Michael Jordan & The Last Dance – Do You Have to Be a Hardass to Be Great in the NBA?

By: Melanie P
Posted: June 2, 2020

I finished watching The Last Dance a week or so ago, and I’ve pretty much been thinking of it nonstop since.

Michael Jordan was a hardass. Probably still is. He pushed his teammates to the brink of mutiny at times, hurling verbal abuse, etc., and making us all wonder why we like him if he’s saying and doing such horrible things.

But the truth is, hardass or not, he got results. He was respected, he won championships, he set records, and he made himself uber-famous. If he was in any other profession, though, would his bully-ish methods be acceptable? Would he have reached similar levels of success if he’d been in a different industry? That’s hard to say. Businessmen are known for being “ruthless,” which I’d say is a more respectful way to describe a hardass, and athletic coaches are singular-minded and won’t put up with any nonsense whatsoever from their players. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a businessman or a coach who was as abrasive as MJ, though.

Steve Kerr has said that Scottie Pippen was beloved by everyone on the Bulls because he was such a refreshing complement to the dogged Jordan. While Jordan was yelling and criticizing his teammates, Pippen was there to make sure everyone was okay, a balm for the wounds Jordan inflicted. Maybe one of the reasons that MJ was as successful as he was is because he had Scottie to balance him out. Would either of them have been as effective without the other?

Let’s look at a few other examples of NBA leaders who were also known to be abrasive. 

As much as I prefer not to speak ill of the dead, I can’t ignore that Kobe Bryant was a tough teammate in his NBA days. He once threw Pau Gasol under the bus after losses after the Lakers lost a playoff game in 2012, criticizing a teammate who he once stood up for when Gasol was on the trading block. As this article from NBC Sports points out, “no one is safe from the wrath of Kobe Bryant.” Bleacher Report went so far as to say that Kobe was way too competitive to have any friends in the NBA outside of his teammates. Phil Jackson himself said that Kobe was “uncoachable” – he eventually retracted this comment when he returned to coach the Lakers again, but there must have been some truth to it or it wouldn’t have said it in the first place, right? And if the guy who coached Michael Jordan says that a player is uncoachable, that means something.

Lebron James isn’t exactly a bosom basketball buddy either. A guy who calls himself “King James” and has a “Chosen 1” tattoo doesn’t seem like he’d be a down-to-earth guy who’d make a supportive teammate. Last year, the Lakers called a team meeting to discuss James’ ineffective and inconsistent body language, including “slumped shoulders and sideways glances.” To be fair, he does seem to have improved and his more focused on his teammates. And then there’s the fact it’s common knowledge that Lebron has an extremely loud voice when management is making trade decisions. Maybe he isn’t an MJ-league hardass, but he sure doesn’t sound like a supportive teammate at all.

There have been – and still are – plenty of jerks in the NBA. Pa-lenty. DeMarcus Cousins is well known for having screamed at his coach in front of other players, coaching staff, fans, and the media. Larry Bird was one of the most notorious trash talkers of his day. Dennis Rodman created an entire persona around the fact that he was a jerk to just about everyone at one time or another.

Just because these guys are jerks, though, doesn’t mean they were MJ-level hardasses who made the game tough for all their teammates AND competitors. And they certainly didn’t experience the same kind of success that Jordan enjoyed. On the other hand, other athletes did experience Jordan-level fame (Shaq, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc.) but were actually nice guys. Or, at least, weren’t total poopoo heads.

Therefore, I can only conclude that you do not have to be a tough love, competition obsessed, borderline bully to achieve success in the NBA. And this means there was no need for Mike to be quite so… mean. I’ll still love you forever, MJ. And so will the rest of the world.

But to all those future greats out there: just be nice!

For more thoughts and opinions from Melanie, check out her author page.

Image Source: USA Today

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