I love reading biographies! The best ones bring usually together a few key elements, including an engrossing story that draws me in and compelling insights that deepen my knowledge or perspective. Such has certainly been the case as I have read Roland Lazenby’s critically acclaimed biography on Michael Jordan. In the process, I gained empathy about the challenges that the basketball star faced and learned valuable lessons about team building.
Some of us may desire to be famous, but hearing what fame ended up costing Michael Jordan was sobering to me. Countless challenges came with his celebrity, but the greatest may have been the way it isolated him. In order to insulate himself from the constant advances of fans, the basketball superstar surrounded himself with a tight circle of friends and regularly stayed inside his hotel suite when the team travelled.
The magnitude of Jordan’s celebrity created tremendous challenges for building a team.
As I learned about this in Lazenby’s book, I became increasingly impressed with the job that Phil Jackson did for the Chicago Bulls during his time coaching Jordan. If Jackson was going to build a strong team, he had to navigate the icon’s fame and find a way to bring his roster of twelve players together. Because Jordan’s talent and celebrity set him apart from other players, Jackson had to acknowledge those differences while also creating avenues for trust and mutuality within the Bulls Team.
What changes did Phil Jackson make to build his team in Chicago? Lazenby points to a number of small steps that collectively made a huge difference. For example, Jackson began to limit media access to Jordan after games and reserved the locker room as a private space for players that would not be interrupted due as a consequence of Jordan’s fame or the meddling of the team’s front office. He also made the teams’ practices private–this barrier had the benefit of keeping the media from entering and becoming a distraction.
Jackson also incorporated unorthodox practices that have come to light recently, including convening the group for meetings by pounding on a drum, practicing meditation together, and burning incense when they gathered as a team.
Even the coach’s unconventional practices served to build team cohesion and bring the players and coaches together succeeded, as they achieved success that has been unrivaled in the modern era of professional sports–winning six NBA Championships over an eight-year period.
Some have said that Jackson was always going to be successful since he always had the best player, MJ. But such perspective overlooks one of Roland Lazenby’s observations in Michael Jordan: The Life–that the superstar was invaluable to his team, but Jordan’s unique mix of fame, strengths, and personal challenges made for an arduous journey!