Rooting for the underdog – a debunked theory after watching Last Dance

Currently everyone is looking at the ESPN documentary “Last Dance”.  I was fortunate enough to have witnessed that era, and I have watched most of those seasons and championship finales live. The first one I watched completely was the 1991-92 season and final. Ever since I always rooted for the team trying to beat the Bulls. Michael Jordan was and still is the greatest player of all time. Someway somehow, I always looked for the underdog and rallied behind them. This is something I noticed I do in everything. I never choose the mainstream, or the obvious best out there. Why?…. I don’t know.

Now, almost 30 years later, as I watch Last Dance, I enjoy going back to those years and appreciate the impact it all had on our lives. And above all else……I really love Michael Jordan now. Never in 30 years would I have believed that I would say this. His approach to life, the game and everything that is shown in the documentary really resonates with me. It ignited a fire to which I wish to be able to go back in time and have the opportunity to compete against him (I played junior basketball in those years, and I LOVED the game). “He can’t guard me…..”. When they talk about him being a bully to teammates, I understand. I recognize it, and I don’t think he did anything wrong. He was right, if you can’t keep up, leave. If I am being honest, I think I would also be soft and complacent if I were a teammate of his. But I would also definitively have fought back, and taken on the challenge of becoming better. He is that kind of person, who forces the best of you to come out via though love.

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Anyhow, this documentary and all the people in it, really made me think about my own journey in life. Why am I where I am. What made me. Where did I go wrong, what could I have done better. Do I have what it takes?

The memories of my childhood provide me with some fundamental insights to answer the questions above. I was always above average in sports, not bad, but not able to excel. I was lucky enough to be exposed to many different sports: tennis, swimming, football, basketball, baseball and later on Muay Thai. I was never exceptionally good, but I was always good enough that I made the teams or held my own. My strength, from that age already was my intelligence and insight. It sounds arrogant, but it is how I remember and realize it now. While everyone was focusing on scoring and getting the ball, I always thought about organizing the defense, looking for gaps to fill. I also always wanted to help out the best players out there. In football terms I would be a defensive midfielder, who can occasionally score as well. As I got older, and noticed that I had leadership and organisational skills (even tough I was not the best or the strongest) I was always able to get the attention of others. And naturally positioned into some kind of leadership role. Mind you, a lot of times, the other kids were older than me. Academically I did excel, and was always top of my class throughout elementary school. And when it came to bullies….I wouldn’t take to much: snap, and fight back. This helped me establish some respect and boundaries, and created a “safe” position for me within the playground/street dynamics. I did receive and threw my fair share of punches.

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Thinking back, I think that I might have missed guidance and stimulation to develop these leadership skills. It would have been great if someone would have explained to me what my skills, strengths and weaknesses were. This might have helped me focus more, and develop myself to a higher level. As a result I became a “jack of all trades, master of none”. The only solid advise I got was from my mom, was : “get your high-school diploma, and you can do anything you want”. That’s what I did.

It was during my teen years that Basketball exploded as the most entertaining sport in the world. Michael Jordan and The Bulls were the hottest thing around. At the time, I did not realize how great they were. Yes, I knew they were good, but still saw them as a “normal” team and other teams had a real chance of beating them. As I am watching “Last Dance”, I am asking myself why I never rooted for the Bulls and Michael Jordan. Why was I always looking for the underdog, and putting all my hopes in them? Well, after some meditations on this topic I think I figured it out.

In the documentary it becomes very clear what Michael Jordan’s mentality and approach to life & the game is. Be the best, and really put every effort in this. Therefore he was able to dominate, not only physically but also mentally. What we saw was the result of at least a decade of hard work, sacrifice, discipline and no prizes. So by the time he was winning and becoming the most popular person in the world, I still did not realize what he had done to get there. Therefore, as most things in my life, I thought success would come easy with a minimum of effort. In my mind everything depended on some practice and luck. Choosing for the underdog, unconsciously re-enforced this idea. If someone can beat these Bulls and Michael Jordan, it proves my theory that all the sacrifice and practice is not at the foundation of greatness. indirectly influencing my own work ethics, focus and determination. 30 years later, I am so disappointed that I missed this key lesson. Yes, I knew that hard work will lead to success. But I did not understand what “Hard Work” was. Between school and all the other things I did, everyone always said it takes practice to become better. But I never really understood how (much) to practice, what to practice and how much determination and discipline it would take.

Dennis Rodman in this case is the best example for how I totally missed that point in my teen years. I also considered myself a misfit, maverick and rebel. I did not do things that got me into trouble, but I would challenge and question establishments and authority a lot. To me this proves again that I had an above average intelligence, which I should have groomed and developed for greater things. When I look at the episode about Dennis Rodman, I am amazed at the amount of time he dedicated studying the trajectories of the ball, making him one, if not the best defensive player in the NBA. Again, what we saw, was only the colorful and flamboyant Dennis. And yes, he was a good player based on talent, and some luck (I thought). He was surrounded by great players, so automatically he was also in the slipstream to be good. Not at all, the man did what he did, but when it came to basketball he was focused. He practiced, put in the hours and worked hard on developing his skills and become really good. I liked Rodman from his time at the Spurs already, and wanted to also be the best defensive basketball player in our junior league. But I never dove deep into what it took to become that good.

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Looking back on my first 18 years of life, I have never been part of a winning team. Almost never won first prize individually. I was, as mentioned earlier, above average. I did win a gold medal in swimming when I was about 8 and first prize in a drawing contest when I was 7. Other than that we always came in second or way below that. Why was that….? I did, and still have, a winning mentality but lacked the skills to take that to the next level. What also might have been an influence was me being a jack of all trades. Not knowing on what to focus in life. I was good enough in everything I did, and I was able to get by. Later in life I learned that visualization can be used as inspiration and an anchor point for determination and discipline. My focus was all over the place. In Last Dance, Michael Jordan clearly indicates that his focal point was winning the championship. He always came back to that visualization. Which helped him focus, practice hard and not be too distracted from everything that was happening around him.

A while ago I saw the documentary about Cristiano Ronaldo. Just like Jordan, he is also a sports phenomenon and superstar. His road to fame and glory is quite similar to that of Michael Jordan. He really focused on becoming the best football player out there, and practiced hard. Both of them are considered arrogant. But there is a key element in their approach to life and their sports. They are able to win consistently. Therefore their “arrogance” is the drive to make sure the others around them elevate to the same level. To them, winning one time was not enough. They want to win all the time. The other similarity I picked out is the fact that although they seem to lead a glamorous life, they do not have it easy. They do not have the freedom you and I have. I mean they can’t just take their kids to a day in Disneyland, they can’t go ad-hoc to a restaurant for a quick dinner with some friends. I am not saying they lead bad lives and are victims of their success. But I realized that everything has to be put into perspective. And while we only see the glitz, glamour and success. We lack to see the hours and days of hard work that leads to it all. The sacrifices they have made.

I am now 43 years old and perhaps this is what they call a mid-life crisis, but I think more of it as analyzing my life, and learning from the past to still do great things today and onward. It is the everlasting question that keeps lingering: “what do I want to do/be”. And while watching “Last Dance” I realized many things. It did open my eyes and made me understand why I always rooted for the underdog. It was an unconscious way of proving that you do not need hard work to win. The tipping point for my new understanding was when I researched Michael Jordan’s time playing for the Washington Wizzards. Him and his team have became underdogs. My kind of team you would say. And yes, in watching some old games online, I was rooting for them and felt bad seeing them loose to the NY Knicks for example and so on. Michael Jordan was not what he used to be anymore. Just like me, he was above average and playing for a team that did not win. But then when they ran his statistics….. The man was improving his game constantly. HE was 40 years old, and still improving his game in a very fast pace. If it were not for his knee injury, he might have become one of the top players averaging 40+ per game and leading the Wizzards to the playoffs. This proves again, that my whole underdog theory is not sound. Winning and being the best takes practice, focus, sacrifice and determination. And that it can be implemented and done whenever.

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Michael Jordan and his 6 Championship rings

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