By Gio Gloria
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Parents are of course a kid’s first teachers. But as the child grows up, he’ll meet various mentors who will be guiding and explaining the ways of the world.
For all his abilities on the court, it took a handful of coaches to elevate Michael Jordan to GOAT status. This isn’t meant to slander MJ, nor is it a take that coaches are the be-all and end-all to winning titles. His Airness got his basketball education from a diverse set of coaches, all of whom imparted a particular lesson and shaped one of the greatest stars in all of sports.
Pop Herring: That MJ high school story
Everyone knows the story; Jordan did not make the cut for the Emsley A. Laney High School basketball team as a 9th grader. It lights a fire under him, and he proceeds to work his way to the varsity team, averaging 25.82 points through two seasons and capping off his high school career as a McDonald’s All-American.
Roland Lazenby, in his book Michael Jordan: The Life, wrote that the coaches at Laney High School don’t remember having formal tryouts on that fateful fall season back in 1978. Jordan’s friend and fellow sophomore Leroy Smith made the team, but it was more for his height at that time (6’6”) rather than his talent. But what made things worse was that Michael wasn’t called up to the varsity squad during the district playoffs, a tradition Lazenby describes as something customary at season’s end.
Lost in the narrative of Jordan’s setback was the head coach of Laney High, Pop Herring. Contrary to what others may think, he was very much a father figure to Jordan, even picking him up from his home at times to take him to school for early workouts in the gym. Despite his rapport with MJ, perhaps this was his way of teaching him that his time had not come yet. This setback drove Michael to train harder and thanks to a four-inch growth spurt, he got better.
“I went to my room and I closed the door and I cried,” Jordan later said when recalling that moment.
Regardless of what really happened, this part of Jordan’s life was perhaps his first taste of basketball adversity. His hoop exploits may have started when he played in his backyard at home against his brothers, but his high school stint got the ball rolling and set him on his path to greatness.
Dean Smith: The basketball version of a college education
Respect the game and it will treat you well. What stood out during Jordan’s three-year stint with the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels was under head coach Dean Smith, Jordan was taught a newfound appreciation and understanding for the game. Yes, the UNC coaching staff saw potential in MJ but he still had a lot to learn even with all his talent and his high school achievements.
Among other things college students faced, Jordan had to earn his stripes as a Tar Heel. He was famously omitted from a Sports Illustrated cover where Smith and four starters (Michael was the fifth starter) graced the cover. Smith wanted to instill the “earned-not-given” mentality in his young star and he was very much fair in this aspect, rewarding Jordan for all the work he put in by going to the freshman in the final play in the 1982 national championship game. MJ hit the game-winner, won the title for UNC, and put himself on the map.
Overall the changes that Jordan went through were so profound that current UNC head coach Roy Williams, who was then an assistant for the Tar Heels, mentioned that the 1982 title run was when “Mike” became “Michael”.
Michael spent two more years in North Carolina, getting what the late Laker legend Kobe Bryant likened to a college basketball education. Bryant sought Jordan’s guidance during the early stages of his career, learning the nuances of the fade-away, guarding bigger players, and handling the pressures that come with being an NBA star.
Doug Collins: Kindred spirits
Great minds think alike. That’s perhaps the best way to sum the relationship between Jordan and his second head coach in the NBA, Doug Collins. Collins played through his star, while Jordan just wanted to make mincemeat out of opposing NBA teams.
Collins unleashed Jordan towards his full individual potential, and it was during this time that he won MVP, All-Star Game MVP (and Slam Dunk Champion), and Defensive Player of the Year all in the same season. To this day, MJ is the only NBA player to achieve this feat.
Though Collins wasn’t Michael’s first head coach in the NBA (that distinction belongs to Kevin Loughery), the general vibe from The Last Dance was that Jordan found a kindred spirit in Collins. Both were competitive and trusted each other to the point that you’d think they’d run through a wall for another.
Perhaps no other moment could show the trust Collins had for Jordan than this clip below:
Phil Jackson (and Tex Winter): The Zen and the Triangle
Even with his burgeoning talent and innate athleticism, Michael needed to be reminded basketball is first and foremost a team sport. It would be Phil Jackson and Tex Winter who would instill this team-centric mindset, even if Jordan reminded us there’s an “i” in “win”.
Among all the coaches he had, it was Jackson who unlocked a truly dangerous side to MJ, one that didn’t just push the envelope but put the emphasis on a winning mentality. Everyone knew Michael was the primary threat, but Jackson and Winter wanted ball movement to find the best shot possible. The triangle offense aimed to somewhat stretch the defense, keep them guessing, and give Jordan unique spots to create.
The triangle offense was as equal opportunity as you can get, and even if critics continue to call it outdated and passe, certain concepts within the triangle remain with the systems of the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs (although they may not admit it), and even the PBA’s Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings, all of whom have coaches who were influenced by both Jackson and Winter.
Apart from their on-court performance, Jackson’s meditations and penchant for handing out books to his players, he was that Mr. Miyagi-esque figure that put them in the proper disposition needed to face their opponents, the media, and the overall drama of what was a highly contentious NBA season.
Chuck Daly: Dream Team
Daly was Jordan’s coach in the 1992 Dream Team, a few years after Daly’s Bad Boy Detroit Pistons had a heated and controversial rivalry with the Bulls. Michael didn’t really seem to mind having Daly on board, while the former Penn head coach knew it would be (nicely put) unwise to leave the best player in the game out of perhaps the greatest iteration of the United States’ national team.
Daly could have fought to have Isiah Thomas on the Dream Team, but he knew that the integrity of the team (and securing the commitment of Jordan and Magic Johnson, both of whom had issues with Thomas at that time) was of utmost importance. It also helped that Daly was a golf aficionado himself, something that endeared him to Jordan.
While Daly was certainly hands-off during Team USA’s unbeaten run during the 1992 Olympics, his influence was more off-court. According to Jack McCallum in his book Dream Team, Daly wanted to name the guy he created the “Jordan Rules” for as a team captain along with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Jordan turned it down, but nevertheless the respect was there.
There was mutual respect, something that comes from achieving success and age. Daly didn’t win an NBA title until he turned 58. Jordan won his first championship in his seventh NBA season.
Perhaps McCallum summed it up perfectly: Chuck Daly understood superstar intellect.
The great ones aren’t born from the onset; they’re built brick by boring brick. Michael Jordan put in the work, absorbed the tough setbacks, and rose to the occasion to win six NBA titles. The credit fairly belongs to the man in the arena, but his coaches helped him harness all his capabilities into unparalleled success.