In 1991 Gatorade revealed one of the most effective sports advertising campaigns in history. So effective, in fact, that everyone is still familiar with it. The television ad featured Michael Jordan shooting hoops with kids and a surprising amount of white adults (very accurate), laughing and drinking Gatorade from plastic cups and bottles. Interspersed are classic Jordan highlights – the Switch Hands Layup, The Shot – and playing over all this is an impossibly catchy jingle that nestles itself comfortably in your cranium: “Wish I could be like Mike…” The message of the spot is just about the least subtle advertising you will ever see. At the end of the minute-long ad is type that says “Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade.” While only the grossly naïve would equate drinking a sports beverage with becoming more like a great basketball player, the underlying message is crystal clear: everyone wants to be like Michael Jordan – and this was before he won 5 more championships.
The more amazing thing is the way all post-Jordan basketball players have been affected at all levels of the game. One-on-one skills and outside shooting (even for big guys) became the attractive way to play. The concept of clutch became a dominant talking point. Despite what reality had to say and what your actual skill set was, everyone wanted to Be Like Mike.
This has come with positives for the game, sure. Last second, fadeaway buzzer-beaters are freaking exhilarating, as are flashy, Streetball-esque one-on-one moves. Another positive is how, after his career, Jordan has become the constant in the eternal question, “Who is the GOAT?” This allows us to come to general agreement in the conversation on what the standard is for the greats. I’m sure before Jordan started racking up titles, you could argue for Bill Russell or Kareem or even Magic or Bird, but after MJ finished the argument mostly stopped. This has allowed us to bask in Jordan’s greatness instead of nitpicking it for the sake of bettering another player’s case.
However, I would argue there are just as many negatives to the “Be Like Mike” universe we live in. Since his heyday, players have been attempting to play in a Jordanesque manner — particularly in crunch time – that has hurt the game by introducing Hero Ball, and coaches are just as guilty.
The shot clock is off, the game is tied, and one team is going to take the last shot for the win. What do you see happening next? A perfectly run set play to free an open shooter? A well-executed screen to create space for a drive to the hoop? No. The common play at the end of the game has become the Iso, which just means handing the ball to your best player and telling him he has to shoot it. The logic behind this is flimsier than David Lee’s post defense: “Your best guy has to take the last shot. Who else?” This line of thinking is about as lazy as it gets and it has infected every level of basketball. The NBA may deserve some benefit of the doubt, as most NBA defenders won’t be fooled by a simple give-and-go or backdoor cut. Still, the lack of creativity is astounding. So many last-second plays end up with the team’s star struggling to free up space by himself, which results in a low-percentage shot that needs a miracle to go in.
I was watching a Spurs-Warriors game (which became a preview to a Western Conference semifinal series) late last regular season. The Spurs, down two, had just called a timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Gregg Popovich, being the basketball genius he is, drew up a play where Manu Ginobili inbounded to Tim Duncan at the elbow. Then, a backscreen was set on Manu’s man as he sprinted at Duncan, who completed a simple handoff to Manu. Duncan’s defender (I believe it was David Lee) didn’t have the speed or anticipation to cut off Manu and it was an easy layup to tie for San Antonio. Everyone I was watching the game with (including myself) took a few minutes to express our admiration for the Spurs system. But really, what was so amazing about it? The worst JV high school teams have executed a backscreen and a handoff. What’s amazing is how the Spurs’ ability to run sets and get high percentage shots is an anomaly in the NBA. The next play of the game featured Golden State Warrior guard Jarrett Jack going one-on-one in an isolation set that ended in him taking a contested shot that clanked off the rim as time expired.
This is Hero Ball: A post-Jordan crunch-time strategy that is employed by almost every NBA team. All those highlights of Jordan ripping the net with step-back, midrange jumpers to win the game have played a major part in this. The problem? Not everyone has a Michael Jordan on their team. In fact, no one does. The poster boy for this era is, of course, Kobe Bryant. Like most, he undoubtedly grew up idolizing MJ. So much so, that Kobe’s game has always resembled – nay, mirrored – Jordan’s style. Bryant has some natural similarities of course, such as his height, weight, and his leaping ability when he was younger. However, Kobe hijacked many of Jordan’s moves and aesthetics, all the way down to MJ’s fist pump and fierce expression after hitting a big shot. Obviously, Kobe Bryant has been good enough over his career to create his own brand, but he remains an ideal post-Jordan player – a hyper-competitive guard with athleticism, an excellent jumper, and a ton of swagger. I don’t believe Kobe has ever been even close to Jordan’s level of dominance in the 90s, but he’s probably as close a player stylistically to Jordan that we are going to get.
The problem, though? Kobe was never up to Michael’s level and it has showed when he has resorted to Hero Ball throughout his career. When Bryant takes it upon himself to win games for the Lakers without trusting the system or his teammates, things usually turn out bad. He takes consecutive contested jumpers or forces the issue trying to get to the rim, and his “clutch-time” stats back this up. These are both low percentage ways to get a basket when it should be about making the right play.
Okay, full disclosure: Everything above was written in June of 2013, almost two years ago. I found it while rummaging through random old Word docs on my laptop. I’m posting it now because my thoughts have evolved somewhat on the topic. Basically, this is me responding to myself two years ago.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve spun 180 on the issue. Most of what has happened in the NBA since then actually turned out to (very fortunately) prove my point. I wrote it smack in the middle of the epic 2013 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Miami Heat. Both teams were built heavily on ball movement and spacing. While the Heat took the title on the back of LeBron (and, of course Ray Allen’s legendary last-second Game 6 bomb) in seven games, the Spurs would get their revenge a year later via zippy “extra pass” ball movement and unthinkably accurate shooting. This season, the Warriors and Hawks lead their conferences through smart, modern offenses that value these same principles.
We’re starting to see the consistently successful teams eschew iso-based attacks in favor of off-ball motion and quick passing; essentially, the system is triumphing over individual will. Is this simply an anomaly or the beginning as we move further away from the shadow of Jordan’s “Be Like Mike” influence?
I won’t be able to answer that today, but I do want to provide a dash of nuance in my opinion on this. What I wrote two years ago sounds kind of like a grumpy, grey-haired 63-year-old bemoaning the devolution of my sport that was invented to allow high-minded concepts like Unselfishness, Discipline, and Playing the Right Way to flourish. The result is that I totally shortchange the value (and fun) of Hero Ball.
Without it, we wouldn’t have half of the most famous plays in the league’s history. Allen Iverson, Kobe, T-Mac, Wade, LeBron, Westbrook, Steph Curry, and so many more have all minted classic moments through this type of play; and that’s just post-Jordan players. It’s one of the reasons we love this game so much. This section from a Grantland article on Hero Ball speaks to this:
No kid stands in his or her driveway counting down the imaginary seconds of the big game just to then pass the ball. The hero ball shot, inefficient though it may be, speaks to the innate spirit of human ambition. It takes very little imagination to live by the percentages, and quite a bit of imagination to think you can beat them. To dare is risky. Which is why it’s entertaining. If I have to choose between a one-man show or the safest way to win, give me the show.
Efficiency is a smarter and more advanced way to run your offense. But it doesn’t make for the same kind of insanely high drama and against-the-odds playmaking. As fans, we shouldn’t necessarily wish this kind of selfish play become obsolete. I think as I drift further away from my playing days and my relationship with basketball becomes almost purely entertainment, I’m starting to realize how much we rely on Hero Ball to thrill and inspire us, which would be blasphemous to me a couple years ago.
Of course, I love to watch the Spurs’ “beautiful basketball” style of rapid passing and open 3s — a team as a complex organism working together. It’s just now I’ve learned to actually enjoy, guiltlessly, when Curry has a hot hand and splashes an off-balance 3 with a defender in his face. Shot selection and efficient play matter more than ever, but allowing room for the best to gamble occasionally on a slightly ill-conceived Hero Ball shot heightens the game to atmospheric levels. Maybe sometimes I should be thankful when players have the audacity to try and “Be Like Mike”.