Leadership lessons from my fight with the GOAT
Like me (and approximately six million other weekly viewers), you’ve probably spent the past month devouring The Last Dance, ESPN’s documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The last episode featured a heated scrimmage in which Steve Kerr stands up to MJ, hitting him in the chest. Jordan absorbs the hit and lands a solid right hand to Kerr’s eye.
Reflecting on my own physical altercation with Jordan, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, Steve, you really should have aimed lower.”
In 1988, the Chicago Bulls came to Dallas to play the Mavericks. My brother and I went to Reunion Arena the morning of the game to watch the Bulls shootaround from the front row. Prepared to seize the moment, my dad got us mini basketballs for player autographs.
The Bulls were still a few years away from hoisting the O’Brien Trophy, but Michael Jordan was already the undisputed champion of sneakers, posters, and general awesomeness. So, even though he was still in the locker room receiving treatment well after the rest of the players went back to the hotel, we waited.
Eventually, MJ emerged from the locker room. We got his autograph and left the arena.
In those days, a short walkway connected Reunion Arena to the hotel where visiting teams stayed. Because we were the only people left by the time his treatment ended, my father, brother, and I found ourselves casually strolling to the hotel alongside the Bulls trainer and the greatest basketball player on the planet.
There were two things I didn’t understand as an eight-year-old – the value of Michael Jordan’s autograph and the always-on nature of his competitive streak. If I appreciated either of those things, I probably wouldn’t have tried dribbling around him in a Dallas skywalk.
But I did.
Flashing the combination of instincts and quickness that made him an All-NBA First-Team defender, MJ steals the ball from a scrappy but over-matched eight-year-old Logan.
I try to steal it back, but MJ hates losing and has moves. So, there I am, running circles around Michael Jordan while he goes behind his back and between his legs.
As I take a second lap around MJ, he sticks the ball under his long bomber jacket (very much in-style in the 80’s), shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know where it went.”
Unfortunately for MJ, I did.
I see the ball under his jacket and punch as hard as I can to jar it loose, which I do. The man who is every bit as famous for his cut-throat competitive nature as his prowess on the court, doubles over and sheepishly hands me the ball back.
I just beat Michael Jordan!
Everyone in the walkway is laughing, including, eventually, MJ.
I’ll be honest – I didn’t fully understand what had happened until years later when my father held court with a group of friends, recounting the time his youngest son “punched Michael Jordan in the balls.”
But that wasn’t our Last Dance…
After winning his first three championships, Jordan famously retired and took a stab at professional baseball. In that time, the Houston Rockets won two titles behind the greatness of Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon and a competitive ball boy who was no stranger to taking things from Michael Jordan.
Soon enough, MJ un-retired and began his quest for another championship run. When the Bulls came through Houston, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to walk into the visitor’s locker room and see if he happened to remember our Reunion Arena free-for-all.
When I asked him about getting racked by a kid in Dallas in the late 80’s, he stopped tying his shoes and looked up with that famous Jordan intensity. I immediately regretted bringing it up.
Then his scowl gave way to the equally famous Jordan smile. He stood up, put his arm around me, and we shared a laugh about the time a little kid took down the best player in the world.
So, what does all that have to do with leadership?
The focal point of The Last Dance is Michael Jordan’s OCD – Obsessive Competitive Disorder. There is a narrative woven throughout that has spilled into conversations in every walk of life in which competition exists – was MJ’s tunnel vision and ruthlessness the reason he was great?
Ferocious competition is a defining characteristic, but I think that narrative leaves out the part of Michael Jordan that makes him someone who can carry a wildly successful docu-series decades after walking off the court.
He didn’t have to engage me in 1988 when he was a rising star, and he sure as hell didn’t have to give me the time of day in 1998 when he was the most recognizable athlete on the planet.
But he did, because Michael Jordan always understood something the best, most influential leaders I’ve ever met understand – the more successful you become, the greater the impact you can have on the people around you.
I co-founded Proxxy because I believe in giving great leaders the opportunity to lead greatly. For us, that means clearing a path for them to deliver seemingly small moments that leave a lasting impression.
Logan Speights is co-founder of Fort Worth-based Proxxy, a company that offers remote management services. https://RemoteChiefOfStaff.com/