ESPN’s new series The Last Dance is an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at Michael Jordan’s sixth and final championship run in 1998. Through flashbacks it also tells the story of Jordan’s career and the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty that dominated the NBA in the 1990s. It is full of lessons not just for basketball fans but for anyone who wants to build something great. Here are the lessons that should resonate with founders:
1. Expect to be under-estimated.
Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore. But instead of quitting, he used his frustration as fuel to get better. Later, after winning a college national championship at UNC, he was picked only third in the NBA draft. If the future GOAT was under-appreciated, you will be too. Don’t brood over the passes. If you want to be great, focus on proving it on the court — with your performance.
2. A missing piece of talent can bring it all together.
Jordan played with the Bulls for six seasons before winning his first championship. It took years of finding the right pieces, like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, to build around him. It didn’t all come together until Phil Jackson became head coach and instituted the triangle offense. Phil was the missing “cofounder.” Adding a missing piece of talent is often the big unlock for doing something great.
3. You can’t do it alone, no matter how great you are.
Phil’s key insight was that an offense based solely around MJ was too predictable and therefore easy to defend against. Prior coach Doug Collins’ playbook was “give the ball to Michael and get out of the way.” Phil’s triangle offense was all about creating threats including but not limited to MJ. It was a flexible system that allowed every player to contribute their strengths and complement each other. Being the best player on the court only gets you so far. To win big, founders need to surround themselves with other greats and role players, working in a system that brings out the best in everyone.
4. Tolerate eccentricity if it helps you win.
Phil and MJ let Dennis be Dennis, allowing him to take “vacations” as long as he brought it on game day. A more corporate coach wouldn’t have tolerated Rodman’s eccentricities. The genius of Phil Jackson was knowing how to manage the personalities and giving Dennis the room he needed while cultivating the loyalty that would pay off on game day. A lot of big corporations lose that 10x engineer because they don’t know how to accommodate eccentricity. Startups have the flexibility to manage like Phil.
5. The team wants to be pushed.
After losing to the more physical Pistons in 1990, MJ pushed the team to work all summer, lifting weights, adding muscle. The team responded to that leadership: they wanted to be pushed to greatness. The Bulls came back and won their first ring in 1991. There was no looking back after that. Founders who lead from the front can push the team much harder than anyone else.
6. The path to greatness can be a lonely road.
In his rookie year, on an away game, Jordan walked in on his teammates partying hard in a hotel room. He turned around and walked out. “I was on my own after that.” Rather than bending to peer pressure, he was content to take a solitary path and eventually bent the team to his will. It wasn’t just his competitiveness on the court, it was also the discipline, practice, and quiet decisions off the court that reflected MJ’s will to win. If you want to be great, you often have to take the road less traveled.
7. Choose equity in yourself over the security of an established brand.
Jordan’s manager David Falk, another brilliant teammate that MJ chose early on, insisted that Jordan get his own shoe line, rather than a simple endorsement deal. While the other NBA superstars signed with established brand Converse, Falk and Jordan eschewed safety in numbers and cut a deal with upstart Nike. This put Jordan in his own category, with far greater upside. Sure enough, Air Jordan reinvented the sneaker market and catapulted Nike to market leader. The security of established brands tends to be overrated. Better to choose equity upside in yourself when you have the opportunity.
8. Avoid drama.
The final season was filled with off-the-court drama involving contentious contract negotiations with Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. Jordan expressed support for his teammates but avoided criticizing management. He didn’t let himself get drawn into the drama. Throughout his career, the media scrutiny on Jordan was intense, but he managed to stay positive, classy, and focused. Drama is a waste of time and energy that the best seek to avoid.
9. Keep it pure.
When Jordan came back from an injury late in his second season, management limited his minutes, possibly to tank their playoff chances and secure a better spot in next year’s draft. MJ didn’t go in for those kinds of shenanigans. He risked management’s ire by pushing to play more minutes and win a playoff spot. Founders get in trouble when they try to game the stats. Keep the competition pure and let the chips fall where they may.
10. ”Overnight success” takes time.
Jordan’s reputation before the first championship was that he was a spectacular performer but couldn’t win championships like Bird or Magic. There was nothing easy, automatic or guaranteed about MJ becoming the GOAT. There were six long years of trial and error before the dynasty took hold. Jordan admits that he was bothered by the talk that he couldn’t win the big one; of course, he proved them all wrong in typical Jordan style. Founders should remember that the reputation you end up with isn’t necessarily the one you start with.
11. When you find the winning formula, press it — and keep winning.
The last dance (6th championship) almost didn’t happen because GM Jerry Krause wanted to go into a “rebuilding year” by trading the veterans and letting Phil Jackson go. Jordan countered: “the Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years.” He insisted he would only play for Jackson, forcing ownership to keep him for another year. The team stayed together and squeezed out an extra ring. The second 3-peat cemented Jordan’s GOAT status. It’s so hard to create a winning formula that once you do, fight to keep it together as long as possible. If you’re lucky enough to reach the promised land, appreciate what you have and make the most of it.
These lessons are based on Episodes 1–6. There are 4 more episodes in the series.