Michael Jordan Once Explained That Something Other Than Raw Athleticism Was the Key to His NBA Greatness

Nearly 20 years after his last NBA game and almost 25 since Michael Jordan’s final NBA title and the debate continues to rage over who is the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan is undoubtedly one of the guys in the conversation after a scintillating 15-year career. Scoring isn’t the whole game, but being the all-time scoring average leader doesn’t hurt one’s GOAT case.

Michael Jordan was more than a scorer. He was a Defensive Player of the Year, a demanding task-master to his teammates, and won six championships over his final seven seasons with the Chicago Bulls. His career highlight reel is more like a feature film or a mini-series than a YouTube clip.

Michael Jordan’s resume as a player is simply impeccable

The list of Michael Jordan’s significant career accomplishments is both dazzling and dizzying. How could one player accomplish all of this?

  • 14 All-Star Game selections
  • 11 All-NBA selections
  • 10 scoring titles
  • 9 All-Defensive selections
  • 6 NBA titles
  • 6 NBA Finals MVP awards
  • 5 NBA MVP awards
  • 3 steals titles
  • 3 All-Star Game MVP awards
  • Rookie of the Year in 1984-85
  • Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88

He was a no-doubt Hall of Famer the first time he stayed retired long enough to become eligible in 2009. Now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan’s legacy with the Bulls is still debated today. Discussion returned with a furor in 2020, fueled by the release of The Last Dance, a documentary series from ESPN Films and Netflix.

Jordan had unquestionable physical skills. But as we’ve seen dozens of times, pure athleticism does not always equal a great player. For Michael Jordan, the lessons learned along the way helped shape the player he became.

Any way you add it up, Jordan made himself a student of the game

In an interview published in ESPN The Magazine shortly before the end of the 1998 regular season, Michael Jordan described some of the reasons his career evolved the way it did. It wasn’t just about athleticism. Instead, it had the mental understanding to know how to maximize those physical gifts.

“I think I have good hand-eye coordination. I always felt I could be a wide receiver in football, I ran a 4.3 40 back in college. Of course, it was with the school’s watch. In all sports, I’ve always wanted to play the position where you can dictate the outcome of the game — pitcher, a base-stealer, quarterback. I can throw a football about 60 yards.

“But it’s my knowledge of basketball that is really high. I know every facet of the game, every trick of the trade, every little motivation, every little technique. But mostly, I know how to attack people. Over time I’ve learned how to beat double-teams, to see them coming and exploit them.”

Michael Jordan

And exploit them he did. Jordan scored 30.1 points per game over his career, but he also dished out 5.3 assists every night. In the playoffs, he took it up a notch to 33.4 points and 5.7 assists a game. And along the way, Jordan defied what had been a long-held NBA belief about scorers and championships.

Evolving at the total package, Michael Jordan turned back decades of bias against scorers

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan (23) of the Chicago Bulls applied the lessons learned from his battles with the Detroit Pistons to win six NBA titles. | Focus on Sport via Getty Images

After the Chicago Bulls came up short in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons in 1990, the second straight year they had done so, the doubters lurked. In papers across the country (because there was no such thing as an Internet yet), columnists took their shots.

“When will Michael Jordan win a championship ring?” asked a columnist for the Arizona Republic (via Newspapers.com).

“In all the world, there’s only one Michael Jordan. And in all the world, the NBA title may be the only career achievement that escapes him,” penned Dave George of the Palm Beach (Florida) Post (via Newspapers.com.

On and on it went. The Bulls were too reliant on Jordan. Jordan wasn’t unselfish enough. Never mind that in that 93–74 loss to Detroit in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals that Jordan scored 31 points on 13-of-27 shooting while every Chicago Bull not named “Michael Jordan” shot a combined 15-of-63 (23.8%). Jordan should have been more unselfish. Seriously? Horace Grant was 3-of-17. Craig Hodges went 3-of-13. Scottie Pippen (who battled a migraine, to be fair) managed just a 1-of-10 game.

As we all know, Jordan proved the critics wrong. He didn’t win just that first elusive NBA title. No, he went on to take six of them.

But it was the combination of dazzling physical skills, a wealth of knowledge, and a competitive streak that wouldn’t quit. Put all of that together, and you had Michael Jordan and a better-than-average chance of winning. A lot.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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