How did Michael Jordan play?

Michael Jordan’s greatness became a symbol of itself. Such was MJ’s dominance that he was understood more as the definition of success than by the on-court elements that comprised his success. A lot was lost in translation from past to present. We may think of Jordan as one of the most analyzed American figures, but a reputation in the superlative can obscure what greatness tangibly is. Once we bestow the almost religious quality of “greatest” on a man, we start thinking of his exploits as acts of God, and grow less curious about how they even happened.

That isn’t entirely accurate though. There was a fascination with how Michael Jordan became himself. It’s just that, back in the ‘90s, MJ’s arc was explained more through a psychological profiling. He was the ultimate competitor, driven by slights real or imagined. You could fall down a steep rabbit hole in wondering why an ultimate competitor would need to imagine criticism. Is the desire to compete indivisible from the impulse to quell external stokers of insecurity? Is it not enough to just like winning? And if you’re inventing criticism, how you do not know you’re doing that?

Psychological explanations also abound in describing how MJ’s play finally crossed that title watershed. For years, writers waxed approvingly on how an aging Michael exchanged his high-flying act for a sound, Puritan post-game. There was also the widespread notion that MJ once, fatefully contorted himself into the shape of Phil Jackson’s triangle. Apparently, Jackson had designed a conveyor belt factory that converted Jordan’s subsumed ego into trust of teammates, the mix of which was melted into metallic rings.

There were a non-psychological descriptors of Michael Jordan’s beautiful game. He could “fly,” he had “hang time.” His nickname was “Air Jordan,” after all. There are a few wonderful, iconic moving images that convey the words better than the words can. A back-view camera angle captures Jordan’s incredible lateral mobility in “The Shot” against Cleveland. “The Shot” is preceded by a mid-air shot-fake. That the ball rattles in only perfects the visual–better than a swish would, even. Jordan’s flurry of zig-zags compels the ball to copy his shimmy on the way down. “The Shot” is more a snake charming than a heave, with the ball powerlessly shadowing the movements of its hypnotist.

There is also Marv Albert’s famous call of a “spectacular move!” This was an exercise in needless artistic decadence as Michael switched hands mid-air, from one side of the basket to the next. Chicago was trouncing Los Angeles en route to Jordan’s first title. The move was the triumphant encore of the suddenly unburdened performer. Or it was understood as such. Or it was just awesome.

Of course, you know the other shot, the one he hit over poor Bryon Russell. It symbolized Jordan going out on top, which is an important way to leave to some folks. Later, MJ came back to play for Washington, prompting hand wrings from those who loved the idea of that basket blessing his exit. Jordan’s Wizards return never tainted the Russell moment for the same reason people were worried about the moment getting tainted. The Chicago run was memorably perfect, so memorably perfect that the Russell shot really did signal the end anyway.

All that narrative is fun and fine, but I want more on how Michael Jordan physically triumphed over opponents. Enough with the “desire,” “drive” and all that other human interest jargon. I want an unpacking of the magician’s tricks–not the a somber tale of how the magician grew up just wanting to make the haters disappear. On a granular level, how did history’s greatest basketball player move in such a way as to make meaningless the movements of his foes?

I’ve been watching all the old footage I can, watering this recent obsession. Here’s the story, from the perspective of an adult looking at what a child once thoughtlessly consumed with great wonder and great stupidity.

Michael Jordan moved a bit like Tim Hardaway. Both hunched forward while dribbling the ball between open stances. The difference in their handles was in MJ’s handsize. Those fingers never seemed more encompassing than when Jordan held the ball out, far from his body. It’s in the canon of talked-of Jordan imagery, I believe.

What falls by the oral tradition wayside is how those hands deceived opponents. Michael had a devastating inside-out dribble. Wide hands allowed MJ to employ this move with digits draped over the ball like an arcade prize claw. Jordan almost never carried because he did not need to. Refs aren’t quite sure what to do about a man who can palm a bouncing ball without moving his wrist.

Allan Houston had an inside-out move that helped the sharpshooter create space for a jumper. Before Houston succumbed to knee injuries, this was very effective. In the halfcourt, from a point of stasis, Houston’s hand would shake the ball around while dribbling, confusing defenders who sought to be where Allan was headed.

Like Allan Houston, Michael Jordan used the move in halfcourt situations. But Jordan could also use the inside-out dribble while running full speed in transition. This is no minor detail. It’s like a pitcher being able to throw a curveball at 100 mph. It was bad enough that Michael dashed faster into open spaces than anyone else. MJ also had the rock darting every which way as he flew past–like a rabid Cerberus was attached to his shoulder. To get in front of this was to guess quickly and correctly. Few did.

If that transition game wasn’t inexorable enough, Jordan loved to lull opponents into thinking the transition phase over. After securing a rebound, Michael might dribble slowly, aimlessly trundling up the court. Like a good comedian, MJ controlled his audience with well-timed pauses. From those pauses, the comedian would suddenly fly out with a stunning display of pace and flair. The joke was you, thinking Jordan might let you live.

In the halfcourt, Michael Jordan was equally manipulative. He would use the pauses, often when standing with the ball. Only, Jordan wasn’t exactly standing. His pivot foot was more of a pivot toe, because his feet were ballet-tilted downwards.

His left foot is actually the pivot

Michael’s non pivot toe would torture the opponent, spelling out various cursive words until the foot finally stabbed, say, rightward. The defender would move in that direction, but do so too hastily. The right-seeking toe planted in the ground, launching Jordan’s body to the opposite left direction. At this point, the functionally of a pivot toe becomes apparent. MJ continues his momentum, pushing hard off the ball of his once-pivot foot as he takes his first dribble. A flat pivot-foot could not push so quickly. Below, a blurry example:

There is more, so much more. This article did not address Jordan’s post-game in any meaningful sense, for example. But the point is that this well-lauded player should get even more praise for some of the specific details he mastered. We might be underappreciating Michael Jordan’s genius because we only recognize it as genius.

Related posts:

  1. Would Michael Jordan Really Score More In 2010?
  2. His Own Man: LeBron James Finally Escapes Michael Jordan’s Shadow
  3. Goodbye, Michael Beasley
  4. Dwyane Wade’s big play
  5. Inside the play: Bulls UCLA read


  1. [...] • Basketball moves so quickly, you sometimes to have slow down and rewind to refresh your memory on basic questions: What set was that? How does Player X dribble the ball? Where are Player Y’s sweet spots? Ethan Sherwood Strauss does this exercise with Michael Jordan’s game. [...]

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