Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Free Throw Line Between Genius and Madness

I was recently asked what it was that made Michael Jordan so great.  I had to think about it for a minute, because I think there are a lot of factors that combine to make Michael Jordan into JORDAN.

Now, let me first say that while I live in Chicago and root for the Bulls now, I did not grow up a Bulls fan.  I grew up in Texas.  I didn't even watch pro-basketball until high school (football being king in Texas).  Obviously I saw the occasional game, but I didn't actually follow the sport until 1994 when one of my best friends invited me to watch the Houston Rockets in the Finals against the New York Knicks.  That cemented me as a Rockets fan through the end of the Dream Era, and I hated the Bulls in the late 90s.  All of that being said I still think Michael Jordan is the best shooting guard of all time, and may be the best basketball player of all time.  But why?

There are the numbers, of course.  He's third on the all-time scoring list while being tied with Wilt Chamberlain for first in points-per-game.  Third in all time steals ranking fifth in steals per game.  Hit a third of all the three pointers he ever took.   The awards.  The highlight clips of all his game winning shots that have entered the cultural zeitgeist.

There are other cultural factors that I'll return to in another post (mostly to do with marketing and history).

There is also the mentality.  Now we can go back and forth about the degree to which intangibles are bullshit, whether Jeter gets more credit than he should, whether Tebow's 4th quarter heroics are a function of will or a function of defensive excellence by his team couple with defensive breakdown by his opponents (like going to a prevent defense that softens up short passing zones and opens up running lanes to prevent big plays when a tight man coverage plus a blitz has been working all day).  And I am going to be the first one to say that I don't care how much you want to win, you still need a certain level of physical skill and ability.  Tiger Woods on his worst, hungover, post-divorce day will beat me over 18 holes even if I know my family is back in the clubhouse with a gun to their heads.  Mentality though can give you the edge when all other things are equal or close to equal.

There has been some research recently on the prevalence of sociopathic tendencies amongst politicians and CEOS.  See here.  I find it fascinating, because it boils down to this:  the traits that we associate with sociopathic behavior, while crippling in most social contexts, are a boon in the more "cut throat" worlds of politics and business.  Lack of empathy, comfort with deception, these are things we almost expect out of the rich and powerful.  Lo and behold, evidence of sociopathy may be as high as four times the normal population rate amongst that sector.

So are there are other mental disorders that can benefit you in other areas?  We laugh at anal-retentive, type A personalities, but no one wants a scatter-brained accountant.  We kind of expect artists to be daydreamers.  What about athletes?

I'm not saying Michael Jordan is a sociopath, but he is hyper-competitive.  No matter how humble and nice his commercial persona was, on the court Michael Jordan was an asshole.  He wanted to win every night he stepped out there.  Actually no, he didn't want to win, he wanted to beat you.  He wanted to curb stomp you and have you know it was him that did it.  If you tried to forfeit he might stalk back to the locker room, duct tape you into your uniform, and drag you onto the court so he could destroy you in front of every girl you'd ever had a crush on.  The man invented insults that other teams never said about him, convinced himself they were real, and then used that slight to fuel himself.  The flu game wasn't about beating the Jazz, it was probably just to show the common cold that he wouldn't take its shit.  The man didn't want to win, he needed to win.  It was a psychological compulsion, probably of such a powerful nature that it should be classified a disorder, but it drove him to relentlessly improve his game.  In the end, it made him a champion, and for that we forgive all (see Kobe, hotel, Denver).

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