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

 

 

Book Review Of Hard Work

For many Kansas Jayhawks fans in April of 2003, Roy Williams leaving KU to replace Matt Doherty at North Carolina felt like insult to injury. The Jayhawks had just ended a beautiful 2 year run of Final Four finishes, but had failed to finish the job on both trips. Bad shot selection and a costly time out violation cost them in a heated game against the Juan Dixon–led Maryland Terrapins in the 2002 tournament. It was a disappointing way to end the season; especially being the first team to go undefeated in Big 12 conference play.

Despite losing two critical big men the following year (Drew Gooden to the NBA draft and Wayne Simien to a shoulder injury), the Jayhawks got back to the Final Four and almost overcame a poor first half and poor free throw shooting (they shot 11-31 from the charity stripe) only to come up short. Not only did they lose the National Championship by a mere 3 points, but they lost two of their storied players to graduation in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, and on top of that they lost their head coach. It was a tender time for the KU faithful.

Hard Work puts this time period–and Roy Williams as a whole–in perspective. It is a touching and honest tale that gives us insight into what makes him tick. Williams discusses his family background growing up in Asheville, North Carolina and we follow him to his decision (inspired by his own high school coach Buddy Baldwin) to pursue a career in coaching during his junior year in high school. From there, he goes on to attend the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he plays on the junior varsity team and watches the Dean Smith run practices during his free time; sitting high in the bleachers while taking notes.

Through hard work and determination Williams pays his way through school by taking odd jobs until he finally graduates and finds a job coaching high school, while maintaining his connection at UNC–a connection that pays in dividends as he takes a pay cut to become an assistant coach for Dean Smith. It is Roy Williams who has a hand in recruiting such notable players as Rick Fox, Sam Perkins, and the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan.

After ten years of hard work for coach Dean Smith (a KU alum), that Williams leaves for Lawrence, Kansas (not without a great deal of hand wringing) after another UNC alum, Larry Brown leaves for an NBA job.

I picked up this book hoping to get some insight into the Lawrence to Chapel Hill parallel, and the coaching pipeline that started with Dean Smith. Unfortunately, Williams does little romanticizing about his time in Lawrence. It almost feels like he left Chapel Hill only for the sake of building his resume for when it was time to take over for Coach Smith. There are very little off the court details to his time in Lawrence, and I couldn’t help but wonder if taking the KU job helped him feel closer to Dean Smith and Larry Brown, having understood the culture surrounding both basketball programs.

Most of the details about his time in Lawrence involve recruiting and learning the ropes as the head coach of a major program. Although Roy Williams is a coaching legend, Hall of Famer, and one of the most decorated men to ever pick up a clipboard, there was a time when he faced a great deal of scrutiny. Despite going to two Final Fours in his first four years of coaching (Kansas was ineligible for post season play due to violations during the Larry Brown era), the media loved floating around the narrative that Roy couldn’t win the big one. No matter how talented the team, each season ended with Williams at a press conference crying into the microphone. It was an image I got used to seeing as a teenager in middle and high school.

Considering how tough it was at the time to get big time players to come to Lawrence to play basketball (players like Jason Kidd, Tayshaun Prince, Harold Minor, Thomas Hill, and Jimmy King all passed on coming to Kansas for various reasons–Larry Brown almost left the program in 1987 because he was afraid he couldn’t get big time recruits to come play there), one has to consider how well Williams performed his job as head coach at Kansas. Despite some good recruiting eras, the only Williams recruited player to come out of KU and go on to be a stud in the NBA was future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. At their professional best, Scot Pollard, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Gooden, Hinrich, and Collison (who almost went to Duke which means Carlos Boozer might have been a Jayhawk, YUK!) were really good role players. Even now as the coach of UNC, despite already having won 3 national titles (narrowly missing out on a fourth because of a Villanova buzzer beater two seasons ago), San Antonio Spur, Danny Green happens to be the best NBA player to ever play for Roy at Chapel Hill.

Before picking up this book, I wasn’t sure what to think about Roy Williams. As a kid, I couldn’t tell if his  “aw shucks” demeanor and Huckleberry Hound accent was corny or earnest. I always found his emotional press conferences endearing. Most of the time, he talked about how badly he felt for his players, and often spoke of the disappointment that he couldn’t win them a championship.  Hard Work was a revealing read however, and there is a simplicity and self awareness about Roy Williams that you don’t find with many coaches of big time programs. Many high profile coaches come off as smug, pompous and self righteous, or at their worst, fast talking hucksters and pimps.

As for his coaching, there is no doubt what kind of legacy he will leave when he finally decides to hang it up. He is not even 70 yet, but I don’t get the sense he is ready to rest on his laurels. UNC is the kind of basketball program that sells itself, and he doesn’t have to work as hard to get big time recruits to come to Chapel Hill. Years ago, I was wondering if he was close to retire from the stress of running a big time program. Now I understand that Coach Williams enjoys the challenge and its part of his competitive nature to scream and yell on the sideline as if every possession were the last. It took lots of hard work, but it feels like Roy has cracked the code, and he may win another four or five titles when its all said and done.

And for those Jayhawks fans who were upset back in 2003, it looks as if things worked out for both parties. Williams’ replacement, Bill Self has created his own legacy in Lawrence, winning 14 straight conference titles, and took KU took a title by his fifth year of coaching (defeating a talented North Carolina team in the Final Four on the way to that championship). Kansas fans can hang their hat on jump-starting the UNC program by giving them their storied coach in Dean Smith. Coach Smith returned the favor by sending pupils Larry Brown and Roy Williams back to Lawrence to keep the winning tradition alive. But if you think about it, Williams grew up in Asheville, married his wife while being a student at North Carolina, cut his teeth as a coach at Carolina, and even though his son and daughter both went to Lawrence High School; they also both attended school in Chapel Hill (his son Scott won a state title at Lawrence High and went on to play for Bill Gutheridge, while his daughter was on the UNC dance team). KU fans should have seen the move coming a mile away. Coach Williams was always a Tar Heel; he was just on loan to Kansas until the program needed him again.

 

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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 recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. For booking inquiries, send contact info to thisagoodassgame@gmail.com

 

 

Mommy what is a Tar Heel?

Chapel Hill was dope.  Sometimes the spirit of competition and pageantry almost makes up for the hypocrisy of the NCAA and all that it represents. Chapel Hill is a must visit for any basketball aficionado, and if you go to Chapel Hill, then you may as well take the 15 minute car ride over to Durham. I spent a few hours in Dukieland (they’d lost to Virginia earlier that day) and got to see a very appropriate photography exhibit by Bill  Bamberger over at the Nasher museum on the Duke campus.

Two things worth checking out are the origins of the nickname Tar Heel and the bizarre and tragic history of the school’s various ram mascots.

The more I learn about the UNC basketball history the more it circles back to the University of Kansas. The more I learn about Michael Jordan the more things circle back to coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams. I could spend a whole season in Chapel Hill gathering data about the role Tar Heel basketball played in the development of modern basketball. The state of North Carolina is rich in basketball history and thus, basketball is rich in North Carolina history. And if you’ve ever wondered what makes Michael Jordan the greatest ever basketball player in modern history (no disrespect to Lebron James), then just watch this series of videos I found on Youtube.

 

 

 

 

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 recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. For booking inquiries, send contact info to thisagoodassgame@gmail.com.