Mike Jordan´s work ethic can enrich your spiritual life.
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.
Source: Word on Fire/ Author: Robert Mixa