NBA at 50 Interview
Q: What was the feeling like to be eliminated each year by the Detroit Pistons in the late '80s?
Jordan: Well, I felt it was a lesson being learned, with the team that was a little bit ahead of us. They were better than we were, more experienced. I felt it was very disappointing each and every time that we ended up getting to this hurdle and we couldn't get over it. But at the same time, I felt we learned. We learned that it took a little bit more than just desire, that you had to put the work on the basketball court, the determination. We had to use our minds, mentally we had to out think the other team. So it was like just education what it took to become a winner. For so many years, the Chicago Bulls had been a losing a franchise. Accustomed and acceptable to losing to where we had to go through a transformation of what it took to win. And I think that's what Detroit did for us. They taught us the attitude of winning and how to do that consistently. And so, the hurdles were very, very difficult. But we knew looking back, I'm very happy that we went through those circumstances because it taught us what winning was all about.
On the Pistons' dominance of the Bulls' in the late 80s
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It was frustrating because you knew in my past, that I had always been on a winning team. And we always rose to the occasion. And now we were not doing that. And we were doing it in such small increments that it was hard to draw success from it all or any kind of positive motivation from it. So it was very difficult. And it was at a state where I felt that everybody wasn't on the same page in terms of winning. And what it took to win. So, it took a lot of soul searching for us to understand what was happening to us. And when we did realize what was happening, I think we had a better appreciation of what we were about to accomplish.
Q: Did you think that people doubted your ability to take a team to the championship level?
Jordan: Sure, I think that was a part of the challenge. No one really felt that a scoring leader could lead their team to a championship. But I think the scoring was a part of the team's situation or my responsibility to that team. It wasn't a selfish act. It was an act that I felt and everyone on the team really felt that was part of the team's system at the time. But it was also, when we heard those criticisms, it was a determination to prove them wrong. So, it was a game within a game almost. I understood that. I understood the motivation that came with that. So my purpose from that point forward was continue to be as consistent as I've been. But at the same time, lifted other players expectations and our success, as much as possible.
Q: Did you ever doubt it?
Jordan: No, I never doubted it. I just thought that at some point in time, we had to believe in ourselves. And this team is a very good team but they're human. They had some flaws in their game. We just had to evaluate what their flaws were and attack it. So it was very disappointing for everyone. I could see it. And then finally, we all saw it. It was difficult at that point that you could see it but no one else can see it. And we couldn't execute it like we probably should have on the basketball court. That's when the frustration came. I remember in '89 when I was really frustrated, about how this team was playing from the "Jordan rules" -- to try and double and triple team me to try to get the ball out of my hands and make the other players hurt them. And we knew what was happening but we still didn't make them pay for that. It was such a frustrating thing for me and I was very disturbed by it. I think at some point in time, we really had to step forward and beat them at the game they were trying to beat us at.
On overcoming the Pistons and the "Jordan Rules"
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Q: What was it about that Detroit series in 1990 that really helped set the stage for a championship run the following year?
Jordan: Well, we had gone to Game 7. And we had shown heart. I mean, heart like we wouldn't have shown or we hadn't shown up to that point. And everyone knew and we all knew what their motives were in their game plan. So we seemed to be geared up mentally. Physically, was a whole different scenario. We went out on the basketball court and we knew what our jobs were. Yet, we didn't uphold that. And that was a very frustrating thing for me because at that time, I felt very secure with my teammates in what our understandings were and where we wanted to take this. When we lost that game, it was very disappointing for me because we really didn't execute what we wanted to. We made a statement, but it was a moral victory, and I didn't want to settle for a moral victory. I wanted us to win and take it further. I talked to the press very briefly because I was very disappointed because I thought that this was our chance to get past this team. We kind of stretched them to the limit. And we seemed to gain confidence by winning three games. It was three going into Game 7, and then anything can happen. All we had to do was come in with the heart and the determination. And that, the game plan was pretty similar to when we won the three games.
On losing Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals to Detroit|
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I thought it was a good opportunity to get over this mountain. This hurdle that seemed to be in the way for the last three years. And when we didn't, I really didn't want to talk about it because I was really frustrated, I was very hurt. So, I went in on the back of the bus and it was a very emotional time because I wanted to win so much, so bad. I put forth so much effort and I think we all did. I guess it was so much of a thing with me that I didn't want this team to constantly beat me. My ego was involved because I don't want a team to seem like they could dominate me, or dominate us as a team, and Detroit didn't have any leariness to playing against us. They felt so confident playing against us that, I didn't want that type of dominance over us. So I was really frustrated and angry that they once again had done that to us. When we seemed to have put ourselves in the position to get over this hump and we fell short again. I vowed from that point forward that ... when we get put in this position again, we will not fall short of what our motives were: which is to get past Detroit and get into the Finals.
Q: Could your teammates sense your frustration?
Jordan: I think they did once they came on the bus. When I walked out of the media room so quickly, when normally I am the last one to leave. I tried to answer as many questions as I could. I was really disappointed and I got tired of the questions. They were so redundant. They started to leary on the fact that, you never can get over this hump. And .. I didn't want to believe that. I didn't believe that. So I wanted to walk out of that situation and get away from it before I really showed so much emotion, so much anger that they would take this totally the wrong way. So I walked out and I got on the bus. And I remember my father coming on the bus. And I'm in the back, yelling and screaming at him, more or less and really frustrated and angered about what just happened. And he's doing his best to calm me down and say, "It's only a game. You'll be given another opportunity." And I'm saying, "We've been given so many opportunities. We're not going to get as many as you may think."
I found myself debating with him about the situation. And he was trying to calm me down and get me focused on how to get over this disappointment that I was going through. Similarly to when I first got cut from a basketball (team). Which you never really want to think about the ... the bouncing back and getting passed it. You just think about the situation at hand. And, for whatever reason, we sat on there for 30 minutes, 35 minutes just trying to get past this amazing disappointment that I was going through. In the midst of all that, players started to file on the bus and I think they started to get a feeling of what type of competitive drive and competitive attitude I had. And I was hoping that that would feed off into them and we were all having the same type of attitude, this disappointment. We did it in a sportsmanlike way. We shook hands and said congratulations and moved forward. But that was a burning situation. I hated doing that because, I felt that they should have been doing that to us. But, it was a situation, it was a learning experience, all of it was. And it was so gratifying when we came back and did it to them the next year.
Q: Was that a major turning point in your career?
Jordan: I would think that I would look at it from a Chicago Bulls' standpoint, from an organization standpoint. That was the turning point of our losing mentality, more or less, adapted into a winning mentality. I thought that the organization gained so much from that from a momentum in a sense. Me individually, I felt that I had that winner mentality instilled in me way before that moment. Maybe I became more of a team leader at that time. Not verbally, but more emotionally and by example then ever. But for the organization, I felt that was the major turning point for me.
Q: When you came into the league in 1984, did you foresee the attention that was to be going around?
Jordan: No, I don't think anyone would have projected that. By no means, not even myself. I was looking at being as successful as I can on that level. How quickly or how big no one really knew, which is a part of the fun aspect and probably part of the phenomenon that really truly happened. I went to a major market coming straight off the Olympics, which has a lot to do with it. The next thing you know, a lot of things surrounding the game elevated the persona of Michael Jordan, which in essence gave me the confidence as a basketball player to excel. But this is something that I truly, truly never expected. I viewed it as a business, but I always viewed it as a game. An opportunity to show my skills, my basketball skills, amongst the best in the world. But outside of that, I couldn't even fathom what possibly could have happened.
As I said, it was a very opportune time for me to come into the league. I mean, especially in Chicago where they didn't have a winning tradition. Of coming off the '84 Olympics, I came from a college that was pretty well publicized and noted. What changed the game to some extent and what really propelled me to where the kids can relate with me was the marketing of an athlete. At the time, I really can't say that you could think of an athlete other than Dr. J, maybe a little bit of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that was really truly marketed away from the game of basketball. That's when it all happened for me. I think that really got me in the households to where kids can relate and families could relate. It seems so normal, I seem so normal that they could associate with me.
My game was that I was a 6-6 guy, not a 7-footer that normal people could relate to. The style game that I played was not different but was a breath of fresh air to the league. A lot of things that were happening -- Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started it all with their versatility that they brought to the game of basketball. I expanded off the ground, in a sense. Which gave a lot of the public some admiration, some desires and wants that they lived through me as a player. And being from such a normal area -- small town, not from a big city like New York, not overly hyped at the time -- it sort of fell in place and it was something that the league was really looking for. But the credit goes back to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before me. I just took it to a whole new level in the sense of marketing. From McDonald's to Gatorade to Wilson to Nike, all the different companies that tried to show the different personalities of me away from the game of basketball and tie that back into basketball to where the public can be attracted by it. Those things you really can't predict. It happens when you least expect it and that's one of those situations that happened.
On becoming so enormously popular|
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Q: How did you cope with all that attention early on?
Jordan: Well, it was a trying situation, I wouldn't say trying, but it was an educational situation. For so many years your parents teach you about success happening and maybe changing you, or you'll hear rumors how some guy got the big hit because he had been successful and you start gearing against that. You start listening and learning some of the basics that your parents have taught you about. You know, you're no different than the next person. You're just lucky or whatever. So you start kind of trying to keep your feet on the ground and do it in a very normal way so that it doesn't appear that, you have an attitude or cockiness about you. Your game was maybe really creative and maybe had the cockiness in terms of the way you played, but that never had to carry over to once you walked off the basketball court. So I think a lot of that success that I had to deal with, was based on the upbringing that I had from my parents and realizing that I'm just a normal guy. I've been lucky thus far.
Q: As you made your strides during the playoff climb, what did you learn during that time?
Jordan: Well, I think that you have to learn and it's a lesson that I learned that I tend to use quite often now. Mentally, you know how to apply and when to apply those skills to where it doesn't depreciate your team's overall objective within a system. When you see that certain players or the team don't seem to be in a great rhythm, you apply your individuality to that point, your skills and see if you can kind of carry the team until we can all get back on the same page. And that's been done before. I'm not saying that I initiated or that I started -- other players have done it -- but you gain the knowledge of how to do it and how to do it in certain situations and how to keep everybody involved within the structure situation so when you need everybody on all cylinders, you can do that and still maintain the type of effectiveness that you want to maintain. That's the mental aspect of playing on my level of basketball, in the NBA. Physically, there's so many great talented players in the league, but mentality, how do you apply those talents in game situations and successful situations so that your team can maintain the focus and success that they want? Over a period of time, that's the most important thing. That's something that I learned from the Magic Johnsons and the Larry Birds and the disappointments...and later through the successes over some of the greater teams.
Q: Shifting gears a little bit, can you talk about those situations in your career where you're going to take the game-winning shot and everybody knows it.
Jordan: Well, it's a sense of responsibility. I mean, earlier in my career, I was never really a vocal leader. I didn't feel comfortable in doing so, but I do think that the way that I spoke up in terms of leadership was in my play. When I felt the responsibility to step in and lead from a physical standpoint, from a basketball standpoint, I always felt confident in doing so. I had confidence in my skills on that level in how to apply that within a game, within the team concept. So it was very easy. I didn't have the threat of disappointment. I didn't have a fear of embarrassment. I had a total confidence that if you need something done, I'll do it. Defensive, passing, scoring, whatever. That was the challenge that I took. Now I think a lot of that has to do with my personality as well. And you can see that with the way that I play.
On taking last-second shots to win games|
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There were so many situations that aroused that kind of gave me the separation from a normal or good player to a better basketball player. To a player that's not afraid to take on a challenge and turn that challenge into a successful situation. Those are fun situations. I think those separate the good and the great players, and that's what I really wanted to do as a basketball player. To do it consistently, really, really shows the type of talent and level of competition and challenges that you tend to face.
Q: Talk about how you popularized the All-Star Weekend which included the Slam Dunk Competitions.
Jordan: Well, yeah I think it was an opportunity to show creativity which was a part of your game that people tend to adapt to pretty quickly and yet it separates you from a lot of the other players. At the time of the dunking contest you had two individuals that were masters of creativity that kind of hyped the whole situation and it was a part of the enjoyment of the fans for that weekend. With Dominique Wilkins and myself and maybe a couple of other guys who ... excelled on or expanded on what Dr. J, David Thompson, Darnell Hillman and all those great dunkers originated back in the early days. And yet, we were taking it to a whole new level, especially with Dominique Wilkins and myself, in a one-on-one confrontation, quite often in the dunking contest. It was a great pride, a great thrill just to compete, and yet, we were expanding the game and creativity with things that we were doing in the dunking contests. So when fans came to All-Star weekend, there was no telling what you would see.
That's what creativity is all about. It was fun with us. We didn't know what we were going to do. We drew so much from each other and motivated each other to a point where we were past the extreme of what we thought that we could do. And we were making up stuff as we went along, which is what creativity is all about. That was a part of the fun for the whole weekend. Then, you throw in Larry Bird with his shooting techniques from the three-point shot and his expertise at that and you had a heck of a weekend. And Magic coming in at the All-Star Game with his smiles and his passing and his court leadership. The weekend was unbelievable. Fans would go there with the idea of being in an entertaining situation, but not knowing how they were going to be entertained, at what form or what fashion because you had so much creativity that could happen over that weekend. That's when you felt pride in being a part of it.
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