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The Psychology of an NBA Champion

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The Psychology of an NBA Champion
Mike Powell/Getty Images
Michael Jordan, the standard by which all potential champions are judged

Michael Jordan has left his huge fingerprints upon every square inch of the NBA. Before him, there were few, if any, psychological prerequisites for an NBA champion. Leaders came in all shapes and sizes.

Well, they were usually very large and they all had the unquenchable desire to win, but they were otherwise an eclectic group. 

Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all differed greatly. 

Bird was a seldom-spoken loner who was publicly curt and often ornery.

Magic was an affable life-of-the-room who had a Bill Clinton-esque demeanor that made everyone feel like he wanted to be their best friend.

Walton was a Dead Head who grew from a stuttering child to an independently thinking man of the planet.

Wilt was bigger than life, a celebrity among celebrities who has been described as a presence, on court and off. He was more Greek god on vacation from Olympus than mortal.

Kareem was a yoga-doing giant who seemed apart from it all.

Hakeem was the selfless, honorable leader, as bright and articulate with teammates as he was respected for his ability to dominate during Ramadan on fewer meals than a man half his size required.

Russell was the focal point of his team who adapted his game to make up for his teammates weaknesses, convincing them that they were complete players through his own ability to understand their strengths better than they did.

It wasn't until Michael came along and rewrote dominance for the modern era that he became the model.

The only model.

Even as players like Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have continued to show how diverse the demeanors of champions can be, the Jordan legacy endures.

Today, if a player is not a tyrannical overlord of his team—with a desire to expand that empire across the league—we wonder how they could possibly ever win a title. Why don't they want to win, in as demonstrative of a manner, as much as Michael did?

Nowitzki was viewed as soft for years. It took a historic run through the 2011 playoffs for the sports-talk-radio industry to take him and his aw-shucks attitude seriously. Even then, it felt more like the morning AM jocks conceded more than accepted Dirk as a member of the championship elite.

Tim Duncan—the outwardly mute, small-market symbol of everything that's right with the NBA who nobody cares to watch or write about—gets a pass.

He is seen as an outlier, a guy who was able to win a few titles on skills and fundamentals rather than through his often-soft-handed leadership style. But really he is following the model of Russell. He has remade his game to allow Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili's strengths to shine while he remains the foundation, the caretaker of the San Antonio program.

But that's not what the masses want their superstar to be. They want the Jordan archetype. They want Kevin Garnett. They want Kobe Bryant.

Kevin Durant is buying in—increasingly short with officials who dare not give him the benefit of foul calls. Like Michael was. Like LeBron James pretended to be for a time.

The world has so grown to think that an NBA champion must be some dominant bully that Durant is in the midst of a Nike-sponsored campaign to convince America that he is "not nice." Because NBA champions are not nice, I suppose. 

Olajuwon, Nowitzki and Duncan secretly rip the wings off of butterflies all summer long as they prep for the season.

Didn't you know?

The ironic part is that Jordan never publicly fostered that image. In fact, he seemed to go to great lengths to convince the public otherwise.

He did full-length animated movies with Looney Tunes characters. He shot playful McDonald's commercials with his rival Bird. He played street ball and drank Gatorade with little kids to a dopey "like Mike" soundtrack.

It's strange, then, that his Jordan Rules persona is the one that those doing the talking on television and radio now so often equate to the psychology that a champion needs to have.

What type of psychology does an NBA champion need to have?

I'm not sure there is one. More than anything, they just need to be a helluva basketball player. Then, they must be a leader, and it helps if they have a limitless desire to win.

Other than that, it probably doesn't matter. The number of leadership styles and the psychological profiles can be as numerous as there are titles to be handed out.

Domineering worked for Jordan, Kobe and, somewhat, Bird.

Russell and Duncan used different, subtler methods.

Kareem, Wilt, Shaq chose to win titles by just being individuals with out-sized personalities and games so unique that their teammates could do nothing but follow them in awe—all the way to the top.

Magic was just Magic while Nowitzki is just as hard to define.

What type of psychology does a champion need?

Until last season, many thought "Jordan first, anything but LeBron second."

Then LeBron James stopped faking his villain role and re-embraced his own method, being the friendly buddy who would rather see his teammates succeed but will go ahead and do the work himself if that's what it requires. Of course, it was nothing new.

It was just him finding himself. It wasn't any departure from his core psyche.

Ultimately, teammates will follow those who are great and genuine. It worked for Russell. It worked for Jordan. It worked for Dirk. And, after some meandering, it worked for LeBron.

Perhaps the future will be different. The various styles will be better embraced. As the Jordan/Kobe demeanor fades from the forefront and players like LeBron, Chris Paul and Durant—as long as he doesn't stray too far from himself—will be the new standard bearers.

Until another archetype shows up, and the model changes again.

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