Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time: if there were such a thing as a safely indisputable subjective claim in the basketball universe, surely this must be it.
But the very consensus surrounding this claim means also that it is perhaps the most potent myth in basketball history: the myth of the greatest of all time. I am not interested in debating Jordan’s greatness relative to other great players, but rather in understanding the workings of the narrative elements by which the belief that Jordan is the greatest of all time is conveyed and consumed.
Jordan’s status as the greatest of all time would not be sealed until his retirement in 1998. But arguably the pivotal moment in the myth of the greatest of all time occurred on June 13, 1991, when Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won the first of the six NBA championships they would win over an eight-season span. With that victory, Jordan went from being an outlandishly talented individual athlete to a winning team player, permitting the myth of the greatest of all time to crystallize as a morality tale in which Jordan’s ascent coincides with the subordination of his ego and his mature internalization of the timeless values of basketball under the guidance of his head coach and guru, Phil Jackson, who was a figure in the myth of the garden.
The view that took shape then would be written in stone – literally – a few years later, when a one-ton bronze statue of Jordan was dedicated outside the Bulls’ lavish new United Center arena. Called “The Spirit,” that statue’s inscription reads, “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.”
For a story narrating unparalleled achievement in basketball, the myth of the greatest of all time’s most striking feature may be the prominent role played by failure and setback. From being passed over for his high school’s varsity to being passed over by two teams in the 1984 NBA draft, from the recurrent bitter defeats at the hands of the Pistons to the murder of his father and the indignity of his baseball mediocrity, the myth of the greatest of all time emphasizes the depths of Jordan’s lows.
Doing so not only sets Jordan’s accomplishments in greater relief; it also permits the myth to emphasize – in explaining the source of Jordan’s unsurpassable greatness – the intangible personal qualities that, much more than mere natural talent, led Jordan to his achievements: competitive intensity and hard work.
Indeed, in that same Hall of Fame induction speech, Jordan himself emphasized this aspect of the myth by enumerating the slights he’d suffered, fueling the competitive fire that drove him to work tirelessly to improve his game. To cap and confirm this extreme version of the myth of the greatest of all time, as Jordan concluded his litany of complaint, an audience member shouted, “You’re the greatest ever, Michael!” eliciting warm applause from the rest of the assembled guests, a number of whom had just been on the wrong end of Jordan’s insults.
But of all the valleys in the myth of the greatest of all time, the single most important one is his period of isolated, Sisyphean failure to win, torching the league, and creating dazzling new shapes and lines of flight with his body while rolling the stone of a mediocre team and a limited coaching staff up the mountain of the playoffs, only to have it tumble back down year after year. Here, the myth throws two crucial narrative elements into relief: a nemesis and a mentor.
As nemesis, the Detroit Pistons (who beat the Bulls in the 1988, 1989, and 1990 playoffs) were not only self-styled “Bad Boys” proudly intimidating opponents with a rough style of play; they were also, as I explain in Chapter 7, representatives of the city that at the time symbolized everything that terrified white America about blackness: defiant, inscrutable violence; unapologetic disregard for common decency; in short: incorrigible chaos.
But however distasteful the Bad Boys may have been to the white basketball unconscious (and although their principal villain, Bill Laimbeer, was in fact white), they were – and won as – a team. So however likeable and extraordinary Jordan may have been, and however despised the Pistons were for having dethroned both Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, the white basketball unconscious would not cast Jordan in the title role of the myth of the greatest of all time until he avenged his predecessors by unseating the Pistons as a member of a functioning team.
Enter Jordan’s tactical mentor and spiritual guide through this underworld of adversity: Phil Jackson. “The triangle offense,” writes Roland Lazenby, “provided a format that allowed Jordan to relate to his less talented teammates.” As the myth has it, Jackson’s triangle offense expressed tactically the core values of Jackson’s psychological and spiritual beliefs. Jackson adopted the offense because “it empowered everybody on the team by making them more involved in the offense, and demanded that they put their individual needs second to those of the group.”
By Jackson’s second season at the helm, in 1990-1991, the Bulls had broken their old habits and mastered the triangle. A four-game sweep of the Pistons confirmed their new identity (and when the Pistons stalked off the court without shaking hands, it confirmed for many fans that something in fact had been truly bad about them all along). From there, the Bulls’ 4-1 finals win over Magic’s Lakers was almost anticlimactic, but not so much so that the myth does not dwell on a key, morally edifying turning point.
Ahead in the series three games to one, the Bulls were struggling to close the series out on the experienced Lakers’ home floor. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Lakers had taken a lead, and Jackson noted that Jordan was reverting to his old, individualistic habits, forcing shots against double and triple teams. During a timeout, Jackson “kneeled in the huddle and stared into Jordan’s blazing eyes,” according to Roland Lazenby. “‘MJ, who’s open?’ Jackson demanded. When Jordan did not reply, Jackson insisted, asking again, ‘Who’s open?’ Jordan then relented and says, ‘Pax!’ [the Bulls’ sharpshooting guard John Paxson]. Jackson then asserts the golden rule, ‘Well, throw him the fuckin’ ball!’” Paxson went on to make five long-range jump shots in the final four minutes to help seal the Bulls’ victory.
And if Jackson’s played an instrumental role in Jordan’s growth and ascendance, it was at least as crucial that Jackson provided continuity with the myth of the garden and the Knicks of the early 1970s, whose coach, Red Holzman, Jackson credited with the basic tenets of the tactical and moral approach to the game he’d then imparted to the greatest of all time. Jordan seemed thus to embody all of basketball history effortlessly, combining Chamberlain’s superlative individual excellence with Russell’s indomitable will to win, Johnson’s entertaining stylishness with Bird’s gritty work ethic, Erving’s aerial acrobatics with Oscar Robertson’s completeness, all under the auspices of the Old Knicks and as a global ambassador turning the modern basketball state into basketball empire. In this way, Jordan seemed to have resolved, for the first and last time, the mythic tactical and moral antimonies of basketball history.
These antimonies, however, had always been racialized in the white basketball unconscious, born of deep-seated fears and anxieties about the destruction of the sport’s core tactical, stylistic, and moral essence through changes spurred by racial integration. In this sense, by appearing to resolve the tactical and moral conflicts of basketball history Jordan appeared also to resolve the suppressed racial conflicts for which the former were made to stand in myth.
No wonder, then, that by 1993, the cover of a special issue of not a sports publication but of the mainstream Newsweek was proclaiming Jordan “the greatest ever,” a pronouncement that has now become consensus. The issue featured an “in-depth” article by Jordan’s handpicked sycophantic biographer Bob Greene, on the cover of whose first Jordan biography, Hang Time, the star appears, standing behind the author, resting his elbows on Greene’s shoulders, face frozen in that inviting trademark half-smile, expressing perhaps bemused tolerance for our need to be that close to him. No wonder, then, that by 1994, the specially commissioned “The Spirit” statue (“The best there ever was. The best there ever will be”) would be unveiled at the Bulls’ arena in Chicago.
With this affirmation of disembodied perfection, the myth of the greatest of all time, in effect, proclaims the end of basketball history. If Jordan is truly the greatest there ever was and the greatest there ever will be, then henceforth basketball can produce only lesser iterations of all the hitherto incompatible elements of the game that Jordan’s singular basketball body gathered together and blended so incomparably. Ultimately, perhaps Jordan himself revealed the end game of the myth of the greatest all time when he pondered the question, “How would I have done against me?” Where every other player in the game must be compared with someone else, Jordan knows well what his myth proclaims: for the greatest ever there can be neither comparison nor competition, only an endless imaginary game of one-on-one played in a hall of mirrors.