The Best Villains have Two Things in Common
I was enthralled with ESPN’s The Last Dance, a docu-series on the Chicago Bulls’ basketball dynasty of the 1990s.
The series gets its name from then Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson who had a theme for every season.
Jackson was given a one-year contract extension for the 1997–98 season, and because he and everyone knew that this was the last time they would all be together as a team, he titled the season, “Last Dance.”
It was hard to imagine that a guy who won five NBA championships would be given a measly one-year extension. Who would be dumb enough to make such a foolish offer? Not only would you lose arguably the best basketball coach ever, you would lose the best player ever.
Michael Jordan said after the 1996–97 championship that he would never play for another manager. Maybe he said this to encourage the front office to keep Jackson, and maybe that is why he received that extension. The series doesn’t give a clear answer, but I’m sure it played a role.
If you watched the series, you know who public enemy number one was, and I’ll get to him in a bit. But when I watched the series, I saw a number of villains. I’ll focus on two. They all had the same traits, they all had success and they all had downfalls.
1. Villains always think they’re the heroes (and they’re sort of right)
Forget your cartoon supervillain who wants to take over the world for some nebulous reason. Flesh and blood human beings do bad (or questionable) things, not because they are inherently bad people, but because they are so sure that they are right and will stop at nothing to prove it.
Jerry Krause had an eye for talent and wanted to be General Manager of the Bulls. When Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf heard of Krause, he was told to stay away from him. Good thing he didn’t listen.
Years later, Krause received a crescendo of boos when the Bulls celebrated their sixth title in eight years with their fans at Grant Park. Why? Because he was the one running Phil Jackson out of town.
Krause assembled these championship winning teams. He had just as many rings as Jordan. Who could question his eye for talent? Who traded for Pippen and in the first place? Who assembled arguably the beat team(s) in NBA history? Who hired Tex Winter and Phil Jackson? Who traded Oakley for Cartwright?
That last one especially seemed like the dumbest thing ever at the time. Michael Jordan himself was totally against it. And yet, who was proven right in the end? Jerry “Crumbs” Krause.
Krause believed he should’ve been as celebrated as Jordan. He considered himself and his staff champions too. “Players and coaches alone don’t win championships. Organizations do.”
It’s a great diplomatic answer. It’s correct. But it isn’t the point.
He and Phil Jackson had beef due to how Jordan and the team treated Krause. Krause was a short and fat man; not particularly attractive and grew up poor. He had a chip on his shoulder which always causes one to try to be great and to prove something.
But unfortunately that attitude (and physical stature) leaves you an easy target for private and public ridicule. Plus it doesn’t help to be nicknamed “Crumbs”. This leads us to our second villain, Michael Jordan.
Like Krause, Jordan had his reasons to think he was a hero. For starters, his name is synonymous with success and talent. He is a global brand because he is greatness personified.
I’ll list some of the stuff he’s accomplished. He won six championships and proved instrumental to the team because when he retired, the Bulls never won a championship despite all the talent they possessed.
He won six NBA Finals MVP awards, is a five-time NBA most-valuable player and fourteen-time NBA All-Star (obviously). He has a net-worth of $2.1 billion.
The problem with Jordan is that he was still a jerk. Writer Sam Smith chronicled in his book The Jordan Rules how MJ bullied his teammates into performing better or tried to expose their deficiencies.
Jordan wanted to win, and if antagonizing his teammates would get them to find the next level to their game, then so be it. Moreover, because Jerry Krause wasn’t going to keep Phil Jackson, Jordan had no problem taking out his frustration on Krause.
You could defend MJ because he got the rings, after all. But I’m afraid it likens him to a bully, a villain. This same attitude in a more sensitive arena would probably be abuse, so I really hope he didn’t treat his kids like he did his teammates.
Also, we tend to forget that Michael Jordan is a mortal and can’t do it alone. Jordan wasn’t even close to being “Air Jordan” until college. Before Krause had finished assembling the team around Jordan, they had losing records and were often beaten by the Detroit Pistons in the postseason.
Jordan claimed in the docu-series that while the front office was important, the most important part were the players. But who recruits the players in the first place, MJ?
It’s pretty clear that both Michael Jordan and Jerry Krause were right in certain respects. Jordan made the right moves on the court, Krause made the right moves off the court. Villains have vision and talent, and they know it. And they want you to know it and live in their world. But why?
2. Their insecurity will be their downfall
Like Achilles and his heel, one always stumbles because of their weak spot.
For Krause, I mentioned it before. He had a chip on his shoulder due to his upbringing and his physical stature. He had “little man syndrome.”
If he could get rid of Phil Jackson and whoever else wanted to go and build another successful team, his already secured seat in the Hall of Fame would be even grander.
He didn’t like that Jackson allowed Jordan and the others to ridicule him. He was a part of the team too, after all. They were in that locker room because of him!
A week after winning it all, Jackson stepped down. Jordan didn’t leave immediately due to the NBA lockout but once that was resolved, he announced his second retirement. Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr was traded, Dennis Rodman was released. The core of the basketball club was gone.
Naturally, the Bulls stunk. Even as Krause continued to add to the roster, they still stunk. He deflected criticism but it didn’t change the fact that they stunk.
Funnily enough, many of the talent Krause recruited would go on to be great players but he never saw them succeed in a Bulls’ jersey and Krause resigned in 2003.
They say that he who laughs last, laughs best. Krause didn’t have the last laugh. But neither did Jordan.
What was Jordan insecure about? Winning.
I don’t believe he had a gambling addiction as some reported back in the day. His addiction was winning.
This addiction is what made him great but it got under the skin of his teammates. Also, a year after retiring, he came back as Head of Basketball Operations for the Washington Wizards. Was he successful? Hell no.
Then a year after that, he came back as a player and averaged twenty-three points a night. Not bad at all. Did they win it all like he did in Chicago? Hell no.
As it turns out, the front office is really instrumental in getting the right personnel on the court. But Jordan was the front office.
Moreover, his “motivational” talk didn’t rally the Wizards into being better. Even at his advanced age, he was the highest scorer on the team. But then again, he did take a lot of shots. In the 2001–02 season, Jordan took the ninth most shots in the NBA, despite playing sixty of eighty-two games.
The only other player to have played that many games and shoot even more than MJ was a guy by the name of Allen Iverson. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Michael’s legendary status was certainly never to be questioned but this blip was truly an unsightly one. He tried to be “Crumbs” but wasn’t even close. Then he got on the court and couldn’t galvanize his team like he once could.
You don’t want to see a legend bow out when taking such a huge “L.” But when you don’t know when to stop, this is what happens.
Overall, Mike was mean to Jerry, especially because he was doing things that would’ve impacted Mike’s chance at winning. Jerry was a villain in his own right by messing with a winning formula because he wanted to prove his greatness to his doubters.
They were right about some things, but their insecurities showed their folly.
In the movie The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent (before he became the villain Two-Face) said, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
Just like Two-Face, Jerry Krause and Michael Jordan are cautionary tales. They illustrate that we all have goals — some of which come from our insecurities — which are bolstered by the belief that we have greatness within.
And when we win, we feel vindicated. We were right all along. But if that insecurity which was a motivating factor isn’t reigned in, you won’t know when to stop. And soon enough, you will become the villain and you will fail.
We all have a weak spot that can be exploited that could lead us to ruin. Life is rife with opportunities and people to reveal that vulnerable part of ourselves.
I encourage you to find yours and remain a hero.