In the world of professional athletes, there are always going to be ups and downs. Stepbacks either make you or break you and most often, those stepbacks occur as injuries. Things happen that are out of your control, and you have to adjust to the situation and keep yourself motivated. One wrong landing can ruin all the hard work you have put in and reset the whole training process, making it even harder, both mentally and physically.
NBA fans have held their breaths many times watching their team’s best player getting carried off the court and waiting for the post-game report on the severity of the injury. If the report shows that the injury is severe and that the rehab is going to last a long time, teams usually give up on the season and try to use it to secure a high pick in a draft. The caution of the teams has led to the development of the tanking culture in the league, which many criticize to this day.
Are teams overprotective of their players? It’s hard to tell, especially because every injury has to be looked at individually. Some players recover faster, and some take longer to do the same things they were doing before, because of the trauma they’ve suffered. We’ve seen the situation with Kawhi and the Spurs, which resulted in Kawhi demanding a trade because he wasn’t satisfied with how his former team handled his injury. After the Kawhi saga, it seems like the teams are even more cautious about injured players, making them sit out even after they are fully healed and ready to play again. Teams are in full control of players’ rehab process, seemingly doing it for their benefit.
As influential as he was, Michael Jordan didn't have such power back in the day. The second episode of long-awaited ESPN and Netflix series “The Last Dance” showed us how MJ treated his broken foot injury during the 1985-86 season, which caused him to miss a total of 64 games. Jordan describes it as a devastating time and talks about how he was anxious to get back on the court.
“I was itching to do something, so I talked the Bulls into letting me go back to college. I just started going to the gym shooting. And then I started playing 1-on-1, then I started playing 2-on-2, then I started playing 3-on-3. Next thing you know, I’m playing 5-on-5, and the Bulls never knew I was doing it. And when I got back with the Bulls, my calf muscles and my injured calf was stronger than my uninjured calf. So the first thing they said is, “What in the hell have you been doing?”
Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
Jordan wanted to play, but the Bulls didn’t want him to play. MJ’s persistence resulted in them eventually agreeing that he would play 14 minutes per game, 7 minutes per half. Jordan made a promise to himself that he was going to make the playoffs every year, making it hard on the Bulls to tank for a high draft pick, which was their plan after Jordan went down. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf shared the hilarious conversation they had with MJ about the risk of returning to play.
Michael returned to the lineup and led the Bulls to a 30-52 record, claiming the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. MJ was willing to risk getting hurt even more. He was ready to take a chance if it meant that he would be on the court sooner. He was obsessed with winning and couldn’t just sit and watch his teammates go to war without him.
Most importantly, it seems that MJ’s wishes were above the team’s wishes for him. They couldn’t keep him off the court, especially after he realized that they wanted to lose on purpose. Jordan didn’t want to be a part of losing culture, and he wanted to win at any cost.
It’s hard to imagine any player in today’s NBA doing the thing Michael did in 1986. The last one who was willing to sacrifice his body to the same extent was the late, great Kobe Bryant. Both Kobe and MJ shared the same love for the game and hunger for winning that they were ready to do some things against timetables. Those things that by today’s standards may seem as irrational are the reasons why the two are the epitome of mental toughness and tunnel vision on winning.
Teams think that they are doing players a favor by letting them sit out longer than necessary, and that may be true in some cases. However, basketball is the game of rhythm. It takes time to develop on-court chemistry with a team. It takes time to learn the X’s and O’s, learn teammates’ tendencies, and get accustomed to playing with each other. If the player can play, he should perform, no matter the stage of the season and the standings of the team.
The Bulls letting Jordan play and securing the playoffs spot didn’t bring them much in the short run. However, it was the start of deployment of the winning culture, which eventually resulted in 6 NBA championships and one of the greatest runs in the history of the league.