The Lost Conversation Between Pat Riley And Michael Jordan

Basketball, J. Tinsley — By on May 25, 2012 at 4:00 am

The most jaw-dropping moments came when discussing winning.

When Kenny called me saying these exact words, “You have to see this interview and hear what Michael Jordan said. You won’t believe it,” I figured there’d be some sort of exaggeration. Then I actually heard the quote for myself. Earlier, Jordan had said winning motivated him more than anything. To prove those who said he couldn’t wrong (those old heads I was telling you about). To prove to himself. To prove to Isiah and the Pistons his Bulls were tired of being second best. And most important, to bring a championship home to a city that had never seen one. Riley knew that Mike knew the opportunity to compete for a championship wasn’t guaranteed. Towards the end, Pat tossed Mike an ominous question, but one that begged to be asked. Would he consider his career tarnished if he never won a ring? The answer is still enough to move you to tears.

“I would be disappointed that I never won, but my career would never, ever be disappointing because of the success I’ve gone through, with the friends I’ve met, the experiences I’ve been through. The game would still be as fun and as remembered for me even if I never win a world championship. I would much rather win. But if I don’t, I’m not going to look back at my career and say it was tarnished because I never won a world championship.”

Looking at the game today, everything is compared on a winning scale against Michael Jordan. He’s the reason Kobe Bryant obsesses about adding one more ring to his mantle. He’s the reason LeBron James finds himself amongst critics in the middle of being one of the all-time iconic players or one of the biggest letdowns. Michael is the reason the world will turn on Kevin Durant in a few seasons and ask where his championship hardware is if the Thunder fail to ascend to the game’s mountaintop. Fair or unfair, he remains the ultimate litmus test.

Yet, even some 20 years later, hearing Mike contemplate leaving the game of basketball without ever becoming world champion is amazing. It’s like hearing Jay-Z’s admission in “This Can’t Be Life” where he ponders, “Everybody doing them, I’m still scratching on block/Like damn, I’ma be a failure/Surrounded by thugs, drugs and drug paraphernalia.” Michael’s perception and pursuit of the game’s highest honor elevated championships from a competitive luxury  to what’s now viewed as the say all, end all, be all to a player’s career in determining where his place in history settles. Think about how much differently the ’90’s would have been if those words came true and Mike retired with no rings. Childhoods, history books, highlight packages; they’d all be altered to a point I’m not even sure anyone could truly fathom.

We’re aware of all the rest though. Jordan and the Bulls would go on to beat the Lakers. From there, the dynasty as we know it was born. Phil Jackson became known as the greatest coach of his generation. Scottie Pippen grew into the best on-ball defender ever. John Paxson and Steve Kerr crafted their place in history with timely shots. And later, Dennis Rodman’s antics would only be out-shadowed by his play on the biggest stages. Again, that’s what everyone remembers.

Remember Michael Jordan for being the greatest winner of our lifetime because that’s what he is. Just make sure to tell the entire story when you do.

J. Tinsley

@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.

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  • Yo man, I think I can speak for Kenny and Ed on this in saying this is exactly why that dynamic duo started the Sports Fan Journal, for pieces just like this. Honestly, best read on Jordan for me in a long, long while.

  • J. Tinsley says:

    Rev, thank you man. Thank you.

  • Joe Simmons says:

    I remember this interview. I was a freshman in college and everyone was in amazement when Mike said rings wouldn’t define him. I actually got a chance to meet him right after that title as he was hanging out in the bull city with Rodney Rodgers. He stated that he was glad to have that monkey off his back and that the first was the hardest to get. I think he had to relieve the pressure off himself to get one, to free himself up to be great in the moments. He also learned to use the guys around him which made him even greater.

    Good post Tins. It’s nice to stroll down memory lane

  • Keith says:

    Great post and excellently written…I didn’t start following Jordan/the NBA consistently until that ’91 finals. I’d only heard and seen bits and pieces about Mike’s career in the mid to late 80s.

  • Bjamesiv says:

    Awesome article. Its crazy to think about some of the scrutiny LeBron would face if he said half the things MJ said in this article.

  • Keith says:

    What a great interview!

  • Aaron says:

    Very well written piece man, gives a different viewpoint on the man know as the “ultimate winner”.

  • Josiah says:

    Great article. Just when you think all there is to know about Jordan, you find out that there’s more. Keep up the great work.

  • J. Tinsley says:

    The pressure to get that first one is beyond words.

  • J. Tinsley says:

    I know it sounds cliche’, but I can’t imagine if Twitter was around in 1991 and MJ was this revealing. The Internet would have collapsed.

  • J. Tinsley, just reading this now,…man,..thank you. Thank you for taking the time to dig in the crates and get this interview. Great job on this article, but even better because this helps me win an argument.

  • ange says:

    I am glad you showed it so that people will remember(or learn) it wasn’t easy,the lakers were actually the favorite to win it all.

    I don’t think it would have changed a thing to see russel and his 11 championships in an nba with only 8 teams and 6’6 centers.

    If MJ hadn’t won a ring it would have been different but not as much as you may think. Why? he was already the Icon who changed the game of basketball,everybody already imitated his moves and he was already the unstoppable one on one player with a never before seen variety of creative moves…and he was already asked if he was the best ever.

    To me,he was a winner before his title,a bit like Iverson(a winner who has no rings and also changed the game but not like MJ)he is so competitive,even in defeat.It’s not like what LBJ did each and every year until 2012 where he wouldn’t show up in big games,MJ always showed up in big games from day one and was a winner from day one even before his titles.

    With that being said,I prefer the reality rather than the fantasy…6 rings in 6 finals for 6 mvp’s…and THE WAY HE DID IT…we won’t never see another one,that’s for sure.

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