Power Players

How Michael Jordan became great: 'Nobody will ever work as hard as I work'

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls looks on against the Sacramento Kings during a game played on February 28, 1998 at the United Center in Chicago.
Rocky Widner | NBAE via Getty Images

In 1982, Michael Jordan was just a teenager — he wasn't even yet the best player on his University of North Carolina basketball team. He still had to write home to his mother asking for stamps and spending money.

Yet Jordan made it known to those around him that he had lofty ambitions, and that he would complement his desire to be great by working hard and always learning how to get better, according to the first installments of ESPN's 10-part documentary "The Last Dance."

While the focus of the documentary series is on the Bulls' 1997-1998 season, in which Jordan and his teammates captured their sixth NBA championship, the first episode also examines Jordan's earliest days as a public figure, starting with his freshman college season. 

When he arrived at UNC, the expectations around Jordan were not befitting a player who would go on to reach the Hall of Fame and one day boast an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion. In fact, legendary UNC head coach Dean Smith said in one interview included in the documentary that Jordan was "inconsistent as a freshman," but the teenager's work ethic still stood out.

"He was one of the most competitive [players] we've ever had in our drills," Smith said. "He wanted to get better and then he had the ability to get better."

As a freshman, Jordan told UNC assistant coach Roy Williams (who is now UNC's head basketball coach) that he wanted to be the best basketball player ever to play at UNC — a school that had already won one NCAA championship, and nearly two dozen conference championships, before Jordan's arrival. Williams says in the documentary that he told the young Jordan that he would have to work even harder than he had in high school in order to accomplish that goal. (Jordan famously did not make his high school's varsity basketball team until his junior year, after he finally hit a growth spurt.)

Jordan responded by telling Williams he'd worked as hard as anyone else on his high school team, Williams says.

"I told him, 'Excuse me. I thought you just told me you wanted to be the best player to ever play here,'" Williams says he told the teenaged Jordan, who responded with an intense promise.

"'I'm going to show you. Nobody will ever work as hard as I work,'" Williams says Jordan told him.

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From there, Williams tells ESPN he spent the next "three years watching that youngster get better and better and better."

Williams was amazed at Jordan's ability to maintain an intense work ethic and strong desire to learn and become a better player throughout his career. 

"He never freaking turned it off," Williams says.

Indeed, Jordan's UNC teammates can confirm that the freshman player worked intensely to get better and better on the court, including continuing to practice after the rest of his teammates were ready to head home, according to former UNC teammate James Worthy.

"After about 2.5 hours of hard practice, I'm walking off the floor, like, drenched [in] sweat, tired. And, here comes Michael pushing me back on the floor, wanting to play a little one-on-one, wanting to see where his game was," says Worthy of Jordan. 

It's no coincidence that Jordan would challenge Worthy, specifically, to extra work on the court. A junior when Jordan was a freshman, Worthy was UNC's best player in 1982 and would help lead the team to a national championship on his way to becoming the first overall pick of the 1982 NBA Draft. 

"He wanted to learn, he wanted to grow quickly," Worthy says in the documentary of Jordan's rabid desire to improve his basketball skills as a freshman. "From month to month, from game to game, he was soaking up information. Once he got something and added it to the raw talent that he already had, it was really exposive to see."

Another former UNC teammate, Matt Doherty, echoed that sentiment in a recent interview. All of the UNC players respected Jordan, Doherty said, because while he was extremely talented, he was also "a sponge, he listened, he learned and he competed."

And Jordan definitely got better as his freshman season went on. Worthy, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career himself, jokes in the documentary that he started their season at UNC together as the better player, but that didn't last long.

"I was better than he was ... for about two weeks," Worthy says of Jordan.

By the end of his freshman season, Jordan "was a great player," Worthy says. 

In fact, by the end of the season, Jordan had learned enough and improved his basketball skills to the point where he was comfortable stepping into the national spotlight. When UNC made it to the NCAA's 1982 national championship game against powerhouse Georgetown, Jordan calmly sank the game-winning shot with time expiring on the game clock.

"I was young, but I had no time to be nervous," Jordan tells ESPN of the now iconic shot that put the precocious teenager on the road to becoming a household name.

Even with his success in the championship game, Jordan continued working to get better. Jordan managed to "improve considerably between his freshman and sophomore year," former UNC coach Dean Smith said in one interview that's included in the ESPN documentary.

Jordan would play three seasons at UNC before the Bulls selected him with the third overall pick of the 1984 NBA Draft. Once he entered the NBA, Jordan once again found himself needing to work harder than ever to improve his skills and prove himself to his teammates.

"From the first day of practice, my mentality was: 'Whoever is the team leader of the team, I'm going to be going after him. And I'm not going to do it with my voice.' Because I had no voice. I had no status. I had to do it with the way that I played," Jordan tells ESPN about his rookie year in Chicago.

Today, Jordan's intense work ethic is legendary, as reporters and former teammates often recount how the iconic athlete often competed just as hard in practice as he did in actual games. One famous quote from Jordan seems to sum up that ethos: "I don't do things half-heartedly. Because I know if I do, then I can expect half-hearted results."

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