Massive talent, not steely determination, fueled Michael Jordan’s success

Being blessed with a 44-inch vertical leap, or more, while also being 6-6 is strong proof that life is unfair.

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The Bulls’ Michael Jordan drives against the Pistons in 1989.

The Bulls’ Michael Jordan drives against the Pistons in 1989.

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For years, I’ve been bothered by the widely held belief that a large part of Michael Jordan’s success was the result of his steel-reinforced willpower and his extreme competitiveness. It’s the idea that somehow his desire to win was stronger than anyone else’s and, because of it, he became the best basketball player in the world.

It’s like saying that Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist because he could get by on three hours of sleep a night. No, with a brush in his hand, he was unmatched. The man could post up in the paint.

Jordan’s dominance had a lot less to do with his get-up-and-go than his ups. He could jump higher than almost everyone else, and although science says human beings can’t levitate, people were able to do their laundry while he hung in the air. Nobody before or after has moved like him on the court.

“The Last Dance,’’ ESPN’s series about the 1997-98 Bulls, has brought home that truth, again. The footage from early in his career, when he was young and had low mileage on his legs, shows a kid with ridiculous athleticism. It wasn’t his trash talking, his cowing of opponents, that allowed him to create separation from defenders and get off his shot. It was a vertical leap of at least 44 inches and possibly as high as 48 inches, which you math majors know to be four feet off the ground. Being able to jump that high while also being 6-6 is strong proof that life is unfair.

Unfair is having hands that are so large and so strong that a basketball looks like a baby rattle when you hold it.

But it was more than that with Jordan, wasn’t it? Not just in the ability and the measurables, as scouts like to say. It was in the way he flowed on the court. The grace and the power. The beauty. How almost lyrical his game was.

This is where words fail. Even now, you watch Jordan on “The Last Dance,’’ and all you can do is shake your head. He did what how? No, he didn’t. Oh, but he did. He jumped, and the players trying to defend him did, too. He swung the ball like a clock’s pendulum, waiting for gravity to grab them and not him. Then he brought the ball under the basket for a reverse layup.

The gushing about Jordan’s willpower is part of an effort to explain how one person could be so much better than anyone else. It’s a way of saying that, with a lot of hard work, anything is possible. It’s the American Way. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps of one’s Air Jordans and all that.

Well, no.

Michael was born with that talent, an unrivaled talent. He turned himself into the best player he could be by hard work and determination, but there was no one who had been given his package of skills. Talent first, then desire. Not the other way around. “Talent’’ often is seen as a dirty word in sports. It’s like having to apologize for being born rich.

It’s true that Jordan was driven by all the slights he saw or imagined, but it doesn’t follow that those slights made him who he was. It’s also true that some people want to win more than others do. It gives them an edge over people of similar ability. Jordan already had a massive edge in physical skills. Any benefits he received from his competitiveness were the basketball version of piling on.

I’ve tried to envision when the NBA’s talent level will pass Michael by. Twenty years from now? Forty? We’ve already seen that happen with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the way it did with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, where their games gradually started to look outdated. One glance at Jordan in the thick of the Bulls’ Six Peat and you know he would dominate today’s game, too. That’s why there has been no drop-off to his mystique.

Some people simply stand out. Just like there was no one like MJ, there’s no one like LeBron James – no one who is 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, built like a tank, who can dribble, pass, shoot and defend. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back on James the same way we’re looking on Jordan now, with awe. Different players, same kind of transcendence.

And maybe there won’t be anyone like Zion Williamson in 50 years. Who knows? I just know one thing: There’s only one Michael Jordan, and he won those six NBA titles and those five Most Valuable Player awards not because he wanted them more than anyone else but because he was more talented than anyone else. No apologies necessary.

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