Michael Jordan and the curse of ‘perfection’

Updated: May 31, 2020

The problem with perfection is that it doesn’t leave any room to move.

Michael Jordan is not perfect. You know it, I know it and now everyone knows it. To my knowledge though, and despite some of the most effective marketing of all time sometimes suggesting otherwise, he’s never seriously suggested or pretended that he is; in fact, he’s previously explicitly acknowledged that he isn’t. Yet somewhat predictably, in the aftermath of ESPN’s wildly popular The Last Dance, pundits and casual observers alike have apparently relished the opportunity to relitigate old arguments, often concentrating on Jordan’s flaws at the expense of his strengths and virtues. Without wanting to oxygenate a fire, these opinion pieces are, typically, full of hot-takes telling us that – shock(!), horror(!) – Michael Jordan is not someone we should aspire to be like. No more being ‘Like Mike’. Is there really anything new in these pieces though? In this writer’s opinion at least, there isn’t.

I don’t want to apologise for Jordan’s mistakes, because some of them, particularly his (apparently persistent) bullying of Jerry Krause and others, are unacceptable behaviour from anyone, let alone someone who was seen as a role model for children (whether he liked it or not, Charles Barkley). Success and winning are no justification for such misdeeds. But Jordan’s gambling misadventures date back decades and were widely reported on at the time. His sometimes (or should it be, ‘often’?) harsh treatment of teammates has been on the public record since at least the time of Sam Smith’s bestseller, The Jordan Rules. Krause was Jordan’s public whipping boy for years. Et cetera, et cetera. The Last Dance, for all its compelling storytelling, wasn’t exactly a treasure trove of new information for even casual basketball fans.

Nobody's perfect, even Michael Jordan. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

So, with that in mind, it is slightly peculiar that the narrative around Michael Jordan has noticeably shifted in recent times. The man who was once an all-conquering hero is now increasingly cast as an anti-hero - a shift that was seemingly accelerated and cemented for good by The Last Dance. Why did the mythology of Michael Jordan, as someone of almost superhuman-like qualities, persist for so long before, slowly but surely, it started to unravel? Michael Jordan certainly doesn’t appear to have changed much. He is also less exposed than he ever was in the pre-digital era – he is, in comparison to most attention-seeking celebrities, a relative recluse. Sure, he comes across as a somewhat petty man, apparently unable to simply be content with his remarkable accomplishments; and yes, he still regularly and infuriatingly refers to himself in the third person, but he’s never been convicted of a crime and he is certainly not the only flawed athlete that is or has been celebrated. Does anyone truly believe that other star athletes have been any less forgiving of their less fortunate or motivated colleagues?

To these eyes, it seems that the Michael Jordan star started losing some of its lustre following his now infamous basketball Hall of Fame speech, in which he very publicly refused to go quietly into the Hall and let the accolades wash over him. Instead of a (relatively) humble man satisfied with his place in history, the world witnessed someone who was unwilling to relinquish the final word on his career. Another factor could be the contrast between Jordan’s personification of capitalism as corporate America’s pitchman in the 80s and 90s, against the more fit-for-these-times socially conscious public profile that successors like LeBron James have crafted. Or, perhaps it’s simply a mark of our collective enlightenment in 2020 and our continuing push for greater social tolerance and harmony that we are no longer willing to look beyond cruelness and bullying.

Whatever the reason(s), understanding that Michael Jordan could’ve conducted himself better in certain situations and relationships, and wanting to be ‘Like Mike’, are not mutually exclusive positions. It is possible to celebrate the incredibly driven, talented, hard-working athlete and to be inspired by the traits that he displayed in the field of athletics, while never losing sight of the fact that certain character traits which he exhibits are undesirable. We don’t need to frame everything in absolutes – we’re complex beings capable of complex thought; there is room for nuance. Tearing Michael Jordan down for being less than perfect is foolish and ignorant.

It goes without saying that success and excellence in any field of human endeavour generally requires an exceptional amount of hard work. In a team sport such as basketball, the hard work of one individual is unlikely to make the difference between the team winning and losing. If the name of the game is to win, can we really sit back then and judge the man for his motivational techniques? Would we all be happier if we’d recently been digesting pleasant stories of Jordan and his Bulls teammates sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya? No, we wouldn’t. For all of his flaws, Jordan’s Bulls did win, and I’d wager that if you asked any member of those teams whether they would’ve preferred a friendly, cuddly Michael Jordan if it meant handing back their championship rings, they’d each take a hard pass.

People remain fascinated with Jordan to this day, and they remain fascinated with him because he is synonymous with hard work and winning. This is despite Jordan’s playing career being far from ‘perfect’ of course. While the Bulls won six from six when they reached the NBA Finals, they also failed to make the Finals on seven occasions with Jordan. Without wanting to diminish Jordan’s greatness – because he is, unquestionably, one of the greatest of all time – the veneer of ‘perfection’ that was meticulously constructed around him is, at least in part, the result of exceptional marketing. You can legitimately debate whether Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell or even LeBron James was or is a greater player than Michael Jordan, but people will never romanticise their exploits in the way they will Mike’s. The Jordan phenomenon is bigger than basketball.

So with all of that said, was The Last Dance a shining beacon of rigorous, independent journalism? Of course not. Did Jordan control the entire process? Undoubtedly. Did it allow us a glimpse behind the curtain to observe Jordan and his teammates in a more candid environment than ever before? Absolutely. Did we learn a little more about Jordan and see a more human side to him than previously? Perhaps. Does any of this actually matter? Definitely not. Let’s just appreciate Mike for the tremendously gifted and dedicated athlete and fierce competitor that he was. Let’s remember his loyalty to the Bulls and the honour he displayed in not seeking to renegotiate (what became) a woefully inadequate contract. Let’s recognise the obvious love he has for his friends and family. Let’s celebrate his list of charitable endeavours. Let’s remember that bullying is not okay. And most importantly, let’s all lighten up a bit and appreciate that someone doesn’t have to be perfect to inspire a generation.


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