Junior year of high school, I screamed at my best friend in a basketball game. I can’t remember the scenario perfectly, but we were playing an intense game toward the beginning of the season, and he missed a fast break lay-up—his second miss in as many attempts. The play was whistled dead (maybe the ball went out-of-bounds or maybe someone called a time-out), and I walked over to him, furious. I screamed in his face: “Make a f*****g lay-up!” He looked at me, hurt: “I’m trying out here, Brad.” To which I replied something like, “Well, try and make a f*****g lay-up.”
Earlier that same year, in the fall, another friend approached me after a soccer game. He said, “Brad, I really can’t focus during the game when you’re yelling at me. Could you tone it down a bit?” I don’t recall my response, but it arrived with a sneer. Maybe: “I’ll tone it down when you start playing better.”
And near the end of basketball season that year, our assistant coach pulled me aside in the locker room. Again, I’m fuzzy on the details (was it at halftime? after the game?), but I remember what he said: “Brad, I’ve coached basketball for many, many years, and you are the worst on-the-court teammate I have ever seen.” I was heartbroken and devastated, but I don’t think I let it show. I looked back at him silently, hung my head, and walked away. I didn’t know all the players he had coached throughout the years, but deep down, I knew he was right.
Like many sports fans around the world, I’ve been watching The Last Dance—the ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls—these past five weeks or so. There is a scene toward the end of episode seven when the documentarian asks Michael if his insanely competitive nature came at the expense of being known as a nice guy. His emotional answer ends with these words, as he holds back tears: “I don’t have to do this—I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I play the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” MJ calls for a break in the interview.
I’ve watched that scene four or five times now in full, and each time I begin to cry. Because I know the inner struggle Michael Jordan experiences in that interview. At some point in his life, he had to make a choice between winning at all costs and developing deep, long-lasting relationships with his teammates. A choice between winning at all costs and being considered a nice human being.
I never had an ounce of the talent Michael Jordan had, but I was a decent enough high school athlete. And yet after my junior year, I realized I had a choice to make. Did I want to be remembered as the worst teammate my coach had ever seen? Did I want to keep hurting my friends? All in the name of competition? For the sake of winning a few games or potentially attracting a few more college recruiters? No. I had to change course.
It was a slow transition, but my senior year I think I moved from worst-ever-teammate to a mediocre teammate who still had a tendency toward being an on-the-court jerk. My competitive drive didn’t evaporate, but gradually the ill-tempered tenacity that lashed out at the expense of others began to fade. I’ve worked for years (into college and seminary and beyond) to tamp down the meanness in me that seems to arise while playing soccer or basketball, two sports I love. And even so, I’m still boiling somewhere inside when I lose a pick-up basketball game or my indoor soccer team gets trounced. Now, though, I can shake it off almost immediately (key word: almost) and remind myself that it truly does not matter.
Here’s the thing that rips my heart in two: I think winning at all costs is a false choice. Being competitive doesn’t have to equal being a jerk. Competitiveness can be channeled into compassion and empathy, and these emotions inspire and fuel success just as readily as anger or rage.
After watching The Last Dance, some are suggesting that the closing scene of episode seven reveals a fundamental reason why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time: he made a commitment to winning at all costs, and his emotion in that scene underscores his relentless passion for winning. But (perhaps I’m projecting here) I don’t see the fight to hold back tears as a sign of passion. Instead, I see a man exhausted by the emotional toll his commitment to winning at all costs has had on his life.
So for MJ and my teenage self, I wonder: was there a third way?
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.