Up until yesterday, I had never heard of John Paxson.
But without him, Michael Jordan may not have won his first NBA championship in 1991, and the course of basketball history could be very different.
You see Jordan was without doubt the best player in the NBA in the mid-late 1980s, but was finding it difficult to lead his team to what for them was the promised land – a championship win. Year after year they failed in the latter stages of the competition, and Jordan worried that he would never reach the level of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – great players like Jordan, but unlike him were serial championship winners.
In 1989 Phil Jackson took over as the coach of Jordan’s team, the Chicago Bulls, and immediately set about getting Jordan to trust his teammates more. Jackson believed that while Jordan doing things on his own was good enough to win most games, it wasn’t going to be good enough to win the last game of the season. To do that, Jackson felt that Jordan needed to trust his teammates, and set to work convincing Jordan not only to do that, but to focus on them more and help them improve as players.
And so after three quarters in Game 5 of the 1991 finals, the Bulls were tied 80-80 with their illustrious opponents – Magic Johnson’s LA Lakers. A win and Jordan and his teammates would finally be championship winners. Jackson had noticed that Jordan was regularly being double-teamed by his opponents, which meant that one of his teammates was free. During the teamtalk before the final quarter, Jackson asked Jordan to figure out who was free, and to get the ball to him.
He did, and John Paxson became the hero of the hour, scoring 10 points in the last 4 minutes to steer the Bulls to a famous victory, and proving Jackson’s approach right.
If Michael Jordan couldn’t do it, what chance have any of us mere mortals to achieve great things without help? Each of our John Paxson could be anyone – we just need to find them, invest in them and trust them.
I am currently enjoying The Last Dance – a Netflix documentary focusing on the career of Michael Jordan.