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.