The last dance

BY DAVID ONJILI

It has been riveting nine episodes of this brilliant and much talked about Netflix documentary. The plot is on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sports franchise during their glorious NBA domination of the 90s era. 

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls do not need any introduction to a sports lover.

Jordan is a generational athlete whose sway and dominance not just in basketball but world sports is unquantifiable. He enthused sportsmen and women globally to touch great heights and to many, was considered a god. He was so great that his compatriots nicknamed him Black Jesus. Having watched the series, I find several lessons either sporty or just for real life worth sharing.

Embrace rejection in life, it is a good thing 

Jordan learnt that rejection was going to be a part of him very early in life. Back at home, his elder brother, James, was the most talented basketballer of the two and his own dad rubbed it in Michael’s face. It hurt him, but rather than suck up, he used this as motivation and challenged himself through hard work to be the best. In the end, Jordan became the global basketball athlete, way better than his talented brother.

In high school he never made it to his basketball team in his sophomore year. He was considered less talented for the squad, another rejection for the young Jordan. Yet, in all this we do not see him grumbling; he works on himself to earn a place in the team. His mother, Deloris Jordan also plays a big part, every time young Jordan faces rejection, she picks him up and asks him to work harder and prove the critics wrong.

Professional sport is brutal and athletes must be prepared mentally to face scrutiny and rejection. The media will be on your case, one slip up and they make a mountain of it. A new coach may come to your team and they may initially not see your worth and bench you. Despite all your effort, you may never make it as a professional athlete. Will this discourage you to a point of engaging in vices like crime and drugs or you will seek other productive ways to earn a living? Ultimately, Jordan teaches us through his life that it is not so much about how they treat you but how you react to it that matters.

Actions, not words

There is no great illustration of leadership on the basketball court and outside than the life of Jordan in the documentary. In one game while still a new draft with the Bulls, his team is trailing and his teammates have thrown in the towel. They are already planning for the next game and yet the current one is still on. This irks Jordan; he refuses defeat and lets his teammates know that. He backs up his words by stepping up his performance on the court and leading the Bulls to victory in that game. 

That action earns him respect and admiration from his seniors; he changes their mentality and makes them understand that each game should be played like your last. That with him in the side, they were not going to throw in the towel no matter what. If you lose a game, let it be that the opponent was better but not that you gave up.

How many of us in our respective professions give the best each day? Do we slacken every once in a while? Maybe that explains why Jordan reached the zenith of professional sports. Six NBA Championship medals, an Olympics Gold medal and numerous individual accolades. He never spoke of wanting to be great, he lived it and by doing so, he demanded so much from his teammates that a number of them found him overbearing. This shows that leadership is not about being liked or popular, it is about a single minded focus to achieve a common goal with the team irrespective of the challenges
on the way.

Anger is good fuel 

Society has greatly changed and so have we. Gone are the days when feisty and antagonizing athletes dominated sports or even life. With social media and too much scrutiny, we have come to love the quiet and collected guys. Anyone who seems abrasive is quickly demonized and isolated.

In team sports, we do not see angry players going at each other anymore. When a teammate makes a blunder they hug one another rather than correct each other. This leads to pent up emotions over time amongst athletes and leads to acrimonious breakups.

Yet, in the documentary it is revealed how ‘mean’, Jordan was to his teammates. Because he held himself to extremely high standards, he never accepted complacency from his teammates. He believed that if he can be tough on you and give you that mental strength then as his teammate he could trust you to play at the highest level.

I watch professional sports and some of the best games are inspired by anger between rival teams. A hatred that no team is ready to lose to the other and where players leave blood and sweat on the pitch; that deep running internal fire to prove that you are better than the opponent, or the best team in the league.

That is why football derbies can be very exciting; the game means so much to the players and fans once they understand the history of their clubs. If your opponent is going to win, it will be because they were better than you but not because you never gave your best. Look at yesteryears whenever Gor Mahia faced AFC Leopards in the Mashemeji Derby. It was ever more than a football match; it was pride at stake for the teams. A win was celebrated to rub salt in the loser’s wound.

Such an attitude is depicted in the documentary when the Chicago Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns led by Charles Barkley. In that season, Barkley had beaten Jordan and declared the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP); this brought an anger in Jordan who felt that he deserved the award and his revenge was to win the league by beating the Barkley led Suns.

In his own words, Jordan says he deserved the MVP award but since it was given to Barkley, he was not going to let him win the NBA title. Barkley admits that he played his best game ever but Jordan simply outplayed him. How great is it to lose knowing that the opponent won because they were just better and not because you never gave your all!

The maverick 

Dennis Rodman was NBAs best defensive player, that aside, he lived a glamorous life that many may consider non-conformist. He partied hard with women and enjoyed late night drinking hours. Yet, in all this lifestyle, there is no single mention of him missing training or not giving his best in a game. That is why he is regarded as the best defensive player in NBA history.

Mavericks are a rare breed and they will test the man-management skills of any coach. They are not conformists and pose more ‘problems’ to the team if not well managed. In football, perhaps Manchester United’s Eric Cantona typifies this. His leadership and football prowess are not in doubt but he was difficult. He is well known for attacking a fan in the stands but his teammates too talk of a player committed to his game; a consummate professional. 

Sir Alex Ferguson, one of football’s most successful managers trusted him with leadership on the pitch. Why? Ferguson embraced a maverick and his trust was repaid as Cantona led Manchester United to a dominant league period in the late 1990s.

Mavericks in sports bring about a conundrum; do coaches do away with them for their apparent disruptive behaviours or do they get assimilated and the best in them brought out. Former Harambee Stars coach, Jacob Ghost Mulee once gave me insights on how he allowed Dennis Oliech have a few days off whenever he was called to the national team to go enjoy his new found fame after he had gone pro.

The agreement was that when he came back to camp he had to remain a professional and focus on the task at hand. Something coach Mulee says he did with distinction and the fans can agree from his stellar performances as a national team player. Oliech is known according to his coach as being a perfect model to his teammates especially on nutrition and commitment to the game.

The same is depicted in this documentary, Dennis Rodman was well managed by Coach Phil Jackson and he was a solid part of their title winning season. Rodman notes the love and respect from his teammates by acknowledging that they respected him and treated him as a professional. 

I look at talented players like Collins Okoth, Jamal Mohammed and read the negative comments in the media about them; did this affect how coaches handled them? There is a thin line between a maverick and an indiscipline, non-performing player. It is the coach’s duty to differentiate that amongst the players at his disposal. Noteworthy is that, the above named mavericks have no record of playing badly despite the negative publicity they elicited. 

Were we unfair to them? Talent is restless and it is the job of organizations to identify and manage them well. Nowhere in the documentary do we see Jordan or any other teammate complain about the work ethic or Rodman’s attitude on the pitch. This illustrates what a consummate professional he was irrespective of the portrayal the media had of him. Are we not supposed to judge professional players by what they do on the pitch? If so, some of these mavericks need to be embraced for being sportsmen and not judged outside that.

Family

Michael Jordan had a special relationship with his father. He describes him as his best friend, a constant presence in all of his games, through both the high and low moments. We see how hard the murder of his father affects him and he quits basketball. Yet, through the values and especially by Jordan’s own admission that dad taught him to turn negative situations into positive, we see him come back from retirement to win another NBA title. Jordan also has an amazing relationship with his mother. 

One thing, however, is never answered in the documentary. How his life as a professional athlete affected his personal relationship with his wife and kids. It must have been tough and huge sacrifices had to be made. As a top athlete, Jordan was always in the spotlight, his every move scrutinized and analysed. No room to be human and make mistakes. But I suppose that this is the price great athletes pay in their lives.

I do believe that such great athletes deserve special mention and respect. We love them for what they give us (sporting glory) but forget that their families miss them. His kids may have missed seeing daddy as they grew up and it takes special women to be their wives. This is truly a great documentary and a worthy watch to anyone for its invaluable life lessons.  

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