My personal greatest remains Muhammad Ali, who became champion not just in the heavyweight division of boxing but also in the heavyweight division of the game of life. But Michael Jordan isn’t a bad second.
I know that in this country he comes first, at least among foreign sports heroes. Manny Pacquiao comes first among local ones, indeed among them all. You saw the adulation for Jordan back in the 1990s when jeepneys carried posters or pop paintings of him along with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, the triumvirate in superhero poses. That was as ubiquitous in jeepneys as the Santo Niño perched on the center of dashboards, posters/paintings of Kiss, and a sign on the mudguard below the steps proclaiming the ambulant contraption to be “Katas ng Saudi.”
Jordan was back on center stage last weekend as he celebrated his 50th birthday, propitiously enough on NBA All-Star Games. Inevitably, talk centered variously on who was the greatest basketball player of all time, and where Jordan’s claim to it drew from. Remarkably, it was Jordan himself who produced a gem of a statement there, the most quotable quote of the event. Even more remarkably, and completely ironically, he himself failed to appreciate the beauty of it.
It was: “Five beats one every time.”
Jordan made the statement in reply to the question of who he thought was better, LeBron or Kobe. What he meant by it was simply that Kobe was better because he has five championship rings to LeBron’s one. Not a particularly profound thought, which sparked no small amount of debate among players and observers alike.
LeBron shot back: “At the end of the day, rings don’t always define someone’s career. If that’s the case, I would sit up here and say Bill Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn’t.”
A good point. Jordan’s own greatness isn’t defined by it. What makes Jordan (so far) the greatest of them all is not just his championship rings, it’s so much more. One writer, Dean Schabner, says it was his focus and desire and dedication to winning. “Jordan was more than the sum of his highlight reels. The NBA is full of players capable of astounding feats of flight. There are plenty of players seemingly capable of scoring at will. Jordan took that to another level. He won at will.”
Dwyane Wade put it this way: “Every kid that wanted to play basketball, that could play, that couldn’t play, tried to emulate Michael Jordan. He was kind of the first of his kind. And he did everything with so much flair and pizzazz that even today people are still trying to be ‘like Mike.’ That’s why there will never be another one of him.”
My own appreciation of Jordan’s greatness comes from “five beats one every time,” though in quite a different sense than he himself meant it. When I first saw the quote, I thought what he meant by it was that a team—a basketball team has five players—beats one player every time. However incomparable the player, however brilliant the player, however transcendent the player. The game didn’t just depend on the abilities of one player, it depended on the dynamics of the group.
Which was what set Jordan apart. Like LeBron and Kobe, Jordan’s skills were superhuman, and he individually was a joy to watch with his combination of sublime grace, soaring athleticism, and stratospheric court IQ. But unlike LeBron and Kobe, he was more than just about himself, he was first and last about the Chicago Bulls. What made him spectacular, what made him unique, was not that he had an exceptional drive to win, it was that he had an exceptional drive to lead his team to greatness. He was the one awesomely brilliant player who was out there not to personally do awesomely brilliant things—though he couldn’t help doing that—but to make his team do so.
Which made him shine all the more.
Of course he had no small help from the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, the grand alchemist who transformed the most disparate, and often conflicting, personalities into one unit. But much of it came from Jordan himself. He was the consummate leader, commanding respect and obedience not just by the force of his personality but by the force of something outside himself. He embodied the team, he captured the soul of the team, he was the team.
My favorite image of him is the one that used to appear in the NBA ad, pointing at one of his teammates imperiously while bringing the ball down the court. That is what a leader is, someone who commands. But who commands not just out of position but out of respect, not just out of authority but out of trust, not just out of whim but out of a willingness to himself do what he bids others do. That is what a leader is, one who leads because he himself follows.
Contrast that with Kobe who chews out his teammates when they lose, often enough for things he himself is responsible for. Contrast that with LeBron who made a circus of his leaving Cleveland to join another team, titling the extravaganza, extravagantly documented on TV and elsewhere, “The Choice.” If I recall, the first time Jordan retired from basketball was because his father was murdered in a lonely road not far from home.
None of this is to say that Jordan wasn’t devoid of ego; he had that, too, aplenty. None of it is to say he was self-effacing and disdainful of praise; he needed that, too, and welcomed it. All of it is simply to say that at the end of the day, he knew the thing wasn’t about him, it was about his team. It wasn’t about making everybody else look small, it was about making everybody else look big. That was the essence of His Airness. That was what made him soar. That was what made him win again and again, not just in the game of basketball, but in something much bigger, the game of life.
Five trumps one, every time.