bookmark_borderThe 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.

Get The Jordan Rules at Amazon

bookmark_borderPlaying for Keeps

The Jordan biography “Playing for Keeps” is the second NBA book by author David Halberstam, which I present on this blog. The first one was The Breaks of the Game. And Playing for Keeps is as good as Breaks of the Game.

Playing for Keeps

Halberstam wrote Playing for Keeps after the 1997-98 season – Jordan’s last for the Chicago Bulls. That timing evokes some associations, as the 2020 ESPN/Netflix documentary “The Last Dance” also tells the story of that season. And if you start reading the book, you’ll feel directly reminded of The Last Dance. Playing for Keeps, like the documentary, starts in Paris as the Bulls participate in a tournament in Europe before the NBA season begins. And Halberstam also describes early on the differences between the team and Coach Phil Jackson on one side, and General Manager Jerry Krause and Owner Jerry Reinsdorf on the other. Scottie Pippen was chronically underpaid as one of the league’s best players, Jordan tied his future to Jackson’s future, and Krause felt that his accomplishments were not appreciated enough.

Like the documentary however, Playing for Keeps is more than the story of one season. Halberstam here chronicles the steep rise of a young Michael Jordan, his beginnings in high school, his three years in college at North Carolina, his individually outstanding but nonetheless disappointing start in Chicago, and his rise to GOAT status. And it also is more than the story of one player. Although it’s a biography and Michael Jordan is the main character, you also learn a lot about Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause.

It is interesting to see the contrast between North Carolina and the early days of the Bulls. Here it becomes clear what high status college sports have in the USA (this is probably obvious for Americans, but for Europeans like me it can be quite surprising) and what low status basketball had in Chicago at that time. Jordan made his mark on the NBA right from the start, but the Bulls were a mess at the time, pretty much the opposite of Dean Smith’s team in North Carolina.

What followed were the years in which the Bulls regularly failed to beat the Detroit Pistons. David Halberstam also describes the rise of the “Bad Boys” to two-time NBA champions in great detail and in an exciting way. After the archrival was defeated in the playoffs for the first time, however, the Bulls’ rise to dynasty knew only one direction. In three consecutive years, the Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns (with Charles Barkley) were defeated in the Finals. Jordan and the Bulls had reached the peak of their game.

With the rise, however, came not only athletic success, but Jordan’s rise to perhaps one of the most famous persons in the world. Jordan was in the public eye like few other people and at the same time tried to escape it. This, the death of his father in the summer of 1993, and mental exhaustion after three titles and a summer with the Dream Team in 1992 led Jordan to hang up his shoes for the time being at the peak and devote himself to his first great love: baseball.

The rest is history. Jordan returned after a little less than two years and won three more titles with the Bulls. Halberstam also describes the conclusion of this outstanding career – Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz – from the perspective of many longtime companions: Jordan’s high school friend Leroy Smith, his college teammate and roommate Buzz Peterson, or his “Dream Team” coach Chuck Daly. At the time, Halberstam could not have known that Jordan would once again lace up his sneakers for the Washington Wizards.

Buy Playing for Keeps at Amazon