The sports world spent most of two decades witnessing the savage competitiveness that was Michael Jordan and, frankly, not only enjoyed it, but also idolized it. When he was a player and got that nasty, comic book-superhero look in his eyes while staring down a challenger, everyone – with the notable exception of opponents – loved it.
That includes, you’ve got to think, all current players.
For Jordan, games were combat, a test of wills, and he elevated them to levels that teetered between exhilarating and unhealthy. When Jordan became involved in a gambling controversy, it was his father who famously said his son did not have a gambling problem; he had a competition problem.
In 1992, a few of us got a glimpse of the raw Jordan – one that teammates saw daily and opponents saw nightly – while the Dream Team was in Monte Carlo preparing for the Barcelona Olympics. In a scrimmage that has become known as the greatest game never filmed, the Dream Team was divided into two squads – one led by Magic Johnson; the other by Jordan.
By the time the 10 or so media members who were covering the team got into the small arena, where the Dream Team had played a game in front of the royal family of Monte Carlo a couple of nights earlier, Jordan’s team had the lead and he was being quite vocal about it.
We learned later that Magic’s team had jumped out to a 14-2 lead and Magic and Charles Barkley began taunting Jordan. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough that Jordan answered by bringing his team back to victory; he was intent on loudly shoving the triumph through their ear drums.
Grabbing a can of Gatorade, he raised it over his head and repeated the famous line from his commercial at the time, “Sometimes I dream!” He made a victory lap around the floor. The rest of the players from both teams could only watch the performance.
By the time Jordan finally sat, most of the writers had surrounded Magic and Barkley to get statements from the losers and for a moment, I was alone with Jordan. At that point, he seemed to snap out of the competitive trance he was in and almost got a little sheepish.
“How’s your boy,” he said, referring to his good friend Barkley.
I answered that Barkley, another legendary competitor, was pretty embarrassed and irritated.
“He’ll get over it,” Jordan said.
At that point, I shook my head and fumbled for words to ask him why he was making such a spectacle. All I could come up with was, “I guess you just have to win.”
Without pausing, Jordan snapped back, “I try to make a habit out of it.”
That is merely one episode during of a career of fanatic competitiveness. The trait that is signature Jordan is something critics have forgotten during the last week when Jordan has been widely condemned for taking a hard-line position in collective bargaining talks with the players.
Some have wondered loudly and harshly; how is that possible? Here is a guy who was the ultimate player. Here is a guy who once told Washington owner Abe Pollin during negotiations to sell his team if he could not afford labor costs. And now Jordan is leading a group to force players to accept less money?
The answer to that riddle is not complicated.
Jordan is no longer a player.
He is an owner.
He has changed teams.
He plays for the other side.
And he is trying to win.
It is no different than Jordan joining the Wizards late in his playing career. He had won six titles with the Bulls. Was he supposed to not try hard when Washington played Chicago?
Make no mistake that Jordan approved the NBA identifying him as leader of the hard-line owners last week. The message was very clear to the players. It was the same message he repeatedly sent to the Knicks, Pistons, Celtics, Lakers, Blazers, Jazz, Suns and every other team when he was a player. It was the same message he sent to his buddies Magic and Charles in Monte Carlo.
I want to crush you.
Does that make him a phony or a sellout because of his current stance? I’ve got a question for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and all others offended by Jordan’s presence on his current team of owners:
If you eventually purchase a team, is it your goal to increase labor costs? Or will you try to make your franchise as profitable as possible?
There is, of course, a flip side for Jordan. Players who are currently in their 20s have idolized him since they left diapers. There has been no greater honor for many of them than to be asked by Michael Jordan to wear the Jordan Brand of athletic wear.
There will be a fallout. Some have already talked about refusing to wear Jordan apparel.
And Jordan took some shots from union head Billy Hunter on Tuesday with Hunter saying Jordan should practice what he once preached to Pollin — if he can’t afford the Bobcats, sell. “He should take his own advice,” Hunter said.
Jordan, however, has undoubtedly come to terms with the potential repercussions. But he has made the determination that for his Charlotte franchise to be successful on the court and profitable off of it in a small market, the hard line is the correct line.
And besides, this is about winning.
I’m not sure what players or members of the media expected when NBA owners and the players association squared off against each other. But if they expected Jordan to suit up for the opposition, they didn’t pay attention to his career.
If there is a need to attach negative labels to Jordan and call him names, I’m sure it results in a big shrug from him. Say what you want, agree or disagree, but I think Jordan was being consistent. When he was a player, he tried to crush the owners. As an owner, he now wants to crush the players.
That’s vintage Jordan. That’s Michael being Michael.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. His columns will appear every Tuesday on SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.