When The Jordan Rules was published in 1991, it seemed revelatory, showing readers a side of Michael Jordan that few had ever glimpsed before. Sam Smith revealed a number of anecdotes about how ruthless Jordan was, not merely on the floor in the midst of a heated game, but off it as well, interacting with his teammates in a brutish way that often came closer to bullying than anything else. The book detailed Jordan mocking teammate Stacey King’s weight and lack of rebounding prowess, punching Will Perdue, and intentionally throwing Bill Cartwright passes he would not be likely to catch in order to make him look bad. At the time, it was shocking. Jordan was portrayed in his many commercials and public appearances as an affable everyman who just happened to be able to jump super high and play basketball at a level few imagined possible. The narrative had to change a bit.
Rather than deny the less flattering details or making attempts to change, Jordan continued being who he was — a great basketball player who was also a bit of an asshole. And in the almost thirty years since the book’s initial publication, this has become a well ingrained part of the Jordan mythos, and not as a minor detail that is brushed over, but as something that is now valorized as perhaps necessary for him and his teams to reach the heights they did.
Kobe Bryant, who wanted to follow in Jordan’s footsteps in every way possible, echoed this same sort of near sociopathic competitiveness, though it seemed less organic, as if he was trying to play a part. It was his way of following in his idol’s lineage and a way of confirming that he was a true leader, a man who would not accept half measures and foolish mistakes from his less gifted teammates. It may not have been the most desirable character treat, but it was, in Bryant’s telling, just what was necessary to be the best.
Whether consciously or not, we have recently seen Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler follow in their footsteps, but without much praise. Instead, there has been fretting about whether the dispute between Green and Kevin Durant will derail the Warriors’ title hopes or play a role in driving Durant away from the team in free agency next summer. Also, Butler’s fury towards the supposed lack of effort from his former Timberwolves teammates, most notably Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, did not spur them forward, but rather seemingly caused them to wither under the weight of his gaze. These concerns from fans and analysts, whether they intend to not, help to deconstruct the myth we’ve constructed about players like Jordan and Bryant being able to lure better performances out of their teammates through harsh words and actions.
It’s harder to praise being a jerk if you’re not the absolute best in the world at what you do — outside of the sports world, we make shallow excuses for great artists all the time. Sure, the gossip surrounding the drama that threatened to swallow the Warriors and Timberwolves whole was entertaining, but no one believed that these conflicts were actually good for the teams themselves, revealing some sort of gift that would spur their teammates forward. With Jordan, questionable as his actions may have been, they were justified in the eyes of fans by the results. Though it’s debatable how big a role his abrasiveness played in their championship runs. The Bulls did not win six titles because Jordan was an asshole, but because Jordan and Pippen were generational talents surrounded by complementary pieces
The tone for the league at large is set by the players and teams who dominate it at any given time: they remake the NBA in their own image. In the last decade, some of the league’s best teams have been the Big 3 Heat who were characterized by the deep friendship between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, the 2014 Spurs who were as egalitarian a team as one could ever hope to see, and the Warriors whose run has been shaped by the personalities of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — the former a fun loving point guard whose delight in the game is eminently palpable while the latter is the epitome of relaxed coolness.
Now that the NBA is as interconnected and defined by interteam friendships as never before, a player like Jimmy Butler berating his younger teammates or Draymond Green calling Durant a “bitch” and questioning his commitment stands out even more due to how out of place it seems in this cultural context. A veteran calling a rookie teammate homophobic slurs as Michael Jordan reportedly did to Kwame Brown during his tenure with the Wizards would be roundly condemned today in a way it was not nearly twenty years ago. We are more aware of the fact that being an asshole is not actually the best way to be a teammate or to inspire greatness in others.
Without intending to, Green and Butler both show us how limited our patience today is for players acting like jerks, how we now believe such behavior may be entertaining without being edifying. The reception to their actions tells us much about what fans will tolerate and why. Perhaps if they were stars on the level of LeBron James or Stephen Curry, there would be more patience for it, but they are not and look like players unwilling to adapt to the currents of a modern NBA where congeniality and friendship is prized as much as competitiveness. You can get away with it if you’re Michael Jordan and it’s 1991, but not if you’re a mere All-Star in 2018.