The Jordan Rules

It shouldn’t be too hard for a basketball fan to guess what a book with the name “Jordan” in the title is about. After Playing for Keeps, The Jordan Rules is another book about Michael Jordan. In it, journalist Sam Smith describes the 1990-91 season from the perspective of the Chicago Bulls and their superstar.

The Jordan Rules

The book caused quite a stir at the time and was pretty controversial. Smith describes many internal details from the team’s inner workings and out of the locker room. For some of the information, it’s not entirely clear how the author got it. For example, conversations are described between people he couldn’t actually know anything about. Unlike 7 Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum, Smith did not follow the team and coaches around the clock. But he wasn’t just any random journalist either. Sam Smith worked for the Chicago Tribune, and from the late ’80s on, he focused exclusively on basketball and the Bulls. So he was at every game, talking to players and coaches, and was in the locker room for a while after games (like other journalists).

The title “The Jordan Rules” refers, first of all, to a series of defensive tactics used by the Detroit Pistons in games against the Bulls in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Pistons, dubbed the Bad Boys for a reason, went especially hard against Jordan, doubling him frequently. Besides that, the title has another meaning. As Smith described, different rules applied to the superstar than to other players on the team, and Phil Jackson’s coaching staff let him get away with more. That alone, however, should not be unusual. The Bulls were and are not the only team where the star player enjoys a special treatment.

After the Bulls had always failed to beat the Pistons in the playoffs in previous years, Phil Jackson tried a different strategy this season. Instead of relying solely on Jordan’s outstanding individual performances, he tried to install the so-called Triangle Offense. The Triangle Offense was co-developed by Tex Winter. Winter had been an assistant coach with the Bulls since 1985 and would go on to win a number of titles with Jackson with the Bulls and later the Lakers. Smith describes Phil Jackson’s difficulties in convincing Jordan of the benefits of the new strategy in this book. The Triangle Offense (the name refers to triangles that players are supposed to form on the court) relies primarily on team-oriented and unselfish play, passing, and lots of movement. And Jordan didn’t necessarily trust his teammates.

The accounts of Jordan’s interactions with his teammates were also controversial. Nowadays, this seems more credible after watching “The Last Dance“. Jordan is said to have hit his teammate Will Perdue and to have deliberately given his teammates passes that were far too hard in order to show his coach that they could not be trusted. It is also described that general manager Jerry Krause was a favorite victim of Jordan’s jokes. This was also shown in the above mentioned documentary.

For other players, too, it was a tough season in personal terms. If you believe the book, no player was really happy. Scottie Pippen was already unhappy with his contract at the time, John Paxson and Bill Cartwright didn’t have contracts for the following season and didn’t feel Krause really wanted to keep them. Horace Grant was tired of being criticized by Jackson, and some players like B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and rookie Scott Williams were unhappy with their lack of playing time. In addition, some players were annoyed that Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf went to great lengths to convince Toni Kukoč to move from Europe to the NBA. Jordan, Pippen and Co. felt that management should instead take care of the contracts of deserving Bulls players.

With all these obstacles and internal problems, it seems almost unbelievable that the Bulls ended up playing a pretty dominant season and finally won the long-awaited title. After not only finally beating the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals, but even sweeping them, they won pretty clearly in five games against the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the Finals. Jordan trusted his teammates more and more as the season progressed, and especially in the playoffs, and took over the game at crucial moments.

Whether everything, including the dialogues, really happened exactly as described in this book is open to question. I assume that the general tendency is correct, since some things have been confirmed since then regarding Jordan’s dealings with teammates, Pippen’s dissatisfaction or Jackson’s philosophies. Also, Sam Smith was close enough to the team to get a good overview. Overall, I found The Jordan Rules to be a very exciting book about the problems that even a great team can have during the season.

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