Michael Jordan and the Quest for Greatness

ESPN has released the first four episodes of a new documentary called “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. Here to discuss the first four episodes are Hunter D’Armond and Sean Barry, two young Jesuits in formation, and sports fans.

Hunter D’Armond (HD): His interest in MJ is largely due to his apostolic work as the women’s basketball chaplain at Loyola Chicago, which has given him a new perspective and on the game of basketball. Additionally, he’s a lover of all things sports, a big Lebron fan, and he plays basketball multiple times a week.

Sean Barry (SB): Maybe it’s because he grew up with “Space Jam” or in Chicago, but he’s always appreciated Michael Jordan as a basketball player.  Looking back on MJ’s career as an adult, Sean continues to be amazed by his dominance in an era with so many other tremendous players, including his teammate Scottie Pippen. 

HD: MJ is great. I get it, but LeBron is my GOAT. Don’t worry, I’m only half serious when I say this. And I say “half” because I enjoy provoking Jordan fans, but also because a part of me actually does believe it (I was born in ‘96, so I didn’t grow up watching MJ like I did LeGoat, I mean, LeBron). ESPN and Netflix’s new 10 part documentary “The Last Dance” is supposed to put this never-ending GOAT conversation to rest. Besides being unconvinced that MJ is, in fact, the GOAT through four episodes, I’ve found myself (like any semi-good student of philosophy) wondering something more fundamental: What is greatness? 

SB: Michael Jordan can teach us all about greatness, perhaps better than any other player.  But let me give you some context about why we should focus on him. I grew up in Chicago in the ‘90s, knowing that we had the greatest player in the world and the best team.  Let’s agree to disagree about the GOAT (it’s clearly Jordan).  

Michael Jordan always gave everything he had on the court. , Whenever you put a challenge in front of Michael, he worked relentlessly until he could overcome it.  That kind of dedication has got to enter into the equation, right?

HD: You’re right in saying that Jordan has set a new precedent when it comes to dedication and relentlessness. Witnessing his dedication to bulking up and getting stronger after years of continual abuse by the Detroit Piston’s “Bad Boys” is extraordinary. My guess is we will hear even more stories of Jordan’s intensity in the coming episodes. And I must admit as a former athlete and a lover of all things competitive, there is something beautiful and perhaps even transcendent in this kind of dedication, intensity, and mastery. Is this not the same intensity and dedication we see in the lives of so many saints like St. Paul and our own Father Ignatius? But it has me thinking: At what cost does greatness come, and is it worth it?

SB: There is a limit to what one player can accomplish, regardless of how good they are.  This is why you never see a team with only one great player do well.  Even a young Jordan who scored a playoff-record 63 points against the Celtics couldn’t win a game in that series.  Jordan’s drive to succeed  did have drawbacks, particularly his win-at-all-costs mentality.  At the start of the ‘98 season when Scottie Pippen (easily the best #2 in NBA history) was out hurt, Jordan lashed out at his teammates because he saw they weren’t putting in enough effort to beat their opponents.  On the other hand, isn’t there something inspiring about the desire to call the entire team, not just one player, to greatness?

HD: I’m reminded of an episode of The Office when David Wallace asked Michael Scott what his greatest strengths are, to which Michael responds, “Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job. […] My weaknesses are actually… strengths.” While this is not true for Michael Scott (he famously never works hard), it might actually be true for the other Michael. It’s MJ’s lashing out at teammates and obsession to win at any cost, that is both his greatest strength and weakness. 

So yes, I do think Jordan’s ability to draw out an untapped well of greatness from his teammates is inspiring, but I also believe that there is a line which Jordan potentially crosses. Do you think he ever “crossed the line” in the way he drew greatness out of himself and others?

SB: Jordan certainly crossed the line sometimes.  You can look at how he responded to breaking his foot in his second NBA season (referenced in Episode 2).  Doctors said he had a 10% chance of suffering a catastrophic injury that would have ended his career, but Michael only saw the 90% chance of success.  During a losing season, a gamble that big can be seen as arrogant, perhaps crossing a line.  Still, Michael’s decision paid off.  In ‘98, with Pippen out and the team started 0-4 on the road, offensively, there was only Jordan.  Nobody else had scored more than 14 points in a game.  His actions were not ideal, but what do you do when people aren’t living up to their potential?

HD: Yeah, I think a central motif to the documentary will continue to be how Jordan walked this line between pushing the limits of himself and those around him and harming those around him in this quest to “greatness.” But your question raises a great point: if people aren’t living up to their potential despite your best efforts, well… you simply lose. And while I love competition and am quite the competitor myself, we must honestly ask ourselves if stepping on the heads of others is a good means of elevating ourselves to the “winner” pedestal.  Perhaps Jordan didn’t do this. Perhaps he pushed Scottie, Rodman, and the whole gang the proper degree. I’ll be watching the rest of the documentary with this in mind. Through what lens will you be watching the rest of the series, Sean? 

SB: Growing up, Jordan was this mythical hero.  He possessed an untouchable mystique.  I’ll watch the rest of this series with both pride and trepidation.  Knowing how the story ultimately goes, I’ll cheer on the end of a dynasty and the approaching second retirement of it’s greatest player.  I’m a little nervous to learn about what the darker side of a childhood hero might look like.  There are no perfect people, not even the great ones.  Revisiting all the stories will give me a greater understanding of and appreciation for the complexity of Jordan and the last great stand of this team.

Photo from IMDb, used under Fair Use Laws

Editor’s Note: The author introductions and abbreviated names were added on April 29, 2020 at 12:29pm.

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