Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Mo’ Better Hoops”: M.J.’s Epic Transcendence of the Game

By all accounts, Michael Jeffrey Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.

I’d like to pretend that depicting Michael Jordan in the context of this series was a cinch. I’d like to believe that I’ve imbedded enough hyperlinks for my reader to understand and embrace the grandeur of the game’s greatest ambassador. I’d like to declare my ability to instantly summarize the impact of “His Airness” in this brief affidavit to the rooftops of my dorm at Howard University. However, that proclamation would be a bold-faced lie.

Truth be told, I’ve been tinkering with this portion of my “form/function” theory since its inception. I wondered aloud, seeking to figure out a correct way to illustrate Jordan in the scope of my work. How could I capture M.J.’s excellence, mastery, and artistry in a way that would bring further understanding to the basketball cavalcade? After much deliberation, I realized that answering this question in fullness is moot. To me, deconstructing Michael Jordan is as daunting a task as summarizing the Black Arts Movement in a paragraph, defining John Coltrane for an encyclopedia, or making meaning of Rakim’s lyrical content for a Time Magazine editorial. I apologize in advance for failing to fully illustrate the significance of Michael Jordan.

But as my dad once told me, the best way to devour an entire salami is by eating it one slice at a time. The only way for basketball intellectuals to gain some semblance of understanding in regards to Michael Jordan’s career is through continuous discourse. A writer, no matter how gifted, will possess all the answers. I invite everyone to join me in this rhythmic dance, to add your opinion to existing rhetoric. Lastly, before I begin analyzing M.J.’s game, I submit that the intricate events of our superstar’s life are not all coincidental. I assert that God had a plan for Michael Jordan’s life – like He does for every single life on the planet – and that the amazing correlations that I will make within this discussion echo this belief. Even the best theorists and thinkers of our day would agree that not all ideas can be explained with the parameters of intellectual discourse. Greatness is an idea that’s impossible to explain.

Michael Jordan was an individual birthed into a family of innovators. Michael’s mother, Deloris, worked in the banking industry and his father, James, was an equipment supervisor, allowing the Jordan family to embrace black middle-class status. While still a toddler, Michael’s parents decided to leave their Brooklyn residence and migrate southward to the state of North Carolina, beginning a trend that exists to this day. Currently, African-Americans make up nearly a quarter of North Carolina's population with the number of middle-class blacks increasing exponentially since the 1970s (Wikipedia).

Before we move on, it is of interest to note that young Michael was born in Brooklyn, NY – a dynamic metropolis of Africana basketball culture. Here, basketball was played in a way that emphasized the aesthetic qualities of the game, a free-flowing exhibition that reflected the Africana elements of black life in New York. James Jordan lived in this vibrant setting for a number of years, and undoubtedly passed some of Brooklyn’s cultural elements on to his young sons, Larry and Michael, after their move to North Carolina.

Though Michael Jordan was born in the concrete jungle of New York, he was bred in the plains of North Carolina. According to the encyclopedia, Jordan shared an intimate bond with his father, with baseball being the first love of both men. Young Michael only began playing basketball due to his idolization of his older brother Larry, “a spectacular athlete in his own right,” who cultivated young Michael’s competitive desire ( Simply put, he wanted to defeat his older brother.

In high school, Jordan attempted to transfer his game to his varsity team, but was considered too short to play for the squad (only 5’11’’ by his sophomore year). This setback unintentionally allowed Michael Jordan to begin honing the elements of his distinct game – a process that would continue on every level of his amateur and professional athletic career. Jordan played in an era before AAU programs and sponsorships, a damning product of today’s amateur athletics that stifles the aesthetic growth of children and teenagers during the very important formative years (a concept that I will discuss later on in the series). Jordan spent his sophomore summer practicing, embracing the multiplicity of his game, and beginning to strike the balance between the Africana qualities inherent in form with the functional tenets of basketball. Jordan’s early tinkering with this fusion of form and function is important to analyze in the context of Jordan’s game. Jordan’s synthesis of both basketball elements within the parameters of his game allowed him to garner measurable success on every level (NCAA and NBA championships) without compromising his game’s expressive qualities inherent in Africana. However, because Jordan would be the first player birthed from this “form/function” fusion, practice and repetition would be vital towards gaining a mastery of this intricate basketball concept.

Michael Jordan returned from his sophomore summer an entirely new basketball player. God blessed the teenager with another four inches of height (pushing M.J. to 6’3”) giving Jordan access to the varsity squad at Laney High School. The rest of his high school career is an exercise in recounting history. Michael averaged a triple-double in his senior season, gained recognition by earning a place on the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Team and was selected by the legendary coach Dean Smith to play at one of basketball’s collegiate powerhouses – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As a freshman at Howard University, I used to chill and debate sports with three good brothers from Raleigh, North Carolina – Brenden, Ellis, and James. To me, these three gents possessed a cognitive dissonance when it came to North Carolina’s basketball programs, loving one team (UNC) while hating another (Duke), a concept that I didn't fully understand. Brenden Whitted, our resident UNC basketball expert, used to always say (and I quote), “Duke will get guys drafted, but UNC creates superstars.” But why is that the case? I believe to properly analyze the greatness of UNC basketball is to begin with a case study of Dean Smith. While Coach Mike Krzyzewski and other select coaches recruited players to add to their collective legacies, Coach Dean focused initially on cultivating talent inherently present in certain individuals. Coach Dean wanted to make his basketball program a favorite for prospects seeking to evolve their games. Heck, Dean Smith was probably a secret connoisseur of Africana. Smith fought for desegregation in athletics – recruiting UNC’s first black scholarship athlete – and for equal treatment of African-Americans by local Carolina businesses. Smith adapted his style from the legendary black basketball coach John McLendon, a fellow KU alum who created the now-famous fast break offense as well as the four corners technique (which later forced the NCAA to adapt the shot clock to minimize ball control). Dean Smith understood the importance of growing free-flow talent better than any basketball coach, and realized that teaching his students to harness that talent would invariably lead to collegiate success.

To further acknowledge this point, let’s quickly compare Michael Jordan’s basketball career to that of Duke’s Johnny Dawkins. During the 1980s, one could successfully argue that Dawkins was the better player. Dawkins held the record for points scored in a career (until J.J. Redick broke it in 2006), and lead the Blue Devils to the national championship game of 1986 on the coattails of a 37-3 record. However, Dawkins became the first of many talented Africana players to have his exceptional talents marginalized for the betterment of university success. Simply put, Coach K stunted Dawkins’ basketball growth and crushed his inherent free-flow aesthetic in favor of critical acclaim for Duke’s college basketball program. Dawkins went on to become a very marginal NBA player, playing for the Spurs, Pistons, and 76ers before eventually retiring and returning to Duke as one of Coach K’s assistant basketball coaches. Arguably, Coach K is one of the first basketball coaches to siphon basketball talent in order to bolster his personal attributes – also known as the abuse of black bodies for personal gain. To any student of Africana peoples, this damning idea is one that should be easily recognizable in the context of black history.

Either knowingly or unknowingly, Michael Jordan’s alignment with UNC showed a recognition of Coach Dean’s philosophy. While the young teen may have chosen to attend the college based on its proximity to his hometown or any number of extenuating factors, his choice to attend UNC was a major factor that gave him greater leverage to master the delicate balance between free-flow and functional basketball. Fortunately for basketball fans, Jordan made the correct choice.

When Jordan arrived at UNC, he initially played second fiddle to two talented upperclassmen – James Worthy and Sam Perkins. While this slight is often seen by basketball critics as damning to Jordan’s career, this allowed young Jordan’s game to mature at a healthy rate and further master this “controlled chaotic” style of basketball, a fusion that would catapult Michael Jordan to the height of the basketball world.

(Side Note: In this thesis, the idea of “controlled chaos” is the product of a fused “form/function” basketball aesthetic. My definition of controlled chaos is the result that occurs when a basketball player has completely mastered the attributes of form and function, and can use these qualities at their discretion at a moment’s notice. Jordan was the prototypical engineer of this unique basketball quality, a quality that would take “His Airness” years of discipline and practice to fully master.)

However, some of the features of a “controlled chaos” aesthetic cannot merely be practiced…they must be performed on the biggest of stages. As I mentioned in Part 3, one such immeasurable attribute is the idea of “clutchness”. In addition, the ability to be clutch cannot be taught. An athlete either has the flair for the dramatic or will exist simply as a consummate professional or statistical sensation. (Hence, the existence of guys like “Big Shot” Robert Horry, Larry Bird, and Chauncey Billups.) By allowing Michael Jordan to take the winning shot against the Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas over his upperclassmen, Dean Smith was testing the young champion’s ability to access this unknown part of a basketball player’s aesthetic, one that only a select few individuals have possessed in the history of the game. In Roland Lazenby’s article “Michaelangelo: Portrait of a Champion”, Jordan states that this shot was a turning point in his basketball career. I agree, and add that by making this championship-winning shot as a freshman, Jordan added a lethal weapon to his already diverse arsenal. The foundation for basketball transcendence had officially been laid.

In 1984, Michael Jordan was drafted third by the struggling Chicago Bulls. While most sports pundits laugh at the fact that two teams passed on the greatest basketball player ever, I can’t be totally angry with their assessment at the time. Jordan was a swingman, a position that still hadn’t been seen by league intellectuals as one that could lead to championship success. With the first pick, the Houston Rockets selected center Hakeem Olajuwon, a member of the famous “Phi Slamma Jamma” fraternity at the nearby University of Houston, and a guy who won championships and became a great player in his own right (arguably, the best center of the 1990’s). The Portland Trailblazers selected oft-injured forward Sam Bowie because they had already taken superstar guard Clyde Drexler in the former year’s draft and had a wealth of swingmen already on their roster (Jerome Kersey, Kiki Vandeweghe, among others). The door was wide open for the Chicago franchise, and they seized the opportunity.

Upon arrival, Jordan immediately dominated the league and was voted to the All-Star game by fans in his rookie season. However, veteran players became jealous of Jordan’s rapid ascension, allegedly leading to a “freeze-out” during the first All-Star game with players refusing to pass Michael Jordan the ball. However, Jordan shrugged off the existing tension, continuing to dominate and later winning the Rookie of the Year award with ease. Jordan’s training under Coach Smith at UNC was finally beginning to pay off.

However, roadblocks were beginning to materialize. Critics argued that Jordan lacked a consistent jumper, and couldn’t make his players better. But a more glaring light shone in the form of the Detroit Pistons, who sought to limit Jordan’s effectiveness through their implementation of the “Jordan Rules”. The “Jordan Rules” was a defensive strategy where the opposition would hound Michael Jordan with two or three defenders in order to wear him down and limit his effectiveness. Basically, the Pistons were daring the other Bulls to beat them. Unfortunately, because the other Chicago players weren’t able to create their own shot, the defense was impenetrable.

After three straight losing trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls fired coach Doug Collins and replaced him with Phil Jackson, a relative unknown on the New York Knicks’ 1970’s championship teams and an amateur in regards to coaching. However, it was through Jackson’s unconventional coaching style that Jordan’s Bulls were finally able to surpass the Pistons for Eastern Conference supremacy. Phil Jackson adopted the “triangle offense”, a system devised by Tex Winter to maximize the efficiency of all players on the court. The offense provided easy opportunities for players to score while dually allowing Jordan to take charge when necessary.

As they say, the rest is history. The Bulls overcame their archrival Pistons and went on to “three-peat” as NBA champions prior to Jordan’s retirement in 1994. When M.J. returned after this basketball sabbatical, the Bulls picked up where they left off, winning a record-setting 70 games in the 1996-1997 season. After finishing the second “three-peat” with his signature jumper over Utah’s Brian Russell, M.J.’s transcendence was complete. Jordan had finally mastered the fusion of form and function in his game, allowing our hero to exhibit this “controlled chaos” at his convenience. His team was simply “Unbeata-Bull”, and Michael had cemented his legacy as the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball.

After Jordan’s second retirement, a question still remained unanswered. How would the basketball world respond to Jordan’s decade of domination? A new generation of prodigies used “His Airness” as their basketball template. The ripples of the Jordan decade were set to disseminate, and today’s basketball world exists as a reaction to the post-Jordan era.

Welcome to the exciting modern world of basketball.

Mike Benjamin, II


  1. That Coach K/Coach Smith theory is right on...and Whitted's statement...UNC makes superstars while Duke makes good teams....I do believe UNC was the greatest transitional decision MJ made as far as his game...

  2. "Jordan played in an era before AAU programs and sponsorships, a damning product of today’s amateur athletics that stifles the aesthetic growth of children and teenagers during the very important formative years..." Mike, this is so true. I think players of today's game (not only in basketball, and especially in baseball) get so caught up in the money dangling in front of their faces that they forget the true significance of the game. They forget why they're playing, and that at one point in time, they used to love this sport and that at the core, it was this same love which brought to them to their heightened success (which, I must add, was only possible through the Jordan-era).

    So I'm finally caught up and am enjoying this series. I want to read a book about Michael Jordan, one that captures his essence in the best possible light. Do you recommend anything?

  3. @ Dailee...

    Like I said in the beginning of Part 4, there's no single book/research that's been done that fully captures the essence of M.J. So, I'm not sure that there's any one book that you can read.

    That being said, you should check out Sam Smith's "Jordan Rules." Just an awesome book that talks about MJ in a different light. Can't think of any other ones off of the top of my head, but that WILL get you started...