There was a time when basketball's best player didn't need a marketing team or a prime time special to prove his dominance and secure his legacy. The way he prepared behind the scenes and performed on the court were statement enough. Michael Jordan had a singular goal, and it had nothing to do with developing his image. He set out to win and, in the process, destroy anyone and anything that stood in his way.
"When I played, obviously I was trying to gain an identity in Chicago," says the six-time NBA champ. "[When] I came to Chicago, we were at the bottom, and everyone became a target for me. That means Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas—those guys became people that I was targeting to step on, not in a bad way, [but] to get up the ladder and surpass them in terms of my career."
Call it ruthless, but this type of narrow-focused mindset is what leads to championships. To MJ, the process of attacking and outmatching the game's other great players was as important as the resulting hardware on his finger. Forming alliances and creating epic rosters were out of the question. Michael explains, "If I'm trying to get to the top, if Patrick Ewing is in the way, we're best of friends, [but] he's still going to be the second place finisher."
Tim Grover, owner of ATTACK Athletics and MJ's personal strength coach throughout much of his historic career, had as close a view of MJ's competitive mindset as anyone. "He wanted to beat the best of the best each and every single time," Grover says. "It's a different era now. The competitiveness between the great players was extraordinary back then. They were all close friends off the court, but on the court, they were all trying to get at each other. You could see it every time they went out. It was a war, and at the end of the war, Michael wanted to be the only one standing."
Grover and MJ first began working together as a result of the Bulls getting roughed up by the NBA's biggest bully, the Detroit Pistons, in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. MJ could have easily urged Bulls management to recruit some of the "Bad Boy" Pistons to play alongside him or manipulated his way onto the Detroit roster. Instead, he took aim.
"There was a small article in the newspaper saying how Michael was tired of taking the physical abuse from [them]," Grover recalls. "He wanted to start a strength and conditioning program, but he was afraid of lifting weights, because he wasn't sure what the effect on his game would be. I met with the team trainer and strength coach at the time and explained my philosophy, and they introduced me to Michael. He said he would try it out for 30 days, and it turned into 15 years."
Those 15 years of one-on-one training helped produce the greatest basketball player of all time. And while the current NBA off-season was more Hollywood than hardwood—less about basketball and more about free agency status and decisions—MJ's off-seasons were opportunities to improve his athleticism and refine his game. His big decision came each day at 5:00 a.m., when he awoke and chose to spend another day working harder than any other basketball player on the planet.
"He always felt like someone else was going to outwork him," Grover explains. "So, he wanted to outwork them first. He knew his weaknesses and his strengths. He had a big thing where he'd say, 'I'm going to turn my weaknesses into strengths.' You'll notice that every year his game [evolved].
There was always something that he added."
The additions to MJ's game were hardly subtle. They smacked his opponents and critics in the face as each season opened. When critics predicted that he couldn't win a scoring title and an NBA Championship, MJ went out and did it. When they said he was a one-dimensional player who could only score, he came back and won the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year Award. Going back to his initial goal of getting stronger to go head-to-head with the Pistons, he eventually worked his way up to being able to shoulder press 225 pounds overhead six times.
MJ's accomplishments are even more impressive because he was never the most gifted athlete on the court. "Michael's athleticism back in the day was extremely high," Grover says. "But, there were a lot of other athletes who were more athletic. The greatness came from the work he put in, his dedication to be his best, not wanting to lose at anything and studying the film and movements of his opponents. His physical attributes have been seen among a lot of other players, but the mental make-up was completely different. It's extremely rare."
The lethal mindset that drove MJ to win championship after championship was not a sometime thing. "He's the most competitive individual I've ever met," Grover says. "His competitive nature is the same, whether he was playing in the NBA Finals or in a pick-up game here at ATTACK. He took no prisoners. He wanted to win every single thing. It didn't matter who he was going against. He [went] out there to win and destroy."
Perhaps the major difference between MJ and some current superstar athletes is that he was fueled by a relentless passion for his craft, not for recognition. MJ focused on the present, not how he and his so-called brand would be perceived tomorrow. "I live in the moment," he says. "That's been my motto since I got on this stage and went from being known as 'Mike Jordan' to 'Michael Jordan.' You have to take the moment now seriously, because you never know what tomorrow may give you."
Neither the highest of honors nor the most dominant of performances could cause this competiveness and passion to waver. "He was never satisfied, no matter how many titles he won, no matter what people said, no matter how many accolades," Grover recalls. "He wanted to get to the top of the mountain, and once he was there, he knew it was even more difficult to stay. His level of motivation actually went up when he started to win championships. He would never say it himself, but he wanted other people to say he was the best to ever play the game."
Looking back on MJ's legendary career, the question has to be asked: What would happen if MJ were in his prime during this new era of basketball? MJ is quick to answer. "I wish I could turn the clock back 15 or 20 years," he says with a grin. "There would be some lessons taught (laughs). That's the beauty of competition. I'll leave it up to [everyone else] to make decisions or debate who's better, LeBron, Kobe or Michael Jordan. That's always going to be a debate no matter how you look at it. But if you ask me, I can easily and clearly tell you (smiles)."
Yes, His Airness is still the greatest.
Championship Training (Watch exclusive video of Michael Jordan's workout).
Each day at 5:30 a.m., Grover pulled into MJ's driveway, and the day's journey commenced. Whether or not you perform your workouts during pre dawn hours, the explosive sequences below will improve your speed, explosion, jumping ability and mental edge—just as it did for MJ.
Perform one of the two sequences twice per week with at least two days of rest between workouts. Go through the sequences three times, resting 1-2 minutes between exercises and 2-3 minutes before the next sequence.
- Assume athletic stance holding dumbbells at sides
- Step onto box or stable object and drive up until leg is fully extended
- Drive opposite knee high
- Slowly return to start position and repeat with opposite leg
- Continue alternating for specified duration
Duration: 30 seconds
- Assume split stance with left foot in front
- Lower into squat until front knee is bent 90 degrees
- Explode straight up for maximum height
- Land softly in start position and repeat for specified reps
- Perform set with right leg forward
Reps: 15 each leg
Lying Glute Stretch
- Lie on back and pull one knee to chest while keeping opposite leg straight
- Hold for specified duration and repeat with opposite leg
Duration: 30 seconds each leg
- Assume athletic stance with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
- Keeping chest up, core tight and knees behind toes, lower into squat until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
- Explosively drive up out of squat position
- Repeat for specified duration
Duration: 30 seconds
- Keeping chest up, lower into squat position until knees are bent at 90 degrees
- Explode upward for maximum height and bring arms overhead
- Land softly and repeat for specified reps
Standing Quad Stretch
- Stand on one leg and pull opposite heel to butt
- Hold for specified duration; perform on opposite leg
Duration: 30 seconds each leg
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