Before He was the GOAT: Excerpt from Tao of The Passing Big Man, and other Essays

The following is a chapter from my upcoming book, Tao of the Passing Big Man, and other essays. Due out if and when we survive this global pandemic. 

 

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“When I first saw Michael play, I recognized there was a different era coming in. In my time, I believe the best all around player has been Magic Johnson. The best defensive player has been Michael Cooper. And in a few more years Michael Jordan will be the best player there ever was.”

Larry Bird excerpt from his autobiography, “Drive”

Even though Michael Jordan spent his final two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards, many fans’ lasting impression of number 23 is his jump shot over Bryon Russell as a Chicago Bull. It is easy to get blinded by the flashy dunks and dizzying highlights. Sure MJ had the Gatorade commercials, and the Nike and McDonald’s advertisements because he was such an exciting player to watch, but the reason Michael Jordan is held in such high reverence is because he really was the “Greatest of All Time”.

We can talk about his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals and six Finals MVP’s, his five regular season MVP’s, his ten scoring titles, and 14 All-Star appearances, but many people forget that he was also the best defensive player at his position. Jordan made First Team All-Defensive in nine of his seasons, led the league in steals three times, and during his 1988 campaign when he averaged 32 points per game, he was the defensive player of the year.

Before Michael Jordan’s ascent, the NBA was ruled by big men. Giants like Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain (and George Mikan before them) dominated the game. It was a conventional belief around the league that in order to win NBA titles consistently, you had to have a fixture at the center position to anchor your team. At 6’6, Jordan not only defied these conventions, he changed the league entirely; sparking the shift to a league full of wings and guards beating their defenders en route to gravity defying dunks.

Before he was hitting iconic game winning shots against Utah and Cleveland, he was hitting game winning jumpers to win NCAA games against Georgetown, Duke, NC State, and Maryland.

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Jordan himself says that there would be no Michael Jordan without Dean Smith. Jordan says that after his parents, Dean Smith left the biggest imprint on who he became. Many ignorantly say that Dean Smith was the only man who could hold Jordan under 20 points, but he averaged 20 his sophomore year in college, and his junior year he hit 19.6 points per game (There was no shot clock or 3 point line back then either for what it is worth).

 

Early criticisms of Jordan’s NBA career was that he was a great scorer, but couldn’t get his teammates involved. Although this was warranted, looking back it was hard to blame him. Jordan had a better basketball coach, and better teammates (even better workout facilities) at Chapel Hill than he did during his early years in the NBA. At North Carolina, Jordan played with future Hall of Famer James Worthy (the 1982 NCAA Tourney Most Outstanding player with 28 points in the championship game on 13 of 17 shooting), Jimmy Black, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Kenny Smith (2 time NBA Champion), and Brad Daugherty (5 time NBA All Star). 

At Carolina, Jordan had arguably most talent he’d ever play with in the 1982 and 1984 seasons, and his passing skills really showed– he almost always made the correct basketball play even back then. It was at North Carolina where he mastered the fundamentals of passing, rebounding, moving without the ball, and defending. Not only did Jordan have Dean Smith as his head coach, but during the Jordan era, Coach Smith had an impeccable roster of assistant coaches in Eddie Fogler, Roy Williams (the man credited with recruiting Jordan), and Bill Gutheridge.

The Media and today’s fans like to debate, who was the greatest MJ, Kobe, or Lebron like hip hop fans used to argue Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas. But there is no debate. Kobe Bryant (R.I.P.) was a notorious ball hog (who was actually a really good passer when he wanted to be one) who could be goaded into taking a slew of bad shots under the right circumstances (shooting the Lakers out of the 2004 and 2008 Finals). Although Lebron will amass many gaudy stats and break a lot of records, many fans will point to his six losses in the NBA Finals, and proclivity to play “too passive” in key situations early on in his playoff career (we might be having an entirely different conversation today about Lebron if not for a historic collapse by the Golden State Warriors in 2016, and a Ray Allen clutch 3 pointer in 2013).

In short, Kobe may have been too selfish offensively and Lebron may not have been selfish enough. Michael (if I may be so bold to call him by his first name) was the perfect balance of the two, as one can point to his willingness to take over games when needed or make the game winning pass; as seen in the 1993 and 1997 Finals to John Paxson, and then Steve Kerr.

There was no weakness to Jordan’s game. He was a prolific scorer, a lockdown defender, and an underrated passer. He could drive to the basket and smack the ball into the defender’s face after posterizing them, or stop short and loft a floater in the lane, or he could just beat people by shooting over them from long distance.

Looking at both Lebron and Kobe’s careers, it makes you wonder what would their careers been like had they even played at least one year in college. Kobe would’ve played at Duke for Coach K, instead of Del Harris, and Lebron would’ve played for Thad Motta at Ohio State instead of the legendary Paul Silas. It seems petty to even speculate how much “better” two of the most elite players of their generations could’ve been (as I write this, I’m actually realizing that Kobe went to 7 NBA Finals in the span of a decade), but its necessary to illustrate the gap between those two first ballot HOF players and Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

It is a completely different conversation (for what it is worth, Kobe came pretty damn close) when you are talking about Jordan, and if you weren’t around to see him play in the 90’s then its not easy to understand. Statistics won’t tell the whole story about how truly dominant Jordan was and why he is is the elite among the elite. I think the biggest difference between Jordan, Kobe and Lebron, is that neither Lebron; nor Kobe had the tutelage of Dean Smith and Jordan did.

Jordan’s early development at the collegiate game was a direct testament to picking the right college and the right college coach in Dean Smith; who many consider the best teacher of the game in his time. Jordan most certainly would’ve still been the athletic freak that you see in his vintage highlight clips, but mentally and fundamentally, he may not have hit his apex had he gone to any other school in the country.

Former Tarheel, Kenny Smith, once said that “Michael Jordan was Dean Smith if Dean Smith still played basketball” and “that rarely do you see a player be the best athlete in a sport and be the most fundamentally sound.” Jordan was both. Oh yeah, (Kenny) Smith said that Jordan never took a bad shot. Think about that for a minute.

Quite often people reference the game winning jumper that Jordan hit during the 1982 championship game against Georgetown as if that told the whole story. Michael Jordan had 16 points on 7 of 13 shooting, but he also had 9 key rebounds, 2 steals and 2 steals. Even then, Jordan was focused on becoming a complete player. If he were just a scorer, he would’ve found it hard to even get off the bench during a championship game as a freshman, making it highly unlikely for a young player in that situation to find himself taking the game winning shot.

As for that game winning jumper, even Jordan admits that is when everything changed for him. He is quoted as saying “after that shot, he went from being Mike, to Michael Jordan”, and the rest as they say, is basketball history.

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Illustration by “Sweet” Lou Eastman

 

 

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profile pic b mick  Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found in the KDVS studios making on air playlists. For booking inquiries, send contact info to thisagoodassgame@gmail.com

 

 

A Hard 86 [Originally posted on sportsblog.com 12/25/13]

The knock on my door at 9 AM surprised me because I went to bed with the notion that a visit to the Allen Fieldhouse would not be in order for Saturday’s game against Georgetown. I had imbibed a bit too much the night before at a happy hour that ran way longer than an hour. I fell asleep that night okay with just watching the game on the big screen.

Although the front of the jerseys said Georgetown, with Otto Porter gone, I was unable to identify any of the names on the back of the jerseys. They weren’t even ranked. But I knew that a John Thompson III coached team would compete, and I didn’t fight it when my buddy expressed his desire to still attempt to make it into the fieldhouse. As it turned out, we got really lucky and ran into a fair scalper who offered us the best deal I’ve ever gotten scalping Jayhawks tickets (floor seats for 90 bucks).

I’m hoping that I’ll be as fortunate come January 18th against the Oklahoma State Cowboys.I’m definitely looking for the same guy next time.

One of the cool things about KU games is that fans have such access to the players. There isn’t a bad seat inside the venue and before games fans line up alongside a taped area near the locker room corridor. Fans hang out there and then cheer the guys on as they run onto the court. It’s a pretty cool thing to see, unfortunately my brain wasn’t working properly (it rarely does before 1:30 pm but I was especially scrambled from the activities the night before) and instead of capturing them jogging out of the locker room I got footage of this .

At first glance Georgetown come off as very intimidating. They only have 3 players on the whole roster who are listed under 6’5. Seeing this I immediately knew that it was going to be a physical game. We were about to see the Jayhawks be tested by these tough looking east coast boys.

The Hoyas have the make up of an NIT bound team bound for sure, but they made Kansas earn every single bucket they got. There were not many transition points for the Jayhawks and the Hoyas used nearly every single foul they had. 3 players fouled out for the game and 2 other guys had 4 fouls. The Hoyas even snuck in a cheap shot on Perry Ellis and knocked him out of the game.

Eventually things got chippy enough to where Wiggins got into some smack talking with one of their players and immediately hit a 3 on the ensuing possession (something tells me Wiggins isn’t the kind of player you want to piss off). We all knew that the Jayhawks were talented, but this game would tell us if they were tough. That was a question I hadn’t thought to ask before this Georgetown game.

Kansas was up the whole first half but it always felt closer than an 8 point game. Besides Markel Starks (19 points) and D’Vauntes Smith Rivera (12), no one in the Hoyas lineup was a legitimate scoring threat (most of their first half points seemed to come on free throws). Toughness was the only thing that Georgetown had going for it. They stepped onto the court as if the Lawrence faithful were just another hostile Big East crowd, unfazed and ready to see if the Jayhawks could be punked.

I think this was the kind of game that Tarik Black thrives in. He was not phased at all by the amount of contact going on. The refs let a lot of pushing and physical stuff go on and Tarik seemed in his element, putting up some good numbers and making some noteworthy plays–including a sick block that led to a fast break and alley-oop on the other end of the court (5 for 5 17 points 6 rebs and 2 blks).

The Jayhawks put up 86 points on the Georgetown boys but there were not any easy baskets. As badly as Georgetown got beat, there was no reason for them to hang their heads. They played hard. KU just had a much better team.

Other notes from Saturday’s game:

Bill Self has some serious swagger. I was impressed with the way he and Coach Thompson eschewed the businesslike handshake in favor of the more familiar and less formal “brutha” embrace. I bet Bill goes to bed at night smirking before he falls asleep, then wakes up with that same smirk, thinking, “I’m Bill Self and I coach the Kansas Jayhawks.” It must be a pretty baller reality for old Bill.

Andrew Wiggins only had 12 points the other day. 10 of them came in the 2nd half. He only had 1 rebound for the whole game, but he did have 3 steals and 4 assists. Not a great line but its still a treat to get to watch him play in person. People say he’s too calm, but I’d rather have that than a hot head like J.R. Smith. I don’t buy the whole “we need to see more fire” theory so many people have. That steadiness is going to be important come tournament time. Do what you do Andrew.

I’m officially starting the “Feed Embiid” campaign. This guy is not only my favorite player on this year’s team. He’s one of my favorite big men of all time. By the time he leaves he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Nick Collison and Julian Wright when it’s all said and done. He had 12 first half points and would have had more had it not been for Tarik Black going so hard in the paint in the 2nd half.

Speaking of big men, I wonder how differently things would be for Tim Duncan had he come up in this era? He was the last of the big men to stay all 4 years. Shane Battier did, but he was nowhere the prospect that TD was, despite winning Player of the Year. Would Duncan stay all four years in this era? Who knows? But seeing Embiid play makes me wonder how good he would be if he did stay in school an extra 3 years. Of course why not get the on the job training for millions of dollars if you are as good as he is. He will go into the league and immediately start. If you were a techie nerd and some firm offered to develop your software skills and pay you for it, you wouldn’t say ‘nah I’m good, being poor and having fun in college, going to classes and studying.” It does make you wonder though.

During a crucial stretch in the 2nd half we were told by an usher that we needed to sit down because we were obstructing people’s view. I wanted to say “tell them they need to be standing up” . I thought I was at a Jayhawks game, not at a dog show. I’ve been to NBA games where the fans didn’t sit for entire halves of play, and this usher is telling me to sit down? What is UP WITH THAT? I never thought I would encounter this at Allen Fieldhouse.

We spotted some former Jayhawks at the game Saturday, sitting behind the team bench. Travis Releford was there, sitting beside Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien. I randomly saw Tim Hardaway (yes that one) sitting in front of me and my buddy. What was he doing in Lawrence? Is he a scout now or something? I had seen him earlier and thought I was just being racist (Not all bald black guys look alike Mick.), but sure enough we realized it was him.
Not sure what to make of this photo here.

Collison and Hinrich are two of my favorite players, but the other side of me wonders if there is another message behind this “team photo”. I’m sure it’s harmless but it’s definitely one of those things that make you go hmmmmmmmmm.
That loss to Colorado doesn’t look so bad now. Colorado put up a fight against Oklahoma State and only lost by a couple of buckets (5 points). They are currently ranked number 20 in the country.

UCLA vs. Duke was interesting the first half. Kyle Anderson looks like he will be fun to watch in the NBA as a 6’8 point guard. He almost had a triple double in the first half, but neither he nor the rest of the tea played particularly well during the 2nd half. Zach Lavine looked good too and Bryce Alford looks like Steve Novak 2.0 (for better or worse). Their defense is terrible though. I could see them winning it all in the NIT or getting knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It does make me want to watch them play Arizona on January 9th.

Happy holidays to all you readers and non-readers out there. It’s time for me to sit down and watch KD go HAM against the Knicks in MSG (As of me posting this he’s 6 for his first 7 shots. If this Clippers-Warriors matchup tonight is half as entertaining as I think it will be, then we are in for a treat.

Peace.