Over the last month, many basketball fans have been reminded through ESPN’s 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” that Michael Jordan was an obsessive competitor motivated by imagined slights, a merciless teammate who jumped on any opportunity to assert his authority.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown has been watching, and he said in a video call Friday that he and his players “talk lots” about the documentary on Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls. Brown has a couple of personal connections from that Bulls team. He was the Spurs director of player development when Steve Kerr was in San Antonio, and he knows Luc Longley through his experience with the Australian national team.
Because I've been doing this for so long, some of the players on that team are my friends — Luc Longley, Steve Kerr," Brown said. "And so then you step back and you watch this documentary that's kind of saved the day from like a void perspective for all of us. And so you feel fairly aware of the backdrop. I have learned a lot, some of it jaw-dropping stuff.
"You're looking at it and you didn't remember that or you should've have known that. I'm always interested to make parallels to my privileged life in San Antonio, where you won a bunch of championships, and now I'm watching another team win a bunch of championships. … And ultimately, I'm just blown away and reminded of just the maniacal competitiveness that Michael had.
The documentary has not presented a complete picture of Jordan’s life or his NBA career. It’s touched on a few of Jordan's flaws, but it’s mostly told a hero’s tale, fixating on the obstacles Jordan overcame in the the pursuit of his goals and also simply luxuriating in his greatness.
In Episode 7, an emotional Jordan was given the space to provide a thesis statement of sorts.
“When people see this,” he said, “they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted [my teammates] 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 want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
Though Jordan’s remarks are allowed to speak for themselves, there are obviously nuances of leadership and team building that go beyond wanting to win and bluntly expressing negative feelings about teammates who don’t meet your very high standards.
“Just the the reality of the complexity of a team,” Brown said. “The pieces that really go in to a team. The sacrifices that really have to go on within a team. … The intricacies of team, the competitiveness that it really takes, the notion that your best player has to — and leadership comes in all forms — your best player has to grab stuff by the throat and lead, and it can be done a little bit by committee.
“But the weight of a lot of that, and I put my hand up as the head coach, too, I like our guys seeing all of this stuff. You're reminded that people like MJ and LeBron [James] and [Kevin] Durant, they didn't win championships until they were 28. And if I'm wrong, I'm wrong by maybe a year with all three of those people. So it does take time.”
The Sixers’ two best players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are 26 years old and 23 years old, respectively. If the NBA season resumes during the coronavirus pandemic, Brown’s immediate hope for both players is that everything is copacetic in terms of health and conditioning. And he still thinks breaking through for an NBA title this year is a realistic goal.
“That is the messaging in the conversations that I have with my staff and our players, that when it's go time, we’ve got to go,” he said. “We are hunting to still contend for a championship.”
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