Sunday, August 23, 2020

No Pain. No Gain. No Love?

Michael Jordan's emotional moment that inspired this post


"COME ON!!!!!!"

"Not so loud, Sheel! GOD!"

"Shut up! We're playing the Bulls! We have to beat them!!!"

I rolled my eyes at his retort, but fixed my eyes back on the basketball game. Truth be told, thanks to my brother I had gotten very into our "Bad Boys" and hoped they would win their first NBA championship. Through forced viewings of all Detroit Pistons games, I knew enough to know that the Chicago Bulls with superstar Michael Jordan were a huge hurdle to achieve that goal. The weight of the Eastern Conference Finals was palpable in the Desai household in the spring of 1989, and watching game 6 next to my brother was the most tense I'd ever been about a sport in my short life.


"Well, there you have it folks, the Detroit Pistons have defeated the Chicago Bulls to take the Eastern Conference and advance to take on the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship," boomed Pat O'Brien into his CBS microphone.

Sheel was running around our living room, jumping and cheering loudly as our father entered from the back of the house.

"They won?"

"Yeah!! They won!!"

Sheel ran over and awkwardly high-fived our grinning dad. We all watched as Isaiah Thomas and John Salley engaged in sportsmen handshakes with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. 

"That's right! Take that Jordan!" Sheel roared at the television as if our chunky box RCA television set had some sort of Royal Oak to Chicago megaphone into Chicago Stadium. 

I watched as Michael Jordan hung his head and walked off the court while the announcer said how the championship had, yet again, eluded the best player in the league. Even at 10 years of age, my empathetic side swelled and I felt bad for him. Imagine being the best player in the NBA, but having to walk off a court without a chance to win the big trophy. 

Even though I was so happy for our Detroit Pistons, my mind kept going to thoughts of Michael Jordan. What would he do that night? Will he cry? Does he watch the rest of the playoffs or is it too painful? 

Sheel would go on to watch more of the post-game coverage which would include interviews with the players, including Michael Jordan, where some of my questions would have been answered. As for me, on that early June night, I went back to my room with one big question:

How does Michael Jordan deal with losing?



I recently watched The Last Dance on Netflix and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. In an effort to get out of my nightly Gilmore Girls rut, I tuned in to the docu-series that highlighted the championship-laden era of the Chicago Bulls. The 10-episode series covered a myriad of aspects of the team all leading up to their last Larry O'Brien trophy with Michael Jordan in 1998. The series, through interviews with the notable participants, beautifully showed how each piece fit into a carefully constructed puzzle that built an unstoppable team during the 1990s. The most essential piece, of course, was in the shape of Michael Jordan. The story is very much from his perspective; the what and how of everything he has done in his career with the why simply being his passion for winning. Every old teammate who took part in The Last Dance spoke about Jordan in a very measured way, carefully choosing their words. The one constant? They all respected his drive and raw talent. 

Respect is one thing, but it was also very clear that not one of his former teammates consider him a close friend. I'm not sure any of them would even see him as a cordial acquaintance at this point. I had noticed the disconnect of that sentiment while watching all the interviews with those who were professionally closest to him, but it wasn't until the last 3 minutes of the seventh episode where the question was explicitly asked by the documentarian: 

Through the years, do you think that intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy?  

The pause that follows and his subsequent response caught me off guard and, quite frankly, looped in my mind for a couple of days. Just as I spent time thinking about a defeated Michael Jordan that night in 1989, my empathetic side took over as I watched an older, tearful Jordan come to the realization of his unlikable reputation. That despite the fact he helped these guys achieve the highest success possible in their careers, they cannot bring themselves to LIKE him as a person. He almost seemed surprised at the question, but it also appears the question itself confirmed something he had always suspected: he cannot call his old teammates his friends. 

In his response, there wasn't a hint of defending his method as a leader; he knows how harshly he treated his teammates during those games and practices. What seemed to hurt him most was the fact that his motivation was to see them succeed alongside him. Sure he wanted to win for his own glory, but he was also doing it for them. During the last 30 seconds of the episode, Michael Jordan can only choke out that it was his mentality and the way he played the game at that time. Again, there was no apology or regret, but his words were coated with genuine hurt feelings. It was that sheer emotion, after which he announces he needs a break, that led me down a spiral of curious confusion. How could this behemoth of a man, this infamous icon with all his raw talent and success be brought to tears because he's unliked?

After my husband was finally able to get through episode 7 without falling asleep, we ended up having a long discussion about that moment. Paul expressed how he could understand how MJ felt upset that his persona was not regarded positively by those who he had boosted to greatness. He suggested, and I think he was accurate in interpreting Jordan’s feelings, that the end result should absolve the method by which he used on his teammates. I saw it differently. While yes, those guys all have multiple championships on their list of accomplishments, I can understand why they don’t feel all warm and fuzzy when discussing Michael Jordan. They won, but as many of them described in the documentary, they also had to deal with a very difficult man who verbally abused them if they didn't perform to his specific standards.

Push Push Push

Our discussion led me to other examples I had witnessed in my own life. Being a first generation Indian kid, you see a lot of  pressure-charged family dynamics within the community about achievement; education, career, wealth, family, etc. The optics of one’s life often supersedes actual happiness.

Thankfully I have just been an observer of that sort of intense pressure. Sure, my parents wanted a traditional Indian path for me; excel in school and achieve success in an approved field (medicine, engineering, law, business), but there wasn't a level of stress where I felt that if I didn't follow that exact path, my relationship with my mother or father would be in jeopardy. I've gone into that in a post about being the Imperfect Indian Daughter. What I did see in a few of my fellow peers was an almost militant display of coercion where it was very clear that if a certain path was not followed, he or she would bring shame upon themselves and the family. 

Through the years, I've seen friends of mine follow very stringent rules in order to appease a parent and, many times, avoid psychological abuse that made for very painful childhoods. To follow the rules was survival. Once I attended a memorial for a friend's mother who was notorious for treating her kids very poorly unless they did as she asked. As her kids reached the podium to make their collective speech, I was very curious how they would speak of her. Granted, they were in the throes of grief (after all, she was their mother), but after a lifetime of various degrees of psychological abuse, what would they say? Well, as they spoke, I thought their words were very true and very poignant. All of them credited her for their achievements and success, particularly in their career; that without her high standards, none of them would be where they are today. As I sat there listening to them praising the impact she had on their lives, I found myself wondering: But, was it worth all the pain?

Here is where I make the leap of connecting that mother to Michael Jordan; if the end result is a win, then the method was correct. With Jordan it was NBA Championships, with that mother it was her kids reaching lucrative careers. Based on what I know, this mother would consider her tactics as completely successful since her children achieved everything she demanded of them. And further, they should be nothing but grateful. And EVEN further, if she knew that her kids considered her to be incredibly abusive she would be shocked and hurt. "But, look at all everything you've achieved? That was MY doing!"

This led me to my next question: If the relationship had been less tumultuous, would the results have been different?

The Softer Touch

In the same episode where MJ breaks down, they cover his first retirement in 1993. For the season that followed, Scottie Pippen took over as the leader of the Bulls. Now, the stark contrast of how the same guys talk about Scottie Pippen is clear as day. They spoke about how Pippen had a softer touch and was there with comfort and encouragement. When asked how the team did during that first season without Jordan, Pippen responded without hesitation, "Great. They had nobody yelling at them, they got off plenty of shots." Without Jordan stealing the spotlight, other guys were able to shine under Pippen's leadership which made for a much happier team. But, does a happier team translate to a championship team? 

Well, unfortunately that is impossible to answer for a couple of reasons. One of which was a very tough test of the team's affection for Pippen during the 1994 Eastern Conference Semi-finals. After losing the first two games to the New York Knicks, the Bulls were trying to get back in the series. After Patrick Ewing tied game 3 with about two seconds left, the Bulls needed a surefire buzzer-beating shot to win the game and save themselves from playoff elimination. Phil Jackson gave that chance to newcomer Tony Kukoc and not Scottie Pippen, who felt insulted. In the heat of moment, Pippen chose to sit out the last seconds of the game in protest. Kukoc made the basket and the Bulls won, however, the sting of Pippen's selfish dissent hung heavy in the locker room afterwards. Bill Cartwright made a tearful speech and told Pippen directly that he had let them down. Scottie Pippen broke down and apologized and the guys accepted his apology. 

During this part of the docu-series, I was struck by how quickly the team's emotions shifted from disappointment to forgiveness and then to concern for how this incident would affect Scottie's reputation. The concern for his character could only be attributed to the love he earned from his compassionate leadership. As Steve Kerr expressed, "Scottie's one of our favorite teammates, one of our favorite people in the world."

The Bulls came together and fought hard in that series, but ultimately fell to the Knicks in 7 games. That incident certainly hinders my ability to conclude that a gentler, softer touch as a leader could propel a team to the same greatness as Jordan's methods. Plus, Jordan came out of retirement to return to the Bulls in the middle of the following season, so it's hard to say that had Pippen been given a couple more years, perhaps he could have built just as strong a team with happier guys.  

Bringing it back to the discussion about that strict mother I mentioned earlier, could she have gotten the same results from her kids with a softer touch? If there were no threat of epic meltdowns and psychological games, would her children have chosen the same fields and achieved the same amount of success? For many reasons, I cannot seek the thoughts of her kids today, but I did talk to a few friends who went through similar situations with a difficult parent. I was so fascinated to learn that they all felt their lives would be even more successful had that parent been more encouraging (these friends are all doing very well in life, by the way). Another commonality with all of the situations, including that militant nightmare mother, was that the other parent countered the negativity. For all the times they were broken down, they had the loving arms of the opposite parent to turn to. So perhaps it's all about balance? Perhaps we all need a Jordan AND Pippen in our lives to succeed?

Of course it's impossible to know what could have happened in any of these scenarios, but one thing is for sure... those Bulls sure loved Scottie Pippen and those kids have greater fondness for their gentler parent.


I'm well aware I have made some pretty significant leaps in this post. I mean, I see Michael Jordan cry and suddenly I'm on a mission to understand how extremely strict parenting may have affected my friends?!? Ah well, my mind can be minefield of disparate connections. At least I'm not bored. 

Ultimately, I'm intrigued by people who consider themselves deserving of love and praise only based on results, that their tactics of getting what they wanted should not matter because the goal was reached. It's the psychology behind that disconnect that grabbed my mind for so many days. As an empathetic person, I can sometimes get lost in analyzing how I've treated various people in my life, so to see a display of complete disregard for that very significant part of my nature is jarring.

In watching The Last Dance and chatting with my friends, I feel like striking a balance is key to leading people. You don't want to be too soft and you don't want to be too hard. Sure, you can catch more with sugar than a stick, but sometimes a stick is necessary. Michael Jordan's tears told me that perhaps he wished he'd used the stick less and dished out more sugar if it meant winning actual love and affection from his old teammates. 

For me, I'll be using a sugary stick... or embodying a mashup called Michael Pippen or Scottie Jordan or Michie Jorppen, whatever. Knowing when and how to use each side will be the challenge, but a challenge worth taking on. 

P.S. - Do not look up sugary stick on the internet... it's dirty. #themoreyouknow