The Chicago Bulls / Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance is coming out on ESPN and Netflix in Spring 2020.
Its release got me thinking about how much of what could be learned from Michael Jordan’s ascension and accomplishments gets somewhat lost in translation.
I’m taking the liberty of clearing up some of those messages here.
In Team sports, your individual shine comes in the process of serving the larger team goals — not the other way around
Michael Jordan is the very reason why athletes can build “brands” around their likeness and cash in handsomely on such likenesses.
Michael, however, along with many other athletes of his era, have always been adamant in pointing out that they had to prove that they could perform on the court or field first, before enjoying the fame and rewards that today’s players get handed to them up-front.
Jordan mastered the elusive balance of playing the team game while still shining individually — a balance that many players clumsily fumble these days, often leaning way too far on the “individual” side of things while allowing their teammates to be blamed for their lack of overall team success.
Michael Jordan, through several failed attempts, uncompromisingly refused to come up short on either. He would shine personally while still winning championships. He was non-negotiable on both.
No team sport player has even come close to this level of dual mastery since.
Because Michael’s brand blew up so big from the start back in the mid 80s, every team and company and marketing executive vowed to not miss out on the “next big thing.”
This led to everyone jumping the process by signing players to big contracts, marketing deals and shoe contracts before they’d even played a professional game, essentially rewarding players based on potential, with no guarantee that the player would ever perform.
This practice killed the notion of waiting to see a player earn it — you know, making sure that such-and-such player could actually play.
As a result, many players failed to live up to their contracts and marketing deals.
What we’ll never know is whether those players lost their drive because of the unearned rewards they’d already received, versus if those players were never that good in the first place and just got exposed as they would have either way — with or without early fame.
The business of winning serves your brand — the brand does not serve the business
Michael Jordan built what still is the most successful personal brand of any athlete in history.
MJ hasn’t played for nearly 20 years, and his merchandise sells more than that of any current athlete. The Jordan Brand logo is more visible and recognizable than any athlete’s logo in any sport.
And of course, this has all made Michael and Nike a lot of money, which has led many athletes to try and replicate this branding achievement.
What many fans and athletes fail to understand — Jordan often said it himself — is that the success of his brand happened only because he, Michael Jordan, didn’t focus on his brand at all: he focused on winning basketball games.
Because he was winning, his brand benefited — and eventually exploded, as he continued to succeed on the court.
Michael Jordan never had to spend time “building his brand” the way that many athletes and people do today, chasing internet popularity and vanity metrics to satisfy ego.
Michael Jordan’s “brand” was winning as many games as possible. His success in doing that organically fed everything else.
The only place “Demand” comes before “production” is in the dictionary.
Even after winning his fifth NBA championship in 1997, Jordan stopped short of (publicly) drawing a hard line with Chicago Bulls management. He didn’t demand that the Bulls satisfy him.
He made clear, however, in his post-championship press conference, that he wanted a chance to defend what the team had (yet again) achieved, and he was careful to do so in the most diplomatic way.
This was after five championships!
These days, players make thinly veiled public threats and silly trade demands before even making an All-Star Game appearance or winning multiple Playoff series.
It’s definitely an “old school” way of thinking, so call me old school for saying it: you have to prove that you can produce winning before you can call shots.
As a businessman once told me, you can’t make demands unless you’re IN demand. The way to get in-demand in sports is by producing wins— not your brand, and not your stats.
Michael Jordan made himself highly in-demand by winning championships — and still didn’t make demands (again, at least not publicly). He didn’t have to: his performance and results created the demand.
When your play does the talking, no explanation needed.
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was once asked what his motivation was for winning so many championships.
Russell said that, early in his career, he understood that MVP awards and All-Star game appearances were highly subjective and opinion-based.
Winning, on the other hand, would go down as historical fact. So he set his sights not on awards and votes, but on victories and rings.
Jordan seemed to have the same mentality, one difference being that MJ appeared to have had subjective opinion more on his side than Russell did (the racial climate of the country at each player’s respective time having a good amount to do with each man’s experience, of course).
The point: this Last Dance documentary is the first (and probably the last) time that Michael Jordan will ever “explain” himself to the public (though, writing this before episode 1’s release, I expect it to be more a “revelation” of what occurred than an explanation).
When you win, there’s nothing to explain. There’s no story to be told. There’s no public to win over.
Winning goes down as historical fact. No opinion can change that.
Make sure to take the following MasterClasses related to this very topic —
#1217: My Virtual Mentors, Vol 5: Michael Jordan
#1078: How To Win When Nobody Wants You To Win
#575: You Win The Game During Practice
#521: The You Who’s Winning Today Won’t Be Enough To Win Tomorrow
#362: How To Win The “Road Games” Of Life
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