Michael Jordan and the Art of Letting Go

28 Dec

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Coach Phil Jackson was nervous. That much was obvious from the way he paced the floor, hands in his pockets. It was game five of the 1998 NBA Finals, but the Chicago Bulls weren’t playing like champions and Jackson was getting damned tired of it. The whole team was stiff and most importantly, their star player, Michael Jordan, was having a bad night (he only made 9 out of 26 shots). For basketball fans, this is nothing new. They know that the game is very “streaky,” which means that past performance greatly affects future performance (even though in theory every possession and every game stands on its own).  And Jordan was in a really bad rut. Jackson needed to find a way to turn him around. Jackson had known that part of Jordan’s problem was that he was very gifted physically, which meant that, at times, he could take short cuts on strategy. Jackson realized that on this night, Michael Jordan was taking a lot of crappy shots. It was like he was trying to win the game through force of will alone (something he had done previously many times), but this time it wasn’t working. They lost the game.

Phil Jackson knew that he needed to help his superstar get back on track and it seemed like the harder Jordan tried to make shots, the worse things got. How was he going to turn things around? He couldn’t actually do anything to make the ball go into the basket…..then coach Jackson had a brainwave. He knew that the game of basketball is about percentages. Despite all of the highlight footage and the dramatic and amazing plays, basketball essentially come down to maximizing your CHANCES. That doesn’t mean that it always goes your way. Like Vegas, the casino will let you win some money, but the odds are always in their favor. The problem with Jordan during game five wasn’t that he was MISSING shots, it was that he was TAKING bad ones to begin with. The key to getting back into the flow of the game was to focus on getting good shots (i.e. open jump shots, easy layups, etc.) whether or not those shots actually went into the basket. Jackson needed to remind Jordan to focus on good shot selection rather than on making baskets. Jordan can score points on really bad even impossible shots and it had gotten him into trouble. He had turned a game of skill into a game of chance.

The next night was game 6 and Jackson and Jordan were prepared. They understood the difference between what they could control (the types of shots to take) and what they couldn’t control (whether or not the ball actually went through the basket). As a result, Jordan was more relaxed and more fluid, but no less determined. The Bulls were going to run their offense the way it should be run. If the basketball didn’t cooperate then there was nothing they could do about that. Jordan stepped out onto the court with the same swagger he had throughout the season. He remembered what he had known all along – don’t let the bad shots get you down. Every play is a chance to start again. Focus on the things you can control and let go of the things you can’t. Play loose. Play free. Play aggressive. Let the game come to you.

In the end, Jordan still missed over half of his shots (57% missed), but he and the team were much more selective. They had put themselves in the position to win which was really all that they could hope for. The final moments of that game, for those who don’t know, have become labeled one of the greatest performances in NBA history (Jordan making a steal with 16 seconds left and then making a shot to win the game), but there is a more humble story behind that iconic shot. Two men…Coach Phil Jackson and player Michael Jordan…learning to let go. 

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