Book Review: ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith
Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sparked quite a firestorm of controversy when it was first released in late 1991, months after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured their first NBA title.
At the time, no one could believe the things Smith was saying, such as Jordan’s gambling addiction, his relentless bullying of teammates and the blind eyes his coaches, team management and league officials were turning to the behaviour of the sport’s transcendent megastar.
I finally got a chance to read the 20th anniversary edition of this legendary book, which includes a new introduction looking back on the furore and how the book came into being. There is also, I presume added from later editions, an epilogue written after the Bulls’ first three-peat (the last title coming in 1993), as well as an afterword summarising the events leading up to the second championship.
Even after all these years, The Jordan Rules is still an amazing book because of its incredible insights, revelations, humour and exquisite journalism. The biggest difference, reading it now, is that none of the so-called negative things about Jordan discussed at length in the book can really be considered surprises anymore.
It is now widely accepted that: 1. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and possibly the greatest athlete ever; and 2. He is/was a massive a-hole. These two facts are not mutually exclusive and should not mitigate each other.
It is now actually more unexpected to see a sports superstar who isn’t seriously flawed. People these days expect a mean streak or some level of douchbaggery in their sports heroes. Kobe, for example, is a dickhead, while LeBron and Dwyane Wade are douches and Dwight Howard is a twat. The few “good guys” such as Tim Duncan are considered boring and bland. That’s why people who read The Jordan Rules now will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Smith himself mentions this in the intro,
The book is titled The Jordan Rules (an allusion to the so-called tactics the Detroit Pistons employed to deny Jordan and the Bulls year after year, as well as the “special treatment” Jordan was afforded by his team and the league, such as skipping practice to play golf, avoiding punishment for dissent, and doing basically whatever he wanted without repercussions) but it’s actually about the entire Chicago Bulls team during the 1990-1991 NBA season.
The first few chapters take us through each of the months in the regular season, then into the playoffs and eventually, the NBA Finals. The narrative weaves in and out of events taking place throughout the year, including key games and incidents off the court, but also takes time out to give us brief biographies into each of the players on the team, coach Phil Jackson and front office guys Jerry Krause and Jerry Reisendorf. The rotund cheapskate GM Krause, in particular, is highlighted as a source of much of the discontent on the team for his unwillingness to reward players with fair contracts and his man-crush on Toni Kukoc, a European superstar at the time.
Smith was in a very fortunate position as a basketball beat writer in Chicago, giving him plenty of access to the players and staff, something which would not be possible in a post 9/11 world. He was also working in the pre-Twitter era where players were much more willing to speak to reporters without fear of it being broadcast to the world seconds later.
But are the stories in the book accurate? I’d like to think so. Smith claims nearly all the anecdotes and stories in the book are from first hand accounts from players and staff (my guess is mostly from Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, though he claims it was just about everyone). So obviously while there will be mistakes and exaggerations, I’d like to believe the book is credible, for the most part.
Smith has a deprecating sense of humour about his writing ability, but it’s actually very good and straightforward, guided bynprofessional integrity and laced with some timely dry humour. There are no Bill Simmon’s-style cultural references, though the book has no shortage of outrageous jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It is the kind of book I wished Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings had been. That book made the Bulls’ 1990-1991 season seem like a stroll in the park with barely a bump in the road, but The Jordan Rules revealed just how much tumult there was in and out of the locker room all year.
There is, of course, Jordan in the middle, the once-in-a-lifetime athlete who took the NBA and the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights. Jordan was not close to any of his teammates, not even Scottie Pippen (who was actually best buds with Horace Grant for a long time), and spent much of his time complaining about them because he thought they weren’t good enough to help him win a championship. He belittled many of them, telling his screeners and point guards to get the f*&% out of his way, freezing out teammates he disliked, and even punching center Will Purdue during practice. And he actually hated Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But Jordan’s relentless drive to succeed was as unparalleled as his god given talents, and I was stunned to discover that he didn’t even start lifting weights until around 1990 and was once a junk food addict.
I don’t believe, however, that Smith was trying to paint a negative portrait of Jordan. He is clearly in awe of Jordan’s unique talents on the court, and questioned why Jordan should not have received special treatment given what he was doing for his team and the sport. Despite his basketball prowess, Jordan was not perfect but felt like he had to project that image of himself, and often that pressure was too much to overcome. He was and is an extremely private person, but can’t go anywhere in public without being hounded, explaining why it was tough for him to hang out with the rest of the team. It doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour but it helps us understand why he might be this way.
Jordan is the focus, but the rest of the team received equal attention. Just about everyone else on the roster was worried about their contracts and concerned about playing time and getting their shots (because Jordan took most of them). They looked at Jordan with a mixture of awe, resentment, envy and jealousy, but at the same time had no choice but to acknowledge that he was by far the best player they had ever seen.
Pippen, for instance, having grown up dirt poor, was obsessed with financial security. He wasn’t regarded as the second-best player in the league at that stage and was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a contract extension as Krause focused all his attention on Kukoc. It was a contract year for him and he wanted to get paid, meaning he often hogged the ball to pad his own stats (and still complained about Jordan taking all the shots).
Horace Grant was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy on the team and hated Jordan. He believed he had the chance to be a star but could not get an opportunity to shine because of Jordan’s dominance. Bill Cartwright was the voice of reason on the team but also longed to be given a fair contract, as was John Paxson, who had been loyal to the team but was getting no love in return. BJ Armstrong was a backup who believed he deserved to start, and Dennis Hopson was a former top scorer relegated to bench warmer. Everyone had their own agendas and gripes, and it was virtually a miracle that they eventually learned to put their differences aside for a common goal — to win the NBA championship.
There is so much gold in this book. I won’t spoil too many but here are some of my favourites:
- Phil Jackson, upon hearing his players’ approval of the Gulf War: “Do you understand, he explained, that these are people who will never forget, the people who lose their father or a brother or a relative? They or their children or even their children’s children. Do you want to see, Jackson wondered, your son killed someday in an airplane explosion because we’ve made Iraq a terrorist nation from what we’ve done?” I know it’s Afghanistan, not Iraq, but the words are nonetheless prophetic and chilling.
- I loved any mention of Stacey King, the 6’11″ Bulls forward/center who was fat and lazy and got virtually no playing time but still believed he was a superstar and loved to BS to teammates about his prowess in college. Anyway, he once grabbed a single rebound in three games (84 minutes of game time!), and this is what one of the front office guys said: “A two-year-old could get hit in the head with more rebounds than that.”
- the words of 7’7″ center Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA, to Bulls coach Phil Jackson after Jackson kept telling refs Bol was playing then-illegal zone defense: “’Mother fuck, mother fuck, mother fuck,’ Bol shouted at Jackson in a sort of soprano hyena form of broken English. ‘Why you pick on me, you mother fuck?’”
- Charles Barkley to an official before a playoff game against the Bulls: “‘Hey, Ed,’ he yelled at Rush. ‘I hope you’ve got some Vaseline. I know you’re planning to fuck us, so maybe you’ll at least make it feel better.’”
- Jordan on why the Bulls could conquer the NBA despite the turmoil on the team: “’The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don’t have to like everyone, but you’ve got to work with them,’ Jordan said. ‘What we’ve been able to do this season is separate. Basketballwise, our focus has been the same from game to game. It’s been proven the best teams don’t always have to get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The difference is in the play.’”
- Pippen on his future teammate, Dennis Rodman, who was playing for the opposing Pistons at the time: “‘They really need to get him some help,’ Pippen was saying to Grant. ‘Really. This guy is crazy. It’s the one thing I’d never realized before and I was always too stupid to not let his stuff bother me. But now I can see it. I think he does have mental problems and needs help. Really. I don’t like him, but I think he is sick and it’s just not right that people like that are allowed to walk around free on the streets. They ought to get him some help. The boy is flat-out crazy.’”
- Jordan did some dickish things such as flaunt his ability to secure tickets for Bulls games in front of less privileged teammates, but could also be extremely generous, such as meeting Make A Wish Foundation kids just about every week, call all his teammates on the stage to receive his MVP award, and agreeing to the famous “We’re going to Disney World!” declaration after winning the finals only if the $100,000 fee is split among his entire starting five.
- Phil Jackson after seeing Jordan take a serious fall during the 1991-1992 season: “The trainer and Jackson rushed over. ‘I was expecting to find blood,’ Jackson related later. ‘Instead, we saw this beautiful blonde in the front row. That’s why we stayed out there so long.’”
So as you might have gathered, I had a great time with this book. My only complaints are that it may have exaggerated a couple of things: the disharmony on the team, making it a surprise to suddenly discover that the team was on its way to a record-setting season; and also the extent of Jordan’s selfishness, as he averaged 6.3 assists that season, hardly a representation of a guy who seemingly never passed the ball.