Like many, I grew up a huge Michael Jordan fan.
His tongue-out, dunk-throttling posters lined my childhood bedroom, I begged my parents year after year for Jordans for my birthday and Christmas, and I lost my 10-year old mind when Jordan and the Bulls won their first NBA championship in 1991.
Over the years, I devoured every last Jordan book I could find. I wanted to know what many others wondered: How did he do it? What was it that made Jordan in extra-terrestrial and according to Boston Celtic great Larry Bird, “God dressed as Michael Jordan”?
Well, these books will help shine a light on Jordan’s greatness. (And his very real human side, too.)
Some are exclusively about Jordan, while others are written by coaches and trainers Jordan had over the years, giving an outside perspective of MJ, his attitude, work ethic, and even his weaknesses.
Here is my collection of the best books on Michael Jordan.
“Michael Jordan: The Life” by Roland Lazenby
The most detailed biography of Michael Jordan to date, sportswriter Roland Lazenby—who had previously penned three other books on Jordan, his coach Phil Jackson, and the Bulls—paints a textured and historical accounting of Michael Jordan and his rise to the pinnacle of the sport world.
In Michael Jordan: The Life (full book review here), Lazenby starts back—waay back—to Jordan’s great grandfather and the difficult upbringing of the Jordans in the American south during a time of violent racial strife. We follow Jordan’s parents as the begin a relationship, with five kids, Jordan the youngest boy, and how the backyard one-on-one battles with his older brother Larry shaped Jordan’s competitive desire.
Jordan’s entire career is covered, both on the court and off the court. The full story on getting cut from the high school basketball team. His time at the University of North Carolina. The retirements. The foray into professional baseball. The Hall of Fame induction speech. The gambling. His time with the Wizards and now with the Bobcats.
I appreciated that Lazenby’s book didn’t go into agonizing detail about important games (too many to cover, really), avoiding the droning and tedious recounting of basketball plays.
Instead, he shares moments and stories from Jordan’s friends, family, teammates, and Jordan himself that give readers and fans a look at what drives Jordan to be the absolute best at everything he does.
Where to Buy – Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby
“The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls” by Sam Smith
Written by long-time Bulls beat writer Sam Smith, The Jordan Rules made a big splash when it was published in 1992, quickly landing on the New York Times Best-Seller list and getting a ton of attention for how some believed the book placed Jordan in a bad light.
Smith’s accounting of Jordan and the Bulls during their first championship run, in 1991-1992, was a behind the scenes look at the ascent of a superstar. Under the helm of second-year head coach, Phil Jackson, Jordan was slowly being coaxed out of feeling the need to score every point to win the game into more of a team player.
Smith was embedded with the team over the season, flying commercial with the Bulls, usually sitting with the coaches. He played in some of Jordan’s legendary marathon card games. Practices weren’t closed and Jordan talked openly and freely to the media.
We read about Jordan being hard on teammates, pushing teammates in practice, and the transition of Jordan from being a score-score-score type of player to someone who fully grasped that being team-first won championships.
Although Bulls players rushed to play down Jordan’s portrayal, and some of the material was taken out of context in the media to make Jordan look bad, the material was hardly gossipy.
Jordan was initially angry with Smith (Smith suggests this is because Jordan was only hearing the out-of-context reports in the media) and he and Smith would continue to have a professional relationship after the book’s release. (Smith would also go on to be a writer for the Chicago Bulls’ website.)
Reading the book back in the early 90s as a Jordan-obsessed fan (and again last year), it made me feel empathy Jordan.
To me, The Jordan Rules revealed the humanity behind the greatness, giving texture and a deeper sense of appreciation to his talent and work ethic, somehow elevating Jordan further in my eyes.
- “It was really hard not to love Jordan. I liked to describe him as a ‘man’s man.’ Everything was a contest, from the card and golf games to the verbal assaults. Coming from Brooklyn, I loved that stuff.”
- “I’d remind him when he’d miss a shot of his shooting percentage was low… He seemed to like that as it helped fire his internal burner.”
- “It wasn’t that Jordan was a bad teammate. He came from the structured, senior-oriented North Carolina system… But Jordan entered team dysfunction with the Bulls. Half the players on his first two teams ended up in drug rehab programs. The coaches couldn’t count on them; Jordan couldn’t count on them. He wanted to.”
- “He wanted to win as a team, but he knew he’d have to do the most for the team to succeed. It would become something of a curse to him, though a joy for the fans.”
- “I recall asking him one time about his greatest fear. I was thinking it would be one of these weepy family stories. But he said it would be people seeing him as a vile figure and losing his cache with the public.”
- “Phil [Jackson] felt it was his responsibility to open them up to more than basketball… I remember him saying that even a nod as a player came off the floor or a question about something going on at home was as important as a game plan. It showed he cared, and that mattered to him.”
Where to Buy – The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith
“Driven from Within” by Michael Jordan
Driven from Within, by Michael Jordan with editor Mark Vancil, is a hard book to describe. It combines an auto-biography, business history, and interviews and anecdotes from the people closets to Jordan.
There are plenty of motivational and behind-the-mindset stuff, which I absolutely loved. To hear Jordan, in his own words, talk about what motivates him, how he led on the court (by effort and example), and his emphasis on process over results was fun to read. Like peering under the hood of a supercar.
Interspersed with Jordan’s reflections on achieving excellence is a full history of the Air Jordan brand and how it came to be. Even though the brand is massive now, it almost never came to be. Initially Jordan wasn’t stoked on meeting with Nike, as he didn’t really know anything about them and they weren’t players in the sneaker market.
Anecdotes from Jordan’s inner circle fill out the rest of the book. His coach at UNC, Dean Smith, talks about Jordan’s competitive fire in practice. His mother talks about how she worked at instilling integrity and a strong moral compass in a young MJ. And friends, business partners, and coaches share another perspective on some of the biggest moments of Jordan’s career.
Altogether, Driven from Within (you can read my full review of the book here), is an all-encompassing look at Jordan the player and Jordan the brand.
- “You have to be uncompromising in your level of commitment to whatever you are doing, or it can disappear as fast as it appeared.”
- “I let the game come to me before I imposed my will. That’s a lot different than forcing the issue because you are worked about an outcome that hasn’t been determined yet.”
- “My expectation was excellence each and every time I stepped on the court. Whether it was a practice or a game, I was there to win.”
Where to Buy Drive from Within by Michael Jordan
“Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable” by Tim Grover
Tim Grover was MJ’s personal trainer for nearly fifteen years. Grover started working with Jordan in the aftermath of the 1990 playoffs, where the Detroit Pistons had (again) out-muscled and beaten-up on the Chicago Bulls.
Jordan was sick of it. And he knew that to get over the Pistons he and the Bulls would have to get stronger and dole out some punishment of their own.
Tim Grover was the strength training specialist that Jordan turned to. Over the next year, Jordan would add fifteen pounds of muscle, and in 1991, the Bulls would steam-roll the Pistons in a four-game sweep on the way to their first NBA championship.
The relationship between Grover and Jordan was cemented, and the pair would continue work together, lifting early in the mornings before Bulls’ practices.
In Grover’s book, Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, we get a breakdown of the killer mentality that Jordan used on the court and in the weight room. Although the book isn’t about Jordan exclusively—Grover also worked with Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade—there are plenty of examples of Jordan’s mentality strewn throughout the book.
- “Michael wasn’t the best because he could fly through the air and make impossible shots; he was the best because he was relentless about winning, relentless in his belief that there’s no such thing as ‘good enough.’”
- “No matter how many times he won, no matter how great he became, he always wanted more, and he was always willing to do whatever it took—and then some—to get it.”
Where to Buy – Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover
Michael Jordan and the Power of Learning from Defeats and Losses. Jordan was known for game-winning theatrics, but MJ experienced a lot of adversity and more than a few losses along the way. Here’s how he used them to motivate himself to get even better.
Looking for more motivation? Check out this list of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes.