplayers ever step up in a critical moment? Can you remember one time that ever happened?
I’m not trying to diminish Jordan’s greatness. He’s the NBA’s career leader in Player Efficiency Rating for a reason. His personal dominance, his ability to meet any challenge, his desire to succeed…those things are beyond compare. But the greatest accomplishment in any sport — winning — is about the team.
Just ask the version of Michael Jordan who played for the Washington Wizards. That MJ was still 75-80 percent of the one who helped orchestrate six championship runs. Yet his Wizards won a mere 74 games during his two seasons on the team. That’s only two more than the 1995-96 Bulls won. And, of course, those Wizards did not make the playoffs. It was a failure so crushing that Jordan, in what everyone knew was his last season in the league, wasn’t voted as a starter on the 2003 Eastern Conference All-Star Team. (Vince Carter was eventually press-ganged into surrendering his starting spot to Jordan.) Let’s face it: it’s a bad sign when the greatest and most beloved player in any sport ever can’t even win a popularity contest.
So what’s my point? Simply that, in the rush to celebrate the greatness of Michael Jordan, don’t forget that, in many ways, his Hall of Fame induction and the associated lovefest wouldn’t be possible without the Chicago Bulls. Jordan made those teams great, but they did the same for him. You know, one knock against Bill Russell in the “All-Time Greatness Debate” is that, unlike Jordan, he played alongside several other Hall of Famers. But ask yourself this: how many of those 60s Celtics would have made the Hall of Fame if their team hadn’t won 11 championships in 13 seasons? Those other players came and went. Even Red Auerbach retired mid-dynasty. The only constant was Russell.
But the argument that his legacy was partially dependent on his team is a fair one. The same can be said for MJ.
The TrueHoop Network:
Michael Jordan Doesn’t Need Your Favors
Where Were You When Michael Jordan Became God?
Off the Iron: The Endurance of MJ’s Perfection
Best There Ever Was, Best There Ever Will Be
Celebrating Michael Jordan vs. The Nets
Rewatching…The Push Off
Getting The G.O.A.T.
The Remastered Michael Jordan
A Hate Worth Loving
In Honor of Michael Jordan
In DC, the Devil Wears Jordans, and That’s Okay
More MJ and the Hall:
NBA.com’s official Michael Jordan Hall of Fame page
Michael Jordan’s Top 23
Becoming Legendary: The Michael Jordan Story
Slam Presents: Jordan
Michael Jordan deserves his Hall of Fame due — and then some
NBA icon Jordan to take place among game’s greats
Michael Jordan defines the Hall of Fame
A look back at the career of Michael Jordan
A rare air for Michael Jordan
Jordan officially joins greats of the game in Hall
What’s your favorite MJ memory?
Jordan’s shot at destiny inevitable
Reilly: NBA should retire Jordan’s No. 23?
Jordan’s early days forecast stardom
Coaches, teammates and friends remember MJ’s talent, drive
MJ still ‘The Most Competitive Man in the World’
Jordan showed his best in 1 key standoff
The chairman: MJ’s work ethic is unmatched
55 points at MSG meant a lot more to come
Commish: Jordan’s up there with Ali and Pele
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MJ Is NBA’s Best Ever
Writers share memories of Jordan
Too young to remember MJ’s prime? Not me
Chuck Swirsky shares his MJ memories
What Does It Mean To Be The Greatest of All Time?
Honoring the great MJ
Michael Jordan’s Legacy
MJ. Michael Jordan. Air Jordan. Money. His Airness. The GOAT.
Remember Michael Jordan the Player/GM?
No, there won’t be a Michael Jordan Hall-Of-Fame post (ok, this one)
Rod Thorn Talks MJ’s Hall Induction
Michael Jordan Biography
Michael Jordan’s Impact on Chicago