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“Sad as it may be, I have choices…” MJ On Self-Agency and Having Options

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Few months ago, ESPN’s 10-part documentary, The Last Dance took us on a journey through time to the golden era of His Airness, Michael Jordan. Glazed in nostalgic bright color tracksuits, oversized suits, and paisley ties, we witnessed the trials and victories of one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the history of sports. 

Dream Team Barcelona, 1992 Photo Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein

As tensions heightened on the Bulls team, former General Manager Jerry Krause decided that the 1997-1998 season would be Phil Jackson’s last season as Head Coach of the Bulls. In response, MJ decided that the season would also be his last run with the team. 

Refusing to play for any coach other than Phil Jackson, MJ retired after the ‘98 season. He was also quoted in the documentary responding to the situation saying, “Sad as it may be, I have choices…” There were several moments in the series where I had to pause and rewind, this was one of them! He made that comment with so much conviction and swagger, this is a man who knew his worth and would not budge! MJ walking away from his craft at the height of his prime was admirable and at the same time, it felt like a Greek tragedy where the fallen hero is immortalized in mythology and in the night sky as a constellation. 

Sports is one of few spaces for upward mobility in American society in which people of color hope to be judged by their ability instead of our skin color. Michael Jordan arguably rose above the racial barrier, skyrocketing into stardom and propelling the profile of the NBA and American hoops culture into a globally sought-after commodity. 

There is a popular narrative that by virtue of playing sports, athletes develop life skills that are transferable in the real world. However, this is not always true. If conditions on the team  are not supportive, if youth do not feel emotionally or physically safe, and if the needs of each young person are not met, sporting experience can actually have adverse effects on a young person’s development. 

As a grassroots coach in NYC, most of the young people I serve come from under resourced communities. My coaching philosophy has always been grounded in -- “all of this is bigger than hoops.” And what I mean by this is at the core of what we do as coaches, it really comes down to helping our young people have choices, self-agency, and options. Coaches have a responsibility to support their young people in getting to a place where they have full agency over the course of their lives and the fortitude to create abundant, fulfilling lives for themselves.

Nike NYC - Some of our team with the Greek Freak, July 2019.

My vision is that my players leverage the platform that sports provides, coupled with mentorship to create other avenues for themselves. I weave this philosophy into my team culture through three core building blocks -- belonging, safety, and self-esteem. People need to feel emotionally and physically safe and accepted within a team environment to progress and reach their full potential as players and as people.  I’ve been on teams that truly lived into this, I’ve also been on teams that had the desire to create a dope team culture but in reality, failed short.

If belonging, safety, and self-esteem are the building blocks, increased opportunities, and giving each player what they need to thrive both on the court and off the court is the cement. Whatever the purpose of the team, be it winning a team championship or changing the world, as leaders and coaches we must lean into finding what motivates our people as individuals. 

Staying curious about factors that influence youth experience outside of the team environment and then using that information to inform program design and the program experience is crucial. Asking questions like how do my kids spend their time outside of the team? What does their home life look like? For example, our boys team is a tight knit group of friends but they’re also super competitive. It is not uncommon to hear them taking shots at each other. At practice be it in-person or virtual and workshops, our team of coaches always include a competitive element to most activities. Their need for competition rests on validation and reputation, needs that many teenagers have to have met to fill secure. And this is OK too, as long as competition is healthy! 

Javonn, Center (1 of 6 recipients of the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award at 2020 ESPYS)

Recently, one of the young men on our team, Javonn was recognized at the 2020 ESPYS as a Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award Recipient for being a standout in his community of Brownsville, Brooklyn. The award included a $10,000 award which will enable him to attend college in the Fall - something he had wanted to do last year but because of high costs of school, he was unable to. The only way I knew about Javonn’s college challenges was through informal chatting on the sidelines at practice. And so when we learned about the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award opportunity, I knew and believed right away that he would be perfect fit for that opportunity. A world of possibilities and a new network of adult mentors and likeminded youth have been opened up to Javonn - this is the power of sport.

There is a growing appreciation for qualitative data in coaching and leadership. Collecting data by simply talking and listening gives us an up-close and textured view of many aspects of the whole individual. A simple conversation with your team can provide a detailed look at peer cultures and focus attention on the experiences of young people whose voices and experiences are not always heard, ex. LGBTQI youth.

Most coaches and leaders will tell you that their ultimate purpose is to achieve something greater than themselves and to leave a lasting legacy in the teams they lead. As I transition out of my role of PeacePlayers Brooklyn Director to taking on a senior role on PeacePlayers national team, I feel fulfilled in the community of of coaches, young men, and women we’ve built in the last three years.

At the end of The Last Dance, MJ reached what many call a level of self-actualization - clinching the NBA Championship to cement his legacy as the greatest of all time. In addition, stepping away from the game to become one the most influential athletes ever, AND building one of the strongest sports brands there is in, the Jordan Brand. 

The reality is though, that not every kid/individual will have the options MJ had. Just recently, Elena Della Donne of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics was literally left with two choices: risk her health and play in the WNBA bubble or forfeit her paycheck. Female athletes in particular have to jump through hoops to increase the number of choices available to them. As coaches, we have an added responsibility to mentor and support the wholistic development of our female athletes beyond the sport.

I end with an excerpt from Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph by another all-time legend in the basketball world and Rutgers University WBB Head Coach, C.Vivian Stringer: 

"The world would see that these girls composed music, wrote poetry, went to church, told jokes, and did well in school. They aspired to be doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and journalists. If I had anything to do with it, the world would come to see these young women as people.

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