Publicity surrounding The Last Dance, the new ESPN documentary on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, has made me and my friends nostalgic about the glory days, when the Bulls were unstoppable and everyone wanted to “be like Mike.” (Sorry, LeBron—Michael is still the G.O.A.T.)
The crew led by Jordan represented basketball perfection. Growing up near Chicago, practically every boy idolized Jordan. Pickup basketball games were partially attempts at imitating his playing style, never missing a chance to stick out the tongue and try to fly in the air. But beyond basketball, Jordan inspired us to strive for greatness with the belief that if we put in the effort, we could succeed. While Michael Jordan is a very flawed character, there are some spiritual lessons we can draw from his absolute commitment to basketball perfection.
In preparation for The Last Dance, I have been watching as many videos as I can find on Michael Jordan and the other Bulls stars. And while I hear this documentary will show “the real Michael Jordan” (who not everyone always liked), it will primarily explore the conflict between Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause and Jordan, Head Coach Phil Jackson, and also Jordan’s teammate, Scottie Pippen. I do believe Jordan’s commitment to greatness will be reinforced, though, and this commitment in any domain of life is what we need reminding of, especially as regards the spiritual arena in which we all have to play.
One of the videos I watched was with Michael’s trainer, Tim Grover, who has trained some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley, and Dwayne Wade. Grover’s explanation of Michael’s work ethic and desire for improvement made me think about how I can apply it to my own life, especially my spiritual life. Like most of us, I’m not going to be a basketball great, but we all have the chance to be a saint if we cooperate with God’s grace. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from Michael.
Build a Solid Foundation
Within legal boundaries of the sport, Jordan did anything and everything he could to improve his game. Grover recalls that Michael’s first words to him were “You better keep up.” Michael Jordan trained harder than anyone, but he realized that if he was going get results, he needed a solid foundation.
Grover helped Michael build that foundation so he would not be susceptible to easy injury. Trainers typically want to quickly increase strength and speed, which can sometimes spell disaster for the player in the long run. Being thorough and taking things slow—making sure the foundation is secure—brings the best results, even in the spiritual life.
After a religious conversion, many people enthusiastically strive for holiness without mastering the spiritual basics. The idea of becoming a saint overnight is unrealistic. Be patient and take the time to master the fundamentals as listed in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. If you’re like me and you have a hard time praying the entire Rosary, follow the advice a priest gave me of praying a decade a day and building from there. Not having the basics down likely leads to giving up the pursuit of holiness altogether, causing disaster for the spiritual life. Start simple, and build from there.
Commitment to Perfection; Creating the Environment For It
Michael Jordan held his teammates to the same standard he demanded of himself. Sometimes this was grueling. He’d test new players to see if they were up to the challenge, often instigating brawls; he once punched his teammate Steve Kerr in the face. Jordan’s drive and intensity often made him difficult to be around, yet he nevertheless brought the best out of the Bulls.
Unlike Michael, most of us want to play nice, and we settle. While Jordan’s competitiveness was sometimes unhealthy, he forced the Bulls to be all they could be. Competition is a good thing because it compels people to do their best. Most parishes have an “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality, which is fine to a point—everyone wants to be liked—but few parishes form living saints. If we’re all called to enter through the narrow gate, then we should expect much from ourselves and from others. We should fight the good fight with real commitment, encouraging others to do likewise.
Learn from Failure
Jordan’s father said that if you wanted to get the best out of Michael, you had to tell him that he couldn’t do something. Michael’s nature drove him to rise to a challenge and never let failure get in his way. Not making his high school varsity basketball team when he was a sophomore only inspired him to prove his worth, training until he became the best player in the game.
The Bulls were not a good team when Jordan began his career. Over the years, and with his influence, they improved, but the Detroit Pistons kept beating them with their so-called “Jordan Rules”—a defensive approach aimed at limiting Michael on the court. Eventually, under Phil Jackson, the Bulls adopted Assistant Coach Tex Winter’s innovative triangle offense, which helped neutralize the Pistons’ strategy.
Michael Jordan was always the optimist. He didn’t let injuries bring him down, nor losses. According to Grover, if the Bulls lost the first game in the finals, Michael wouldn’t be upset; he’d optimistically declare that he’d now seen everything he needed to see in order to win. If he lost, he would often say that he ran out of time to come back. He also heeded Tex Winter’s constant advice on how to improve his game, even at the height of his athleticism.
I once asked Bishop Barron what he thought might be the most important lesson the “JPII Generation” could learn. He said that while he admired that generation’s pursuit of the ideal, he perceived that many of them gave up the pursuit once they realized how difficult it is to achieve. Karol Wojtyła did not become John Paul the Great overnight. It took a whole lifetime, building upon the solid foundation given him by his father. John Paul II often said that his upbringing at home was his “first seminary.” The seed of holiness will not grow if we are not humble.
Find the Right Coach and the Right Trainer
NFL great Ahmad Rashad has described Phil Jackson as a master motivator, and many attribute Jackson with bringing out the best in Michael Jordan, which is probably why Michael refused to play for any other coach. We often need to hear from a skilled spiritual trainer who will tell us what we should be working on and giving us a concrete plan on how to deepen our spiritual lives. Michael realized that he needed to put on more muscle if he was going to get past the “Bad Boys” of Detroit. So, in addition to exhausting practices, he took up an intense strength and conditioning program under Tim Grover. His closest buddies on the team, Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper, joined him, making the Bulls an unstoppable force. He also accepted the uncomfortable truths about his deficiencies from many coaches, especially from Winter.
Most of us try to go at the spiritual life without a proper guide. But that’s probably why we never succeed. Early monastics learned that community headed by a spiritual master is necessary to holiness. So how can you apply this to your spiritual life? Do you have a good spiritual director, or are you going at it alone? Do you study the saints? Holiness depends on the grace of God through the Church.
In the movie Braveheart the young William Wallace’s uncle teaches him that, if he wants to learn how to effectively use the sword against his enemies, he will have to learn how to not only move but think. Michael was naturally athletic, but he was also a smart player. As he aged, he had to rely on his knowledge of the game to win.
This should be your approach to the spiritual game. Effort and good intentions aren’t enough. You need to know what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t continue to do things that are not making you better, by which I mean holier.
In the 1990s, Michael Jordan was the essence of cool. If he was nervous, no one would know it. He had complete, near-perfect focus. His competitive nature could be overbearing and annoying—just watch his Hall of Fame speech. But he did share some wisdom there. He concluded his remarks with, “Limits, like fears, are often an illusion.” While we should know our limits, we shouldn’t let our fears stop us from excelling in the spiritual life. Place your trust in God that through his grace we can become the saints we’re called to be.
Find What You’re Meant to Be and Stick With It
It’s good to dream and try new things, but it’s also wise to play to your strengths. Jordan was a gifted athlete, but his baseball career never took off. Leaving aside speculation behind as to why he left the NBA to try his hand with a ball and bat, the simple truth was, Michael was meant to play basketball.
The lesson? We need to find what we’re good at and not allow ourselves to be swayed away from playing to our strengths for something else. Although Michael proposed that there are no limits to what we can become, the reality is that most of us are good at a few things, but really great at one or two. By not getting distracted by other paths, we will benefit our souls and everyone we meet.
Michael Jordan is no saint—not by any means. However, his total commitment and love for the game can inspire us all to seek perfection in the spiritual life.