I mentioned on my recent appearance on the Golden State of Mindcast that I recently read David Halberstam’s book on the 1998 Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made.
Much like The Breaks of the Game, his legendary book about the late-1970s Portland Trail Blazers, Halberstam used the opportunity to write about that transcendent Bulls team as a way of thinking about the league at that moment. Halberstam’s book on Jordan and the Bulls enables him to look at the NBA on the cusp of the 1999 lock-out and everything that had happened since Jordan entered the league.
Given that he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, it goes without saying that Halberstam’s work is of the highest quality and worth reading no matter who you root for or what your interest level in basketball is.
With that said, I want to focus on the things in Playing for Keeps that resonate with the current Warriors and made me think of them even while I was reading this book about a different team from a different era of basketball.
The good-old days of the NBA weren’t as good as you remember
One thing Halberstam’s book made me consider was how time passing smooths over the rough patches or difficulties for the great teams. Especially with a player like Jordan, who became such an enormous figure that he stopped being a person and became a myth or cipher, there’s this way in which things are forgotten as the historical narrative develops into something easily digestible.
I had a similar thought while reading Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules a couple years ago. We have the museum-ready conception of those Bulls teams in our minds, preserved and perfect to tell a very neat and tidy story. We have that sense of those Bulls teams as finished products and that Jordan is the guy we see on commercials, a product rather than a human playing the game of basketball.
However, that certainly wasn’t the case.
In an interview leading up to the Warriors game with the Los Angeles Lakers when Bryant’s jerseys would be retired, coach Steve Kerr offered the following described his former Bulls teammate as “an absolute assassin”.
“Kobe has the same mind-set and mentality that MJ had. The assassin, the ‘I’m-going-to-rip-your-throat-out-with-my-scoring.’ The low-post dominant fade-away jumper...He could just get any shot he wanted. He never feared missing. He never worried about missing. He missed tons of game-winning shots and made tons of game-winning shots. He just went onto the next game and did the same thing over and over again. As I said, just an absolute assassin. The mentality was so ferocious. That’s what I remember most.”
Unfortunately, that “ferocious” “assassin” mindset that we all praised on the court seeped into Jordan’s life off the court as well, as Halberstam reminds us.
Jordan had issues with teammates, with the Bulls organization, and there were potential trades of Hall-of-Fame caliber players that didn’t happen that Jordan (and other players) would have liked to have seen.
Particularly in The Jordan Rules, Jordan comes off at times as petulant and like someone who doesn’t seem to want to do whatever was necessary to be part of a winning team (which seems a heretical thing to say now). As Jordan matured, he became more willing to work within a team concept and thus those edges were smoothed down, but the book certainly provides a challenge to the mythic understanding we have of him.
Playing For Keeps, and those books that talk about Jordan’s Bulls in a way that does not gloss over the rough parts, remind us that the present NBA did not invent players trying to facilitate moves and going to where other talented players were. Now they’re just better and smarter about it. Players wanted to change their situations and were unhappy with them well before our present moment, even if they didn’t or couldn’t change anything.
Those who bemoan how players are teaming up or trying to force their way into specific situations should take a look to the past, not their rose-tinted distortion of it, and realize that these kinds of moves and teams are not as new as they might think.
The Warriors are a different kind of super team, and Curry a different kind of leader
What the Warriors did in assembling this roster was something different and unique. Bringing in Kevin Durant (and Andre Iguodala before that) to play with Stephen Curry was not as simple as “let’s just sign these players because they are good, it doesn’t matter how they fit in and whether they want to be a part of this.” Unlike the Chicago Bulls’ teams, which appeared to have been a pretty toxic place — or other super teams — a big part of this Warriors team is that players want to play in this environment.
One part of this is Kerr who, after taking over for Mark Jackson, eliminated some of the negative and, shall we say, paranoid elements from the Warriors. Having played on that Bulls team and seen what that intense of an atmosphere can do to an organization and its morale, Kerr has developed a culture that is more conducive to harmony between the players.
The other big part of this is Curry. For an elite player, the face of the franchise and one of the faces of the league itself, like Curry to welcome in players who might represent a challenge to him, one must be profoundly humble. That humility and willing to see the bigger picture can be seen in Curry and extends throughout the squad. The ones who established this culture— Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green— welcome in players even if it might end up cutting into their piece of the proverbial pie.
Marc J. Spears writes about this in a piece written just after Durant announced he would join the Warriors.
Even so, Curry apparently felt it necessary to send Durant a message hours after the meeting Friday night to reassure him about his commitment to “Strength In Numbers” and unselfishness.
According to a person who saw the text messages, Curry told Durant in a text message that he could care less about who is the face of the franchise, who gets the most recognition or who sells the most shoes (Curry is with Under Armor, Durant with Nike). The two-time NBA MVP also told Durant that if Durant won the MVP award again he would be in the front row of the press conference clapping for him. In closing, Curry’s message to Durant was that all he truly cared about was winning championships and he’d like to do that as his teammate.
This is a kind of leadership that is truly unlike what’s existed throughout the history of the league. Other players might be leery of someone else coming in and taking too much of their spotlight or their control over the team. It would be seen as a challenge to them and their authority, something they would resist because they wanted to be the “alpha.” This attitude has also led elite pairings of talent in the NBA’s past to fail or only be sustainable for a brief time, because those more selfish inclinations begin to creep in.
But Curry, in contrast to those prior iterations and forms, has a move evolved and nuanced approach. He can see that because basketball is a team game it behooves him to sacrifice personally to benefit his team (which will ultimately end up benefitting him as a member of that team). Curry sees his team and his teammates, to quote The Bard, as “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” and thus is willing to give up something as an individual to strengthen and help his (basketball) brothers in arms.
“The stuff you hear about Steph as far as sacrificing and being selfless and caring about his teammates, caring about other people is real,” Durant said. “It's not a fake. It's not a facade. He doesn't put on this mask or this suit every single day to come in here and fake in front of you guys. He really is like that. And it's amazing to see a superstar who sacrifices, who doesn't care about nothing but the group.”
Most NBA superstars, even the greatest of them (such as Jordan), see responsibility and leadership as an act of taking. They take control, they seize the moment. Curry’s leadership, however, is based upon giving. He will give of his prestige, of his share of the limelight, to make his team better so that his teammates can experience success and to help a friend achieve their basketball goals.
Playing for Keeps addresses one of the particular challenges in a sustained run of basketball success
Playing for Keeps also covers just how much of a struggle that 1998 season was for the Bulls. Whether because they were an older team or because of internal conflict and drama, the Bulls’ championship season in 1998 was a far cry from the dominance of the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
That regular season was not the beginning-to-end domination that basketball fans had become accustomed to from a Jordan-led team while having to play much of the beginning of the season without Scottie Pippen. Those Bulls were also pushed to seven games against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and it seemed possible that they could lose, which never felt like a possibility through most of that run of basketball.
Given the Warriors’ occasional early-season struggles as well as the rash of injuries that has befallen them of late, this aspect of Halberstam’s narrative resonated with me as a Warriors fan this year. Kerr has brought up that 1998 Bulls team when he’s talked about the occasional dip into malaise they’ve experienced season, which comes up in an article for ESPN by Ramona Shelburne:
Kerr has been there. As a player on the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and the Tim Duncan-era Spurs, he says this Warriors team reminds him of the 1997-98 Bulls team that won "only" 62 games in the regular season after winning 72 and 69 games and NBA championships the previous two seasons.
"In  with the Bulls, we started off 8-7 ... and we were having all these team meetings," Kerr said. "[This] feels exactly the same. The fatigue, the emotional and spiritual fatigue that sets in when you've been going to the Finals.”
The comparison does not completely work, which Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver addressed in an article from roughly the same time as Shelburne’s article.
The 2018 Warriors might be sweating out a championship hangover, but they still defy any external precedent. This group isn’t the 1998 Bulls, whose core was largely composed of players over 30 and who lost Jordan to his second retirement after clinching the title. Instead, this will probably be the greatest and most efficient offense ever, driven by Durant and Curry, a pair of unselfish and committed megastars who are under 30 and who are now fully acclimated to life with each other.
Though the connection is not one-to-one, there is definitely a way in which that Bulls teams allows us to better understand why the Warriors have been struggling at times this regular season.
While we might feel the urge to panic because the team doesn't play as well as it could and drops games here or there, it’s also not necessarily a sign of doom. For a team in the midst of a long run of basketball success, like those Bulls teams were and these Warriors are, there will be an ebb and flow, which means that there will be those moments of ebb.
One way this has manifested itself is in Warriors’ losses at Oracle Arena. The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami notes this in a tweet after the Warriors home loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
Warriors' home records in the Kerr era:— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) December 30, 2017
2014-15 ... 39-2
2015-16 ... 39-2
2016-17 ... 36-5
This season after tonight's loss ... 14-5.
Though they’re still winning nearly 75% of their games at home, the Warriors are not as singularly dominant at home as they’ve been in the past. Some of that is due to just how absurdly dominant they were at Oracle in the previous few seasons, but it also owes to the accumulated strain of these postseason/championship runs that can lead to an occasional lapse in focus. This is normal for a veteran team that has played in three consecutive NBA Finals (winning two of them) and has its focus firmly placed on the playoffs. It doesn’t make those losses good, but it should remind us to temper our worrying ever-so-slightly.
As a leader, Curry resembles another NBA great who played college basketball in North Carolina— Tim Duncan
Playing for Keeps also serves as a reminder that you never know how long these runs of great basketball will last and that they will, by necessity, end and thus we should all be making sure to enjoy and appreciate what we get to watch now. Because, much like the great Jordan-Pippen-Phil Jackson Chicago Bulls teams, we get to watch something truly special happening on a basketball court.But the Warriors, unlike teams that live for the present at the expense of looking into the future, appear to be a team that has learned the lessons of the great NBA teams and those things that hastened their inevitable decline.
Using a term from the business world, the Warriors diversified their portfolio by bringing in Durant, which eases the burden that rests on Curry and makes them not quite as dependent on a single player. GM Bob Myers has also made smart draft picks that have produced young and affordable rotation players like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell, thus constructing a team that is built around sustainability and adaptability.
That said, this does not happen without Curry’s leadership. What you see throughout most of the NBA’s history are stars driving away players that would help them if it meant giving up some of the limelight or control.
In Playing for Keeps, Halberstam notes how Jordan and Pippen singled out Toni Kukoc, a player that GM Jerry Krause (with whom they’d both developed an antagonistic relationship) had become particularly infatuated, for ridicule on and off the court. Kukoc was a player that, if developed and incorporated properly, could have helped those Bulls teams and thus decreased the burden on the other players. But, because they saw him as someone trying to hone in on their corner, both Jordan and Pippen put him down.
It speaks to Curry’s temperament and style of leadership that he did not consider doing something like that with Durant even though he certainly could have felt threatened or under appreciated because of his arrival. But Curry knew it was good for him, good for his teammates, and good for Durant (someone he considers a friend) if he made that sacrifice.
What Playing for Keeps makes you realize is just how great of a leader and, dare I say, a person Curry is. It also really does make you see how, for some great players, Jordan is not the ideal measuring stick even though he is the one to which we always turn . While Jordan is perhaps the greatest player to ever play, Halberstam’s book leaves you wondering if some elements of Jordan’s personality perhaps precipitated the relatively-early burning out of those Bulls teams.
Curry, however, has proven himself to be a player that, in addition to his on-court excellence, is interested in developing a winning culture and environment even at his own expense. In that regard, Curry is closer to another of the NBA’s greatest players, which Kerr has noted as well.
“Steph sets the whole tone for who we are and our identity as a franchise and a team,” Kerr said. “We talk about joy all the time. Nobody plays with more joy than Steph Curry. The fact that he’s so unselfish both as a player and a human being. He’s so giving. When your best player has those attributes, it’s amazing with the tone it sets.
“It reminds me of playing with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, where his personality and the force of his humility and talent, which is a rare combination, but the force of that combination is just tone-setting for almost two decades in San Antonio. Steph is doing the same thing.”
In addition to being a well-written and fascinating book about one of the greatest players and greatest teams in NBA history, Playing For Keeps also provides us as Warriors fans with a better way of thinking about our favorite team. Halberstam’s book documents one kind of basketball greatness to which we can compare the kind we get to see executed by the Warriors. But Playing for Keeps also allows us to comprehend those things that sets the Warriors, and Curry in particular, apart and why their story might be one that ends up being quite different from Jordan and those Bulls teams.