You’re probably thinking, “What does Michael Jordan have to do with the Cincinnati. Bengals?”
The answer is nothing, but this documentary isn’t really about basketball.
Basketball may have been the backdrop for ESPN’s latest gargantuan chronicle The Last Dance, but it’s really about competition and leadership.
There are lessons throughout the 10-part narrative that apply to all of us, but especially a rookie quarterback like Joe Burrow, who is trying to change the culture of a team which has struggled in recent years like the Bengals.
Here are some of the things that I hope Burrow took from The Last Dance.
Lessons from Rookie Year
In Jordan’s third NBA game, they played the Milwaukee Bucks.
This was a team that always beat the Chicago Bulls and they knew it.
“We were losing going into the 4th Quarter. Before guys would get down on themselves and they’d just kind of give up. ‘Okay we just chalk this up and we look for the next game’ and I’m saying ‘Well, the game’s not over with.’” - Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
Jordan refused to lose. He kept competing and the Bulls came back to win the game.
There are 3 lessons that Burrow can take from this.
1. Coming back and Close Games
The Bengals lost eight games by eight points or less last season. That’s over half of their losses that were determined by one score.
While you can look at that and say, “They aren’t as bad as their record,” the fact that they were 0-8 in one-score games shows that they don’t know how to win close games and you have got to be able to do that to compete for a championship.
All it took for the Bulls was an exceptional rookie with the right mind set.
Having a quarterback with that type of mentality—a quarterback who refuses to lose—could make a huge difference.
2. Defeating Mental Blocks
The Bengals have lost nine consecutive games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and are 3-18 against them over the last 10 years.
Obviously there have been a lot of changes to the roster in that time, but this is still a major factor. Just look at college and high school teams who change their roster completely every few years. They can still have the same type of mental block about beating their rival that the Bulls had about beating the Bucks and the Bengals have about beating the Steelers.
Jordan came in with the mentality that his team could win any game. He didn’t care who they were playing.
Burrow did the same thing last season. Going into the 2019 season, LSU had lost eight straight games against Alabama.
Burrow and LSU did not let that stand in their way of defeating the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
The Bengals need this mindset to beat the Steelers.
Some have questioned whether a rookie quarterback can be a team leader.
If he is able to thrive under pressure and push his team to victory in close games and games against tough opponents, the veterans will follow him.
He doesn’t have to talk to be a leader. If he is a relentless competitor whose will to win propels the team to victory in tough games, the team will follow.
That’s how Jordan competed, even as an NBA rookie.
Setting the Standard
Jordan did not fall back on the organization’s standard of excellence. He set his own.
He set the tone to be a leader with the way he practiced, even as a rookie. At that time he couldn’t be a vocal leader, but he could demonstrate his standard with the way he competed in practice.
As he became the established leader he became more vocal. He pushed his teammates and held them accountable. He demonstrated a high standard of performance and would not accept anything less from his teammates.
“If you can’t handle pressure from me, you’re not going to be able to handle the pressure of the NBA Playoffs.” - Steve Kerr quoting Jordan’s leadership, The Last Dance
Jordan knew what needed to be done to compete at a championship level and he knew he couldn’t do it alone, so pushed those around him to compete at that level.
When his team had a bad game. he pushed them harder in practice. When he came back from retirement and found his new teammates resting on the laurels of past Bulls teams, he reestablished his standard of performance.
He wasn’t worried about being anybody’s friend. He did what he needed to do to win and part of that was being the bad guy. His teammates may not have always liked him, but they know now that he pushed them to be champions.
“When people see this they’re gonna say, well he wasn’t a really nice guy. He may have been a tyrant! Well that’s just you because you never won anything.” - Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
Burrow is coming off of an undefeated NCAA National Championship season. For now, he needs to lead by example and teach this team how to win with his actions, like Jordan did as a rookie.
In time, he will earn the credibility to be more vocal and push his teammates harder.
Jordan was always competing. If it wasn’t on the basketball court, it was on the golf course, pitching pennies with security guards, or playing cards.
“We played cards every night against each other and if I had the upper hand he wanted to play another hour... another hour. And then he never wants to just beat you. He wants to put his foot on your neck and just grrrrowwwwllll! I mean you’re not satisfied with beating me, you wanna crush me too? Yep.” - Magic Johnson, The Last Dance
This reminds me of the video of Joe Burrow competing in the mat drill at Ohio State. When asked if it was normal for a quarterback to compete in these drills, Chase Young said, “No, but Joe a different dude.”
Most people don’t see this as a positive trait, but it absolutely can be for an elite athlete. The greats know how to harness anger and turn it into motivation.
Jordan used personnel vendettas against Dan Majerle, Tony Kukoc, and Clyde Drexler (among others) to motivate his performance, despite the fact that his issues with these players were not based on anything they actually did to him.
In the famed Dream Team scrimmage, Jordan’s team was losing a team led by Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.
Magic and Barkley let him know about it and Jordan was not going to let that fly.
Jordan went off and his team quickly captured the lead.
When the players got on the bus to go back to the hotel they were silent, until...
“All of the sudden Magic says to Barkley he said ‘Hey Charles, I guess we shouldn’t have pissed the man off’” - Rod Thorn, The Last Dance
There are already a number of things Burrow could take offense to. There is criticism about his arm strength and those who say that if he had to transfer to start, he can’t be that good.
Hopefully he has taken offense to the claims that he wouldn’t want to play in Cincinnati and that the Bengals ruin quarterbacks. That could be just the fuel he needs to push through those tough moments.
“Big downfall of a lot of players who are otherwise gifted is thinking about failure. Michael didn’t allow what he couldn’t control to get inside his head. He would say ‘Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?’” - Mark Vancil, The Last Dance
There is a reason Jordan was so clutch in the final seconds of a game. He believed in himself and his abilities.
Two big factors of belief are knowing that you have had success in the past and knowing that you have put in preparation to win.
Burrow put in the work in 2019, and it started long before the season.
He and his receivers stayed late after spring practices and came in throughout the summer to run routes and make sure they were on the same page.
As a grad student with a limited course load, Burrow was already watching film and studying their next opponent on the Sunday after a Saturday game.
LSU’s championship run may have come as a surprise to most of the college football world, but Burrow knew they were bound for a special season.
“We know the work we put in, and so that’s how, that’s why we have so much confidence in ourselves,” Burrow told ESPN’s Marty Smith during the season.
Michael Jordan is not just the greatest basketball player of all time, he is one of the most dominant athletes of all time.
Anyone in any field can learn something from The Last Dance that will make them better in their chosen field.
Burrow faces a tough task, massive expectations, and immense pressure. This documentary was full of wisdom about competition and leadership that could be extremely helpful to Burrow as he looks to make his mark on the NFL.