Six championships, five league MVPs, 10 scoring titles and 14 All-Star selections have ensured that Jordan's career will live on forever. What he meant to the game of basketball will never waiver nor change.
But what made him? After countless accolades, how did he stay motivated? Why was he so great?
His Airness was seemingly a machine. He could do anything he wanted on the hardwood, whenever he wanted. Every one of his championships, of his MVPs, of his 32,292 points was laced with an unyielding determination. And they left us wondering how he could do it.
So how did he do it?
By embracing failure (via Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune):
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over, and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Jordan uttered those words in one of his most famous Nike commercials ever, and while he didn't write them, the authenticity behind their meaning is as genuine as anything anyone could have composed.
As great as he was, he was no stranger to adversity. He was heartbroken when he didn't make his varsity basketball team as a sophomore in high school. He remained a member of the junior varsity team, but it just wasn't the same.
He was no stranger to adversity at the professional level, either. From bodily injuries to multiple retirements to the normal rigors that come with perpetually facing up against an eager defender, Jordan encountered it all.
And it made him better. It all made him better.
Jordan strove for the impossible, he strove for perfection. With that, comes failure. Failure is something you have to accept and, as Jordan showed, embrace.
You also have to let it shape your work ethic, which he did. When attempting to obtain the seemingly unattainable, an unrelenting work ethic means everything (via MichaelJordanQuotes.org):
I play to win, whether during practice or a real game. And I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win.
That "competitive enthusiasm," that never-say-die work ethic, is important to success. Not just when it supposedly matters, but all the time—because it matters all the time.
From practice to a regular-season game to the playoffs, diligent efforts must be constant:
The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.
Few players throughout league history worked as hard as MJ. Is that some sort of a coincidence?
Of course not. Just like it's no mere happenstance that the most successful players in today's game—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, etc.—are some of the most assiduous athletes the game has ever seen. Like Jordan, all greats understand the importance of hard work and the perils of satisfaction.
Complacency is the enemy of success. Jordan could have been satisfied with one or two or even three rings, but he never was. He kept coming back to the game and losing himself in it, en route to winning six championships.
Such repeated dominance doesn't happen without hard work—without the understanding that you can't get what you want sans effort and determination.
The importance of that never failed Jordan. He kept pushing, kept willing. He kept fighting. Those six championships of his, along with the immortalized glory, don't happen without this work ethic His Airness refers to.
They also don't happen without his teammates:
There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.
Though Jordan was never known as the most amicable and easygoing of his teammates, the importance of them is something he never struggled to comprehend.
Revered predominantly for his scoring, Jordan dished out 5.3 assists per game and dropped more than 5,600 dimes for his career. It was his job to take the big shot, but not every shot. So he did other things, too.
Jordan used his ability to exploit defenses to make those around him better. He attacked the rim and kicked the ball out, he deferred down low when he saw fit, defended every possession as if the game was on the line and played for the team just as much as he did for himself.
With that comes a sense of responsibility. Of leadership. He was a great leader because he wasn't afraid of failure, because of his unrelenting work ethic, because of willingness to make sacrifices and play for his team.
And because "never" was not in his vocabulary.
"One day you might look up and see me playing a game at 50," he said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech (via ESPN.com). "Don't laugh. Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion."
Jordan's career, his attitude and the way he perceives the game of basketball is a testament to that.
And his methods and emotional approach to this game remain an inspiration to everyone a decade after his final farewell.
Just like they will 50 years from now.