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Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and a Generation of Fans and Athletes Raised on Perfection

May 24, 2011

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and a Generation of Fans and Athletes Raised on Perfection.

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and a Generation of Fans and Athletes Raised on Perfection

May 22, 2011

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of the 1990’s with their near impeccable run of titles may have been more influential than originally thought.  In fact, that influence may just be peaking.

Let’s revisit the squad that changed expectations for everyone.

How predictable it all became.  The Jordan Years, and the man’s uncanny ability to succeed.  He was mentally strong, extremely self-motivated, while he possessed outstanding athletic abilities. It all translated into glory.  He could do nothing but win.  Beating the odds became automatic. And each new challenge he encountered would read like a chapter in a bedtime story – ending happily ever after.

Other teams – Other players – they all had their disqualifying flaws.  Patrick Ewing was labeled a loser from his Georgetown years – ironically losing the NCAA Title to Jordan on a game-winning shot during his freshman year.  The Mighty Hoyas.  Taken down by a Freshman.  His heavily favored teams never did win that title he desperately needed. We all know what happens to the teams that should win, and don’t.  Labels can very easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Karl Malone and John Stockton represented boring basketball.  At least in an X’s and O’s sense.  They may have mastered the pick and roll, along with a million other life-affirming team traits. In their league, however, superstar heroics are what brings home the hardware. And the fundamentally-sound Jazz were not worthy of providing those moments.

How dare these pretenders try and take the trophy from its rightful throne.  If they were “Winners,” then why hadn’t they won  Must be destiny.  Even Scottie Pippen was aware that “the Mailman didn’t deliver on Sunday.” And he didn’t.

Real stars would never miss free throws in a close game, right?

It was just that simple.

That brings us to his Airness.  Michael Jordan.  The man, the myth, the legend.  The action figure with the million dollar smile.  The Phenom who could transcend the basketball court, wall street, pop culture, and even other dimensions – at least in Space Jam.

He was a winner.  And if someone was a winner, they never lost.

At least when it came to him.

That’s how it was for a generation raised on the NBA in the 90’s.

We were drinking the spiked Gatorade.

This won’t be the first time that MJ’s legacy will be mentioned in terms of its lasting effects on the league.  It’s pretty obvious that it will take many, many years until he is remembered more as a Bill Russell type.  A hero from the past, who’s achievements are no longer comparable due to the gradual evolution of the league.

I would venture to guess that Bill Russell’s ELEVEN championships are held in less esteem to the past few generations than the six championships of those ‘90’s era Bulls.

We only remember what we are actually around to see.

Championships from eras long gone can never be remembered in their proper context.  There is always the question of whether the competition was as consistent.  Or whether in the early years, the big men simply dominated because no one else was as tall.

No one would argue that it was due to an unfair break in genetics that made MJ unstoppable.  He was 6’6’. Blessed with talent, but not physically overwhelming.

What a disservice it then becomes, that Jordan’s teams were virtually PERFECT in its quest for multiple titles. Not only to the other contenders in the sport of basketball, but for every popular athlete in any sport .

There suddenly emerged a set of Jordan rules. Or at least subconscious guidelines that we created to judge the cream of the crop in the athletic world. They were never carved into stone. But I guarantee we have all used them as a barometer for judging the legacies of athletes.

1. Champions never lose to underdogs.  If that does occur, they risk losing way more than that season’s title rings.  In every series that the Bulls were deemed Goliath to some other team’s David, the giant prevailed.  Every single one.  No longshots.  No Odds-beaters.  Only trampled foes.

2.  Great Players must always take the last shots. Jordan not only hit more game-winning shots than almost anyone in history, but in doing so, probably missed more game-winning shots in history as well.  But that is inconsequential.  If the greatest champion of all-time (at least to some) made it a habit of taking nearly every clutch shot, then every one else afterwards had to follow suit.  That is, if they wanted to continue to possess their Alpha-dog street cred.

I Wanna be like Mike.

3.  One Championship will never be enough.  In order to be truly great, 2-peats, 3-peats, double 3-peats were the key to notoriety. I think we all remember Lebron’s halfway kidding introductory speech to the Miami fans, where he counted all the way up to 7 championships as his stated goal.  It’s no accident that he stopped at one more than Jordan. But once again, he was more than likely joking.  Seven championships seems like a tall order at this point in his career. He may someday regret even mentioning that in jest.

Take a look at Jordan’s body of work.  It reads like a movie script that would be too syrupy to be released.

Remember how little Michael was left off of the high school basketball team?

And remember how he used that negative event to inspire himself to practice harder, and used all of his willpower to show that coach that he had made a terrible mistake?

Yes exactly..

Who writes this swill?

No one.  This really happened.  These inspirational anecdotes would define his career.

He accomplished EVERYTHING.

It was virtually athletic perfection.

But many, many things had to come together for this triumph of a career.

He had to be drafted by a good organization willing to put the parts around him to succeed.  Maybe the Bulls didnt have to be spectacular in that regard, but he would not have been set up properly on the majority of the other teams in the league.

This executive support was on full display when he began his quest for a second 3-peat. Significant contributors such as Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, and of course, Dennis Rodman, all were brought together to help win.  It was a success.  They played their roles seamlessly.

And let’s not forgot that the team was headed up by one of the most highly regarded coaches ever to man the sidelines in Phil Jackson.  Some would argue that his titles were somehow diminished because of his all-star personnel. But it would be foolish to dismiss his accomplishments completely.  You don’t win as many championships as he has, all by happenstance.

No way.

By that logic, Kobe and Shaq should have ensured that Del Harris was wearing championship rings on his fingers and toes.

But there was more to be merry about.  The Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas.  That worked out just fine.  A top 50 player of all time, and closer to 1 than 50. A solid gold find that was certainly not an inevitability.

What if that never happened?

For the most part, Jordan did not suffer with constant injuries.  He did lose virtually an entire season early on. Afterwards he was able to avoid similar mishaps almost entirely. In professional sports, remaining healthy can not be taken for granted.  Ask Bill Walton, Greg Oden, Shaquille O’neal, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and plenty of others.

Even the mighty Tiger Woods may have to bow down to the reality of advanced wear and tear. It will most likely cost him his historic shot at breaking Niklaus’s Majors record. It’s a shame. It truly does take a stroke of luck just to be healthy over the course of a career.

I’m certainly not saying that Michael was just the recipient of good fortune.  He made his own luck.  I have never seen an athlete dominate the game the way he did.  Almost on command.  It was a sight to see.

However, its not realistic to expect that sort of dominance again in the modern era.  Even if MJ was drafted tommorrow, too many question marks would have to become explanation points for him to go on a similar run.

It took a lot of outside factors all coming together beautifully.

Maybe in a parallel universe he only wins 4 titles.

Maybe he loses a couple of them as well.

Maybe he slips in Kerry Wood’s hot tub.

Just ask Kobe, who has been a part of more finals than Michael.

You can’t win them all.

But you shouldn’t have to, either.  Not if your attending them in economy-sized Sam’s club numbers like Jordan and Bryant.

After that team finally broke apart, it slowly became obvious that no athlete of any skill set in any sport could be held to such ridiculous standards.

Let’s take the grid-iron for instance.

League mascot and golden-boy, Tom Brady, not too long ago, took a team riding the momentum of an undefeated season all the way up to the Superbowl.

But then promptly lost.

Thats right.  After 3 NFL titles, his team was perfect throughout the regular season and all the way up to the big game. And the only thing standing between the Patriots and perfection was a win against a team they had already beaten that year.  A team that was one of the lowlier underdogs of the decade in the form of the New York Giants. He was set up to be Jordan-esque.  Right there for the taking with a another strong performance.

But guess what?

They lost.

Didn’t you wonder what the deeper meaning of a mind-boggling loss like this would carry?

Perhaps there is no answer.

It didn’t signal the end of the Patriots being dominant.  It didn’t mean that Brady was no longer a superstar quarterback or that he wasn’t clutch. Gisele didn’t decide to leave him for Tony Romo.

It also didn’t mean that Bill Belichek won’t be remembered as a historically great coach. Of course he will.  That’s at least one more Superbowl appearance to put on the resume.

The Giants just won the game.

The Pats most likely would have won big if there was a rematch.

But there won’t be.

Stuff happens.

Except to his Airness it seemed.

He always came out on top. His record-breaking 72-10 team sure didn’t wilt when it came down to crunch time.

The Jordan years created this false sense of destiny in the world of sports to a generation that grew up with the certainty of the Un-Forgetta-Bulls.

Wayne Gretzky’s presence was felt as well.  The first part of his career was spent, much like Mike’s, gaining individual accolades, while his team grew stronger and more successful.  Enough time passed, and the Edmonton finally brought home the cup. And it wouldn’t be the first time.  Once he became the champ, he was crowned 3 more times.

But looking closely, even the great one suffered a bout of disappointing failure.  And in the midst of a colossal string of success.

The Oilers weren’t quite able to win 5 in row. They had to settle for merely a double two-peat. Edmonton was shown the exit by a hungry Calgary Flames team right in the middle of all that success.

Jordan would not have stood for that?

Right?

See where I’m going.  Gretzky is on Jordan’s level.  Maybe pound-per-pound in his sport, even better.  He certainly demolished the record books faster and by larger margins then Jordan did in comparison with his peers.

But he lost.

And it didn’t mean a thing.

The Cup was returned to its previous owners the next year.

But I will also admit that when I first heard of this failure at the apex of Gretzky’s powers, I was a bit disappointed.

Jordan never lost in his prime.

Nope.

But he could have.

Great athletes lose all the time.

90% of his success was due to his incredible will to win, and inspirational athleticism.  But 10% was from factors beyond his control.

But he did have me going for awhile. I grew up thinking that every great athlete should experience similar levels of unobstructed success.  They should all make sensational plays in every pressure situation year after year in order to beat the “unworthy” stars from the other teams.  The Ewings’ or the Barkleys’ who, in my estimation, must not have wanted it enough, or tried as hard, or were as heroic or clutch.  That had to be the source  of their failure.  At least it was sold to the public that way.

Michael Jordan’s reign made a generation of fans buy into sport as fairy tale. Something reliable and expected. Not scripted, but without much doubt involved in regards to the outcome.

It created that little voice in the back of the head before a Superbowl that says, “Ok, I know the teams look relatively equal, but Peyton Manning will definitely play above his means today, because he is a superstar.”

Mythology doesn’t grind out wins though. Or recover on-side kicks.

And when Drew Brees led his team to victory over the shell-shocked Colts, I can at least speak for myself in once again feeling puzzled over where this event fits.

The best quarterback in the league, one of those guys that even your mother could pick out of a lineup due to his global stardom, had lost.  And not even in a particularly memorable way. It’s not as if he fell on his own sword.

It’s too confusing.

What do you make of a player who is arguably the best in the league, who has won a superbowl and also lost one.

In reality, those types of conundrums have always existed in sports.  It’s life, and it never has been black and white. But those Bulls teams made it feel like it could have been.

That’s the Jordan effect.  It took a combination of factors, hinging upon his otherworldly talents, to finish his NBA Novella. Don’t expect that sort of certainty ever again.

The stars may not have been aligned.  But they were pretty close in the night sky when Michael Jordan arrived on the planet.

And even now, in a league made up of players who mostly remember those days from highlight reels, those sorts of off-the-chart expectations have not completely subsided.

And at least for some, there may be a dark side to living in the shadows of the impossible.

Lebron James took maybe the worst supporting cast of players to ever play for a title into the finals against San Antonio early in his career.  Go back and look at the roster.  It’s much worse than you think.  Not only that, but he absolutely willed his team to that perch by scoring damn near every single clutch point in defeating the heavily favored Detroit Pistons to advance.

Most people have already forgotten about that.  The Spurs were a monster. The Cavs didn’t win.

Instead of remembering that season fondly, it has been cast aside as a season that “Lebron failed.” He didn’t ask to be the next Jordan, and no one should expect it.  He’s still a young man.  These years should be the exciting prime years. He could be leading the downtrodden city of Cleveland to the promised land.

What a story that would be, right?

No chance anymore.  People apparently told him one too many times that if he didn’t want to be a failure, he would have to start piling up rings.

Look how easy it was for Jordan.

Can’t Lebron even get one?

People forget the difficulty of a championship.  It’s a grueling journey.  A journey that, for most, will end before reaching the hollowed grounds of victory.

And as we all know, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Too many times those Bulls teams made us forget that.

Now in the eyes of the average NBA fan, Lebron has signed a deal with the devil. His team is now ridiculously loaded with superstar talent. Many lesser players could win with the help of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, least of all, King James.

It all seemed a bit desperate and over-the-top. But it did shed light into the dynamics of the pressure that was being exerted on him to win.  He would rather take on the role of a hated villain, then to gamble with the uncertainty of possibly never winning a title.

He will be booed at every visitor’s arena until his last dunk as a player. And at times, it seems that he is becoming, understandly, a bit unhinged – with angry, mildly threatening tweets early on, somewhat emotional press conferences and out-of-character overcelebrating on the court just recently.

Its not psychotic behavior.  But its not consistent with his mannerisms in the past. This was once the NBA’s version of the “Say Hey Kid” before the Decision loomed on the horizon.  A care-free fun-loving basketball prodigy with an infectious smile. It’s easy to tell that all the negativity has taken its toll.

It’s only natural.

And can you really say that the otherworldly “Jordan” superstar expectations thrust upon him since middle school did not play at least some role in his dramatic decision?

And now the next annointed MJ-like player, Derrick Rose is taking a speedboat full of young and talented Bulls up the river toward the Island of oppressive expectations that is the Miami Heat’s season. The newly annointed savior may be on his way to put the old one out of his misery, for at least this year.

Looks like Lebron James may be playing the role of Colonel Kurtz.

Or maybe he wins the big one, finally.

Maybe he will find himself in the unbelievable position of winning a title, but still being generally maligned.

“Jordan didn’t have to team up with Magic for his titles.”

And give Derrick Rose a few unfulfilling seasons, and see if he starts feeling the strain.

Maybe he will flee to his own island of misfit superstars to cope.

Of course its only Basketball.  But the ante has been ratched up for the time being.  It may be our entertainment, but its also one man from Akron’s entire legacy on the line.

But that’s what happens when you win six championships.  And furthermore, when you do it with nary a misstep along the way.

Its certainly not for everyone. Though the bar isn’t being lowered anytime soon.

We will continue to watch and see how the pressure manifests itself on the younger generations.

For More Ramblings, Follow me on Twitter (@ChiBdm)

Luol Deng – A Link to the Past

October 1, 2010

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Sometimes in sports, we lose sight of the fact that the only measure of success is not winning a championship.  There are around 30 teams in every league and one championship for each year.  The vast majority of teams and players will never achieve that ultimate goal.  In the NBA, in particular, there is a tendency for repeat winners, as well.  For every Larry Selke trophy that Kobe Bryant takes home, another 600 players have only what-ifs to ponder.

Are they all failures?

Should more modest levels of success be forgotten because there’s no hardware on the mantle to remind us?

Of course not.  Sometimes in the cutthroat business of professional sports, players, teams, and even eras get swept under the rug, never to be appreciated fully.  This is all leading up to a thought I had the other day.

The Ben Gordon-Kirk Hinrich Bulls are over.  And only recently, at least in my case, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect. Those were some fun times.

The preceding Bulls teams were so bad and nondescript, that they threatened to change the entire legacy of the franchise.  That is clearly saying something, considering that the Michael Jordan-led teams had not too long before won an incredible 6 championships. Oh yes, we definitely had some suffering to endure in the aftermath.

But then, not a moment too soon, our spirits were lifted by a blue collar, hardworking group that had a seemingly unlimited upside.  Suddenly, it seemed as if we could possibly become a team of destiny once again.

Kirk Hinrich seemed to only be scratching the surface of what experts thought he could become.  A smart, vocal and scrappy player that played stingy defense and threw his body into the game.  Ben Gordon, the undersized guard, with oversized shooting skills and a flair for the dramatic.  I think we all remember those games where he just could not be stopped.  Though we also remember those games where someone should have yanked him off the court and told him it just wasn’t happening.  How about Andres Nocioni, the Argentinian sharpshooter with an assortment of skills unique to most players in the league and an undying passion for falling all over the place.  This was the team that led the Bulls out of the darkness.

In hindsight, it wasnt the most talented team in the league.  But, if I recall correctly, we were all stretching our imagination to consider them that way.

If Hinrich continued to improve, the whole team would take a giant step forward.  Nocioni would obviously grow by leaps and bounds considering the relatively short amount of time he had spent in the States.  Ben Gordon would improve his defense, and make even more clutch shots.  Add a Joe Smith here, maybe a Brad Miller there, and we had a team that might be able to compete.  And this is not even taking into account our true emerging star, Luol Deng.  This guy could play defense, hit the jumper, and would do all the little things as well as big things in order to take this team into the stratosphere someday.  Always a year or two away, mind you, but always on the horizon.

Just one more piece, right?

Oh theres Ben Wallace, we’re all set.  Sounds kind of silly now, doesnt it?

Maybe even ludicrous.

And now, all thats left from those days is Deng and his huge hangover of a contract.  Thats all we have to remind us of all that potential we used to convince ourselves we owned.  Don’t get me wrong, there was a decent measure of success.  Each year we would fight admirably to secure a playoff spot somewhere near the bottom of the conference seeding.  I dont think anyone can forget about the dominating performance against the defending champion Heat.  We took all four games of that series.  We also put up a hell of a fight against a much better Detroit Pistons team in that next round.  Alas, it was not to be.  Years passed, reality set in, and players moved their separate ways in a slow procession.

And then one day, Derrick Rose burst on the scene amongst a barrage of hype.  He was quickly followed that next year by a hidden gem in Joakim Noah.  At this point the entire team had undergone a facelift.  New talent, new attitude, new players, yet the same high expectation we once had for the group before.  And now Luol Deng is the last memento of those days.  Sometimes when I go through the roster in my mind, I forget that he is even on the team.  Its not a knock on him, or his above average skills, its just the reality that he does not embody the spirit of this new younger team anymore.  He is a holdover from the past.  No longer are we waiting for that breakout season we once assumed would occur.  He is just a supporting piece to this team led by the current young guns.

But I think we should look back fondly on the Pre-Rose years.  They were a pretty good team, emerging from a horrific one.  There were highs and lows.  We all remember those embarrassing flareups in the media over Gordon coming off the bench.  And Ben Wallace with his Headband-Gate distraction.  But that really didnt define the times.  They were simply a competitive basketball team.  We could always see them making a trade that would suddenly skyrocket them to the top of the league. It was just a matter of time. There always seemed to be a level of potential that could be realized if they just had another year.  But most importantly, at the time they were better than most of the other teams in the league.

What more could you ask for?

I guess the combination of Fall weather and lack of sports has contributed to a level of seasonal nostalgia.  Hopefully, that group has paved the way for a level of success in this current squad that will dwarf them in comparison.  And maybe this group will be able to show off that success with rings on their fingers.  But whatever the case, thanks Kirk, Ben, Noc, Deng, Scott Skiles and all the other players who came and went during that period.  You guys werent great, but you were pretty good.  And there is nothing wrong with that.


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