”There is a reason you call someone "the Michael Jordan of" -- Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing -- and they know what you're talking about. Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do that everybody recognizes them. That’s pretty rare.”
That’s how Barack Obama talked about MJ when introducing him as one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The man personifies excellence. Bill Walton agrees, and he shared a fascinating story that explains where that excellence comes from.
If you ever read anything about Bill Walton or heard him speak, you know he’s no ordinary athlete. A hippy trapped in a center’s body, one of the greatest big men ever to play the game, Walton is as eloquent and intellectually curious as they come.
Working for ESPN as their broadcast guy, Walton had the chance to interview some of the greatest players ever. When the time to have a chat with the GOAT came, Walton was ready.
”Michael, what does it mean to you that you have singlehandedly proven that Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and now Steven Hawking had no idea what they were talking about and that physics and gravity do not exist?”
You can imagine what MJ’s reaction was. He just gave Walton a look, and Bill was ready for it. He continued without missing a beat and asked MJ how much time does he spend working on the highlight plays we’ve all seen a million times.
“He looked at me and he said ‘Bill I don’t spend a second on any of that stuff. I spend all my time Bill, on my foundation, my fundamentals, my physical fitness, my footwork. But what I really spend my time on, Bill, is the dream of how I’m gonna get this done. With who I have as my teammates, and with who the guys are on the other team.’”
Switching hands mid-air against the Lakers, shrugging his shoulders after draining three-pointers, or whatever else you think of when you hear the words “Michael Jordan” were of no concern for the GOAT.
I’m going to guess this was later in MJ’s career after he had already won a few titles. Like every other great player, it took Jordan time to figure out that dropping 25-30 but having everyone on the team involved and winning is better than dropping 50 and losing.
The moment MJ learned how to bring his teammates along on the quest to the top, there was nothing that could stop him.
In the introduction to this story, Walton brought up something the era of load management made us forget about. Something we don’t appreciate nearly enough.
“You never asked yourself this question. ‘Boy, do you think Michael Jordan is going to have a good game today?’ He always had a good game!”
We’ve gotten so infatuated with potential and projecting development that actually getting the job done and then doing it for, let’s say, 75 games every year is no longer significant.
We rank guys based on their top performances, the dunks, 60-point games, and such. But what real basketball players understand is the ultimate skill of a champion is not to be able to drop 40 a few times in your career but to be a lock for an efficient 24 every night.
And on those few off nights when the shot isn’t falling, finding a way to contribute with hustle, rebounds, screens, and assists. Consistency has become one of the most underappreciated qualities in the NBA. It’s time to bring it back.