Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in history. A six-time NBA champion, ten-time scoring champion, and NCAA champion. The list of trophies, accolades, and titles is endless.
While we’ve all seen the dunks, the tongue-wagging, and the clutch, game-winning shots, Roland Lazenby’s Michael Jordan: The Life is the penultimate biography of the best basketball player in history.
Like countless others, I was a huge Jordan fan as a kid. I had the posters scattered on my walls, I mimicked Jordan’s moves in the driveway, and I obsessed over getting my own pair of Air Jordans.
This book gives remarkable texture and background to Michael’s explosive NBA career. Lazenby is no stranger to the Bulls, having written two books on the team and one on Phil Jackson (as well as books on Jerry West and Kobe Bryant).
One of Jordan’s key characteristics has been his unrelenting competitive fire. The unquenchable drive to be the best. Whether it was in one-on-one games in the backyard with his brother Larry or jet-setting the globe in his private jet to play golf, Jordan competed in everything he did.
Lazenby explores the kindling of Jordan’s competitive fire. From Jordan’s great-grandfather, to Michael competing for the affections of his father, fans get a better sense of what drove Jordan to be the absolute best and why he was so obsessed with competing and winning.
The style of the book is highly readable. It was hard to put down, and even though I’ve read just about every book on Michael Jordan out there, Lazenby still manages to surprise with new material.
Lazenby forgoes the typical here-is-the-play-by-play of every big game, which very quickly gets tedious in detail and numbers, instead focusing on the background of the big moments in Jordan’s upbringing and career.
There are plenty of moments from Jordan’s life that are well known and mythologized. Getting cut from the high school varsity team. Winning an NCAA championship with North Carolina. His emergence as an explosive point-scorer in his rookie season in Chicago.
While the book covers familiar ground, the background of the development of Jordan’s psyche is the thing sports fans and Jordan-heads will appreciate the most.
Here are some of my favorite quotes and passages from Roland Lazenby’s Michael Jordan: The Life, including some of my own thoughts and takeaways.
Where to Buy – Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby
1. The competitive flame was kindled in the backyard.
As a kid, Jordan played one-on-one in the backyard with his older but shorter brother Larry, who was an excellent athlete in his own right.
The constant competition with his brother—who was exceptionally competitive as well—sharpened his skills and hardened his resolve to be successful.
The constant thumpings from his shorter brother hammered at Jordan’s young psyche. The pattern of defeat would stretch out for more than a year and a half.
“I think Michael got so good because Larry used to beat him all the time,” James Jordan would explain later. “He took it hard.”
“I always played hard,” Jordan said. “My brother and I would play every day until my mother had to call us in…We never thought of brotherhood at all. Sometimes it would end in fighting.”
2. Jordan competed relentlessly with his teammates to improve.
When Jordan became a Tar Heel, his teammates at the University of North Carolina would soon discover that his competitiveness wouldn’t be reserved for games. He would test and compete relentlessly at practice too, and this meant seeking out the best player on the team and challenging them to games of one-on-one.
James Worthy, future Laker and at the time the star player at UNC, would recall that when Jordan stepped on the floor as a freshman, Worthy was the best player on the squad. Two weeks later, it was Jordan.
James Worthy recalled Jordan as a new freshman on the University of North Carolina basketball team pestering him to play one-on-one: “His mission was to seek out the best player on the team and I was that guy my junior year. He was a bully and bullied me.”
3. He would keep coming at you until he won.
Jordan had a deep belief that you were supposed to do your absolute best, all the time. No mailing it in, no quitting in the dying minutes if you were losing, not backing down from bigger and better competition.
In middle school Jordan became a frequent sight in the gym before school started. One of the kids that he played and practiced with during those morning sessions was Harvest Leroy Smith. Smith stood at 6’7, pitted against the shorter but faster Jordan.
“He and I practiced every day together and he always had to win. If it was a game of Horse and you beat him, you would have to play another game until he won. You didn’t go home until he had won,” says Smith.
One of his high school coaches, Ron Coley, shared a similar story of how Jordan was relentless in competing:
“The first time I ever saw him, I had no idea who Michael Jordan was. I was helping to coach the Laney varsity,” recalled Ron Coley in a 1999 newspaper interview. “We went over to Goldsboro, which was our big rival, and I entered the gym when the JV game was just ending up. There were nine players on the court just coasting, but there was one kid playing his heart out. The way he was playing I thought his team was down one point with two minutes to play. So I looked up at the clock and his team was down 20 points and there was only one minute to play. It was Michael, and I quickly learned he was always like that.”
4. MJ motivated himself using imagery and visualization.
Plenty of athletes use visualization to sharpen their athletic performance. They use it as a means to hype themselves up in practice, imagine themselves overcoming adversity, and even use it to speed up technical improvements and technique.
For Jordan, visualization was a tool that he used to keep pushing himself when he was fatigued. Thinking about the list of names of the varsity team, with his name missing, kept him going.
“Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it, and that usually got me going again.”
5. He used meditation to keep his mind clear and focused.
Meditation and mindfulness training have gained a lot of traction with high-performance athletes in recent years. Nowadays, high profile athletes like LeBron James market meditation and mindfulness apps like Calm.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Until coaches like Phil Jackson made the practice more mainstream, the focus on athletes was always going to be to push, push, push. With Jackson, the priority was still work your ass off, but take time to recover and rest as well.
Pitching this new approach to his players, including Jordan, who by the time Jackson took over was already the most well-known basketball player on the planet, would take time and a lot of soft selling. Jordan would eventually buy-in and make meditation and mindfulness a part of his regular training.
Lazenby describes the period of time when Jackson took over as head coach from a fired Doug Collins, who had just taken the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals:
Jackson soft-pedaled his eccentricities at first. It would take time for him to get his players to accept meditation and mindfulness and his other unique practices. In time, Jordan would take great benefit from Jackson’s Zen approach and the mindfulness sessions he provided the team, no matter how unusual they seemed, though he often kept a playful distance in those early years.
6. Losing hurts, but defeat shows you what it takes to be successful.
Great athletes aren’t immune to failure. Research has found that the number of times that they fail isn’t much different from the athletes who never make the most of their potential. Failure is an essential part of success.
Rather, elite athletes tend to learn from their mistakes. Jordan took losses and setbacks as fuel for hyper-improvement.
After getting man-handled by the Detroit Pistons again in 1990, Jordan broke down. The Bulls had been surging that season, but when it came time to stack up against the Pistons, the defending world champions, Jordan and his teammates were simply out-muscled.
Furious with his teammates, Jordan cursed them yet again at halftime, then sobbed in the back of the team bus afterward. “I was crying and steaming,” he recalled. “I was saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here busting my butt and nobody else is doing the same thing. These guys are kicking our butt, taking our heart, taking our pride.’ I made up my mind right then and there it would never happen again. That was the summer that I first started lifting weights. If I was going to take some of this beating, I was also going to start dishing out some of it. I got tired of them dominating me physically.”
During the off-season Jordan and his teammates began seriously weight training (something that was not nearly as common-place as it is today), and put on fifteen pounds of muscle to his lanky 200-pound frame.
The adversity—the constant losing and getting beaten up by the Pistons—showed Jordan what he needed to do to be successful. Getting stronger also meant that he would be able to improve his post-up game and also avoid many of the season and career ending injuries that plague athletes.
Jordan used the pain of his defeat to tackle the things he needed to do to improve.
7. Jordan always competed at his best.
Something that those around Jordan came to learn was that his competitive fire didn’t have an off-switch.
He competed at his best, no matter where he was, who he was playing against, or how many people were watching.
In the summer of 1991, Jordan did a promotional tour for Nike overseas. In the moments before an exhibition game in Germany, Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro, who had signed Jordan to Nike as a rookie and accompanied him during the tour, pressed Jordan that it was time to go out and play.
But Jordan wasn’t quite ready. Although the game was exhibition and meaningless, Jordan needed a moment to mentally prepare himself. To get in the zone.
Vaccaro studied Jordan a moment before realizing what was happening.
“That sucker was getting ready to play this game. Why am I saying this? He was bouncing the ball getting ready for the game. That’s who he is. He was going to play his best no matter what the hell the atmosphere or the circumstances were. He was in a pissy old urinal in goddamned Germany and he’s getting ready to play the game like it’s UNC against Georgetown in the Superdome. That shows you the mentality he’s carried throughout his whole life.”
Where to Buy Michael Jordan: The Life
Looking for more motivation? Check out this list of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes.