Kieran Shannon: Every player could use a leader like Michael Jordan, but that doesn't always mean a badass

Kieran Shannon: Every player could use a leader like Michael Jordan, but that doesn't always mean a badass
Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls celebrates 14 June after winning game six of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, UT. The Bulls won the game 87-86 to win their sixth NBA Championship. (ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Even if live sport does return at some point this year, 2020 may already have had its televisual goosebumps moment of the year.

Only hours after the masterful Boys of Summer montage aired on The Sunday Game, episodes seven and eight of The Last Dance dropped all over the world, with one particular segment going viral. After a couple of former Chicago Bulls teammates had spoken about how they played in fear of Michael Jordan and how he could be “an asshole” in how he’d challenge them, episode seven concluded with Jordan being asked to reflect on whether his pursuit of championships had come at the cost of not being perceived as a nice guy.

Accompanied by a pulsing soundtrack and remarkable footage of him grimacing in defeat and in workouts interlaced with champagne-soaked teammates celebrating championships, Jordan mused, “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So… I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me, they didn't endure all the things that I endured.

“Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less. Now, if that means I had to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that.

"You ask all my teammates, [they’ll say], ‘The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn't f****n do.’ When people see this, they’re going to say, 'Well, he wasn't really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant.' No, well, that's you — because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. ..”

By the end, Jordan appears to be welling up. “Break,” he calls to director Jason Hehir, and then rises from his chair as the credits roll.

It’s stirring stuff, but in the wrong hands or at least wrongly interpreted, dangerous too. Not everything about Jordan’s leadership style was right, and not every part of it was badass either.

As terrific as The Last Dance is proving to be and as understandable as it is that it can’t include every happening from that 1997-98 season, it’s a pity that it hasn’t (at least yet) included a scene that Phil Jackson chose to write about in his tightly-written chapter on that season for his book Eleven Rings. On the eve of the playoffs, he borrowed an exercise that his then wife June would use with children whose parents had died in the hospice programme where she worked. So Jackson asked each Bull to write a short paragraph about what the season and the team had meant to them.

Steve Kerr talked about the thrill of bringing his son to mix in the locker room with the likes of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. The team trainer Chip Schaefer quoted a passage from Corinthians: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love… I am nothing.’ As for Jordan, he wrote a short poem. According to Jackson, “It was very moving. He praised everyone’s dedication and said he hoped the bond we’d formed would last forever.”

After each person spoke, they then put their message in a coffee can, and after they were all finished, switched off the lights and set fire to their words. Jackson writes that he’ll never forget that moment. Of hearing hardened NBA pros speak so tenderly to and about one another and then the “intense intimacy we felt silently sitting together and watching the flames die down. I don’t think the bond among us had ever been stronger.”

The Last Dance has reminded us that not only was Michael Jordan the most spectacular and finest athlete of the 1990s but also its most influential. Every aspiring champion, regardless of their sport, wanted to be like Mike.

Kieran McGeeney was one such athlete who openly studied and admired Jordan. Before Armagh played Dublin in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, I interviewed a number of his Na Fianna clubmates. A line from their manager at the time, 1995 All-Ireland winner, Mick Galvin, particularly stood out. Galvin, and possibly McGeeney too, had been around enough former players who regretted that they didn’t challenge certain teammates enough; the price of not offending someone was not winning what they should have. McGeeney was going to have those hard conversations in his playing days, not regrets when they were over. “Kieran’s brave enough to tell the truth.”

There’s a balance though. The performance consultant Jeff Janssen in his book on team captaincy and leadership writes about how any leader has to lead by example but how also every team needs vocal leaders, to encourage and enforce; one without the other won’t cut it.

Jason Sherlock, another Jordan fan as well as a teammate of McGeeney’s, learned that the hard way. In his fine autobiography he wrote that he made a calculation in his final years that he didn’t want to be a Niall Quinn — “a good player liked by everybody” — but rather a Roy Keane — “not liked by everyone but respected by all”. 

“It didn’t matter a f*** anymore whether people liked me.” 

But when he reflected back on those final years before pursuing a successful coaching career, he realised he had come across as a crank to a younger generation of player like a Diarmuid Connolly. “I was just waiting for their faults,” he’d say in an interview with me upon publication of his book. “And that style probably wasn’t true to me.”

Paul O’Connell, one of the outstanding leaders Irish sport has known, came to a similar realisation. “You move on and you change,” he wrote in The Battle. “You learn that vicious criticism isn’t everyone’s idea of motivation and it certainly doesn’t get the best out of people.”

Every team needs a Jordan to challenge and confront teammates, and even coaching staff when necessary if it intends to compete and win at the highest level. But it doesn’t need any player being threatened with not being served a post-match meal as Horace Grant was subjected to from Jordan in the early Bulls years. It needs the Jordan who’ll also be so cordial to Scott Burrell’s old college mates backstage, who’ll write a poem about them, who has a Scottie Pippen being a good cop to his bad cop, the way Kobe had a Derek Fisher, all the time being presided by a zen master like Jackson. 

Without occasionally risking offending each other, the Bulls would have been nothing. But without some love of the tender as well as tough variety, they’d have been nothing either.

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