In my unbiased opinion, The Last Dance shows that humanity has finally peaked. Billions of years of evolution has led us here. That’s not bias, that’s fact.
In all seriousness, you should watch it. There’s drama, ego, winning, losing, leadership, bullying, spirituality, mindfulness, brutality, an enormous amount of emotion, and MJ smoking about 145 cigars. What more could you want?
So, without further ado, here are all the hidden and forgotten lessons we can learn from MJ in The Last Dance.
When he first enrolled at North Carolina, Jordan was still raw. He had talent, but his game was mostly based on his otherworldly athleticism. He had drive, though. Plenty of drive. Confidence, too. In abundance.
“I’m going to be the best player to ever play at North Carolina,” he told Roy Williams, an assistant coach there at the time.
“Well, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than you did at high school,” Williams replied.
MJ was taken aback. He said, “Man, I worked just as hard as everyone else at high school.”
Williams replied, “Oh, excuse me. I thought you wanted to be the best player to ever play here?”
“I’ll show you,” MJ said. “Nobody will ever work as hard as me.”
Now, if he’d said all of this and not backed it up, yeah, that’s arrogance. But back it up he did. James Worthy, a teammate of his at the time and a future Hall of Famer, said that Jordan would challenge him to one-on-one games after almost every single one of their tough, two-and-a-half-hour team practices. “I was better than him,” Worthy said. “For about two weeks.”
That season, as a freshman, he hit the game-winning jump shot in the championship game, giving the North Carolina Tar Heels a National Championship. Before that, his jump shot had been considered his weakness, so the Hoyas of Georgetown weren’t expecting him to take that shot. But he took it and he made it because he’d been practicing behind the scenes like a man on a mission for the whole season. Also, the jumpshot is picture perfect. Go look at it sometime. It’s a thing of beauty, and that kind of craftsmanship doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work, which takes humility.
A person who’s arrogant doesn’t work hard; they think they know it all already. A person who’s humble works hard because they know they can get better and they want to get better and they love the process, the feeling of getting better.
Another example of Jordan’s humility is when he got drafted by the Chicago Bulls. He was 21 years old, and so he’d be the youngest on the team. Plus, even the Bulls didn’t know what they had on their hands. “We wish he were 7 foot 1, but he isn’t,” their general manager said at his introductory press conference. (At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that you needed a seven-footer to lead a team and win championships.)
This is what MJ said about entering the NBA:
“When I came to Chicago, I considered myself the lowest on the totem pole. Whatever people had been saying about me, I still had to earn my stripes. My mentality the first day of practice was that whoever was the team leader on that team, I’m going after him — and I’m not gonna do it with my voice because I had no voice. I had no status. I have to do it with the way that I play.”
This is the opposite of arrogance, which is to say it’s humility. A person who’s arrogant would’ve gone in there thinking they’re the best already, that they can come in and start ordering people around, that they don’t have to earn anything because it’s already theirs as a matter of birthright. A person who’s humble has the attitude Jordan had: they consider themselves the lowest on the totem pole until they prove otherwise, they know they have to—and want to—earn their stripes, they know the way to show out is to do it with their skills, their craftsmanship, not their inexperienced and probably naive voice.
A final example of MJ’s humility is his willingness to help Phil Jackson implement the “triangle” offense, a way of playing basketball that focuses very much on the team as opposed to letting the star or stars of a team do all the scoring.
Before Jackson became the Head Coach for the 1989/90 season, the Bulls had slowly gotten better every year but weren’t in championship contention because they were kind of a one-man-show. That man, of course, being MJ. Jordan had led the league in scoring three years in a row, been named the MVP, been named the Defensive Player of the Year, and been the All-Star Game MVP. He was considered the best player in the league and already one of the best players ever.
But it was extremely rare for such a dominant player to be able to lead his team to championship. In fact, just two players in the entire history of the NBA had led the league in scoring and led their team to championships in the same season. And that was the message that Jackson needed to get across to Jordan: that he couldn’t do it all by himself.
Jackson said he was nervous to talk to Jordan about this, about adopting the triangle offense, because it would mean taking the ball out of Jordan’s hands a bit more. All his other coaches had given him the ball and essentially allowed him to just do whatever he wanted. (One time, after MJ made a game-winning shot, a reporter asked the head coach at the time, Doug Collins, what play he called. Collins replied, “Get the ball to Michael and everybody else get the fuck out of the way.”)
But Jordan’s primary driver was winning. “My innate personality is to win — at all costs,” he says in the documentary. That drive, perhaps surprisingly, made him embrace humility. He wanted to win just like the great Magic Johnson and the great Larry Bird before him had won, and so he told Jackson that he was willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. That he wanted to win, period, not just win on his own terms.
“That’s a special thing to have happen,” Jackson said, “when the largest icon the NBA has ever had understands that ‘I don’t have to have the ball in my hands all the time.’”
The Bulls went on to win six championships in eight seasons, and it wasn’t because of arrogance.
Setting An Example
After Jordan returned to the NBA from his baseball sabbatical with probably the pithiest and boldest press release of all time—“I’m back”—he wasn’t quite the same. Sure, he had a 55-point game at Madison Square Garden in only his fifth game back, but the Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs by the Orlando Magic, the first time MJ had been knocked out of the playoffs in 5 years.
Tim Grover, MJ’s trainer throughout his whole career, was at that final game against the Magic. He knew Jordan usually liked to take some time off following the season to recover, play golf, and probably smoke a whole bunch of cigars. So he said to MJ that he was leaving the arena and to let him know when he wanted to see him next.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Jordan.
That summer, he was filming Space Jam. But he also needed to get in shape for the season, which is what he told the producers. In response to this, they built what was dubbed “The Jordan Dome.” Inside was an NBA-size basketball court and a weights area.
“The days would be Monday through Saturday,” Jordan said. “We’d start filming at 7, I would get a 2 hour break and I’d go workout with Tim. Then, after we’d finish, usually around 7, we’d invite people and play pick up games.”
He could’ve used the excuse of filming Space Jam to postpone his getting in shape. There’d still be time between finishing the filming and starting the season, so he could’ve just done it then. But no. That’s not what dedication means. That’s not a winning mentality. That’s not how MJ became the greatest player in the game and that’s certainly not how he’d reclaim his championship throne. And, ironically, he wouldn’t have even had the chance to film Space Jam if it hadn’t been for his dedication to the game in the first place. As he put it:
“My game was my biggest endorsement. What I did on the basketball court, my dedication to the game led to all this other stuff. Believe me, if I was averaging 2 points and 3 rebounds, I wouldn’t have signed anything with anybody. My game did all my talking.”
It was his dedication to the game that not only allowed him to become the greatest player of all time, but it allowed his teams to become some of the greatest teams of all time.
The Head Coach for all six of the Bulls championships, Phil Jackson, said, “Michael forced the hand of a lot of players to dedicate themselves to offseason training. We’re not going to be runners-up; we’re going to be champions.”
Horace Grant, a player on 3 of those championship teams, said, “When you see your leader working extremely hard in practice… you feel like if you don’t give it your all, I shouldn’t be here.”
Scottie Pippen, the person who Jordan called his “greatest teammate of all time,” said, “MJ taught me to stay in the gym and build the confidence I needed.”
Michael Jordan lived his life by setting examples. He never asked his teammates to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. But, seeing as they saw up close and personal every day what he was willing to do, how intensely he pushed himself, how desperately he wanted to win, they didn’t really have a choice but to follow him. They were pushed by him, yes, but also pulled.
“He was pushing us all to be better because he wanted to win,” says Bill Wennington, a teammate of MJ’s for four of those six championships. “And guess what?” he adds. “It worked.”
Tim Grover has an interesting view on this. Jordan’s trainer for nearly his entire career, he worked with Jordan almost every single day for 15 years. He saw, day in and day out, one on one, what kind of person MJ was, what price he was willing to pay to win.
He seems very much like a “man’s man”—stoic, confident, poised. He’s even authored a book called Relentless, detailing his somewhat intense strategies for succeeding in sports (and life). What I’m trying to say is it was surprising—shocking, even—when he actually got visibly emotional talking about the competitor, the man that MJ is:
“Michael had an obligation to himself, the fans, his teammates, the organisation, his family, everybody. He said, if you’re gonna sit down and take 3 hours out of your day to watch me on TV, I have an obligation… to give you my best. To give you my best… all the time.”
The fact that Jordan was expected to constantly deliver, to always perform by himself, the fans, his teammates, the organization, his family, and yes, seemingly by everybody else in the world—and then he actually did constantly deliver—is mind-boggling. To me, that’s the epitome of dedication, of setting an example. To even come close to giving your best, you have to be dedicated. To even come close to being able to give your best all the time, setting an example has to be at the top of your list of priorities.
In 1997, in Utah, the day before Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Michael Jordan got hungry. It was late, around 10:30 p.m.; the hotel had finished doing room service. His trainer, Tim Grover, found only one place that was open: a pizza place. So they ordered MJ a pizza. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
It was delivered by five delivery guys. Five. They’d got wind that the pizza was for MJ, so they thought they’d chance their arm at seeing him. Grover didn’t let them in, obviously, but they got a glance at him. He paid them, closed the door, handed the box to Michael and said, “something doesn’t feel right about this.”
MJ didn’t see any issue—he was just hungry. (We’ve all been there.) So he and he alone ate the pizza. (Again, we’ve all been there.)
At about 2:30 in the morning, MJ’s friend calls Grover and tells him to come to the room right away. Grover goes into the room, and lying in bed in the fetal position, shaking, is MJ. Food poisoning.
Now, remember, this is the day before Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The best-of-seven series is tied 2–2, so to win Game 5 is crucial. In fact, teams that win Game 5 of a 2–2 series go on to win the series 82.8% of the time. This is a must-win game. But if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you’ll know it’s a struggle to even get out of bed, let alone walk, let alone exercise, let alone play at the highest possible level of athletic competition.
“Just get me walking,” he said to Grover. “I’ll do the rest.”
You could see when he got to the arena that he wasn’t right. He looked exhausted. He looked like he didn’t want to play. His mom had said to him earlier in the day, “Son, you can’t play.” He replied, “Mom, I have to.”
The first quarter was bad. Jordan, unsurprisingly, looked completely out of place. They went down by 16 points. A loss looked likely.
What happened next was one of the greatest performances—sporting or otherwise—of all time.
Jordan was miraculous. Otherworldly. Mind-blowing. There aren’t words. He led both teams in scoring with 38 points, including a three-pointer with a minute left which gave the Bulls a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. He added 7 rebounds and 5 assists for good measure. And the Bulls, of course, won the game. (Two days later, they won Game 6 to clinch their fifth NBA championship in seven years.)
I think the question that comes to mind is: How? How was he able to perform under those circumstances? And not only perform, but perform that well? Because, as Scottie Pippen said, “He had shown that no matter how sick he was, he was still the best player in the world.”
Mark Vancil, author of a book about Jordan called Rare Air, had something fascinating to say during the documentary which I think might explain it:
“Most people struggle to be present. People go and sit in ashrams for 20 years in India, trying to be present. They do yoga, meditate… trying to get here, now. Most people live in fear because we project the past into the future. Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present, and that was the separator.”
“A big downfall for other players who are otherwise gifted is thinking about failure. Michael didn’t allow what he couldn’t control to get inside his head. He would say, ‘why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?’”
It seems like MJ was able to play a game while dealing with food poisoning because he was able to just get in the moment and stay there. And if you’ve been in the moment or in the zone or have experienced the “flow,” you know what that’s like. It’s transcendent. You’re not thinking about anything at all, you’re simply doing. There is nothing else except the moment you’re in. There’s no illness, no pain, no worries—there’s just you, responding, doing. That’s mindfulness.
“A whistle would blow for a timeout, and it was almost like the life went out of his body,” Wennington said. “But after that timeout, that whistle blew, and somehow, some way… he got up and played.” During timeouts, he didn’t need to expend any energy, so he didn’t. The game had stopped, and so he’d stop. At that moment, it wasn’t time to play—it was time to recover. When the whistle blew, then it was time to play. And so, then—and only then—he got up and played.
The most iconic picture from the incorrectly dubbed “Flu Game” is a shot of Pippen literally carrying MJ to the Bulls bench at the end of the game. The task at hand—to win—was complete and the next task was to rest.
As Vancil said, “He was never anywhere else.”
Willingness To Pay A Price
Probably my favourite moment in The Last Dance is where Jordan nearly tears up when he’s asked about whether he’s a “nice guy” or not. I was transfixed because this is Michael Jordan, the man who elicited fear in grown men in NBA and even among his own teammates, the man who was forever determined to win “at all costs,” the man who has been described as “Black Jesus” and “God disguised as Michael Jordan”, and here he is, emotional in describing the way he approaches not just basketball but life.
The segment started when BJ Armstrong, a former teammate of Jordan’s for 3 of the Bulls’ championships, said this:
“Was he a nice guy? He couldn’t be nice. With that kind of mentality he had, you can’t be a nice guy. He would be difficult to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball. He is difficult.”
Jordan was then asked if his “intensity” had come “at the expense of being a nice guy.” He thinks about it briefly. “Well, I mean… I don’t know,” he said. He thought about it. And then he said, “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.”
How many of us really consider the prices and costs of our choices? Yeah, we might ask ourselves about what we want from time to time, or perhaps even fairly often, but how often do we ask ourselves about the price we’re willing to pay to get what we want? We say we want to be dedicated to our mission, our life’s work, but what do we have to stop doing in order for that to happen? We say we want a healthy relationship with a wonderful partner, but what are the costs elsewhere that we’re turning a blind eye towards? Choices like this are a zero-sum game. If we make one choice, the cost is that we can’t make another. You can’t be dedicated to finding a healthy, wonderful partner but also be dedicated to living the single life. You can’t be dedicated to your life’s work but also continue to procrastinate. It’s one or the other.
Basketball is actually a good metaphor here: One team has to lose in order for the other to win. There will always be one winner and one loser. Both teams can’t win and both can’t lose. One team will win and the other will lose, and they are inextricably linked.
Here’s what MJ said about it:
“Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t wanna be challenged, and I earned that right because my teammates came after me. They didn’t endure all the things I endured. Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I played the game, and I wasn’t gonna take anything less. Now if that means I have to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, I did that. You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fucking do. When people see this, they’re gonna say well he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant. Well, no, that’s you [thinking that] — because you never won anything. I wanted to win but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. Look, I don’t have to do this, I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t wanna play that way… don’t play that way.”
Jordan understood the price he paid. Maybe he didn’t always like it, and maybe sometimes he wished he didn’t have to pay those prices, but pay them he did. Every day. And now, the first thing people say about him isn’t that he’s a nice guy.
It’s that he was a winner. A leader. A six-time NBA champion. A six-time Finals MVP. A five-time regular season MVP. A three-time All-Star Game MVP. A Defensive Player of the Year. The greatest of all time.
Seems like it was worth it.
So, no, maybe we can’t shoot the perfect jump shot, or run like wind, or fly through the air. But we can definitely be humble, and we can set examples for ourselves and for others, and we can practice mindfulness, and we can decide what prices we’re willing to pay to get what we want.
We can Be Like Mike.