The Dynasty Bulls vs. The Avengers: Endgame
“The harmony between us is incomparable,” Michael Jordan said about he and Scottie Pippen during the 1998 NBA Finals. “You can't compare it to anything. It's just a rhythm you build with another player. To play without him is like a slap in the face for me.”
Call me when Tony Stark says anything like that about Steve Rogers.
I bring this up because this week, the Avengers — the heroes — face their final challenge, while the Avengers — the characters — enter their final movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, will continue, but its roster will change, with the Marvel contracts of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johannson all in murky territory after this film.
Their last dance is Avengers: Endgame, in theaters this Friday, April 26, 2019. That comes nearly 21 years to the day after the beginning of what Phil Jackson called The Last Dance, April 24, 1998, the launch of the ‘98 playoffs for the Bulls and the first step of what most assumed to be the dynasty’s final days.
Which begs the question: who was the greater team, and greater dynasty? The extended MCU Avengers, or the second three-peat Bulls? Each group has bested all comers thus far — and I have to assume that the Avengers will, ahem, avenge their disheartening super-L to Thanos — so it’s only right that they square off against each other.
Three key notes on how this is working. First, I am taking the entire 2nd three-peat against the entire MCU, provided that the character has been in one of the first four group films: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, or Infinity War. There is more fluidity to the Avengers than the Bulls, but mostly I’m doing it this way because it’s more fun.
Second, all descriptions of Avengers characters is based on the MCU. Lastly, these comparisons are based on the strength of each person based on the rules of their own worlds.
Let’s get to it!
Scott Burrell vs. Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord
Star-Lord was not in a non-GOTG group film until Infinity War, yet from a marketing standpoint he was arguably the key character in the creation of that film because we’d seen nearly all of the other characters together at some point. The one other big player in Infinity War who had not been in one of the group movies is Doctor Strange, but if Infinity War was billed as “The Avengers Meet Doctor Strange,” it would not have been hyped as “the most ambitious crossover event in history.”
What brings Infinity War that epic crossover vibe is the fusing of the extended Avengers (so everyone in Avengers, Ultron, and Civil War along with their various colleagues in their solo movies) with Guardians of the Galaxy. And what makes that possible is the success of the two Guardians films, the first of which dropped into the MCU mix in August of 2014 with different characters and a totally different feel.
Yet the first film crushed, raking in more than $773 million. It created what felt like an entirely different world than their Avengers counterparts, and one that could not just keep up at the box office but set its own path; Guardians of the Galaxy was, upon its release, the highest-grossing MCU film that did not include Robert Downey Jr.
In other words, Guardians, led by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, came right in and felt at home with its powerful brethren. Scott Burrell had the same appeal. Acquired in a trade in September of 1997, just before the start of the season, Burrell fit in immediately with the two-time defending champs. More significantly, he fit in with Michael Jordan, becoming one of the few first-year Bulls in the dynasty years who became part of MJ’s social circle.
(Though even Burrell was not immune to MJ’s standards and rage, as outlined in “Relentless,” the book by Jordan’s longtime trainer Tim Grover. Grover shares a scene in which Jordan strode furiously during practice to interrupt Burrell’s treatment for what Grover calls “an alleged hamstring issue” following the previous night’s playoff game. Jordan flipped over the trainer’s table with Burrell still laying on it and berated him: “Everything's killing me, and you have a fucking hamstring (problem)? Get your fucking ass in the fucking practice now!”)
That said, as both a character within his movie and a promotional piece within the MCU, Quill was asked to do more than Burrell. Certainly Burrell had no major f-ups, nothing on the level of Quill botching the Thanos assault. But Burrell also never needed to do the basketball equivalent of defeating Yondu or leading a film to a $733 million box office. That’s no knock on Scotty B. Just the way it is.
Robert “Chief” Parish vs. Vision (formerly J.A.R.V.I.S.)
Stoic, wise, humorless, tall. These words describe Robert Parish AKA The Chief and J.A.R.V.I.S., later Vision. Chicago was Robert Parish’s final stop in the NBA; we signed him fresh off our fourth championship to milk what was left from his Hall of Fame career. Like the Vision, the Chief brought to the 1997 Bulls one part body — a 7-footer to replace the departing John Salley and James Edwards — and one part brain, since Parish would impart upon the Bulls’ youth the wisdom gained in 20 years of professional basketball, including a decade competing for championships.
Vision came to the Avengers in Age of Ultron as the physical incarnation of Tony Stark’s A.I. assistant J.A.R.V.I.S. While Parish’s body in 1997 was merely a conduit for his advanced basketball brain, Vision’s body added a dominant physical advantage to an already next-level cerebral force. Remember: Vision kills Ultron, while Parish didn’t even crack double digits in minutes-per-game.
Brian Williams vs. King T’Challa AKA Black Panther
Brian Williams was an NBA outsider. The Bulls’ power structure credited him with steadying the bench in ‘97 following a season-ending injury to Bill Wennington, and Williams later said that his time in Chicago was the most fun of his career.
Because of Williams’ price tag, the Bulls could not re-sign him for 1998, and he took a deal with the Pistons for a hefty $4 million per year, making him the team’s highest paid player. He played one year in Detroit, changed his name to Bison Dele, played one more year, and then retired just after his 30th birthday to live his life traveling the world, leading famously to his tragic, mysterious death in the South Pacific.
The T’Challa that Williams suggests is the one in Civil War, moreso than in Black Panther or Infinity War. Like Williams, the Civil War T’Challa feels like a man in his own movie. He has his own resources and his own mission, and teams with the Tony- and Natasha-led portion of the Avengers merely as a byproduct of their shared yet separate pursuit of Bucky. Black Panther fights the Winter Soldier at the airport, but later grants him asylum in Wakanda when he learns the truth about the bombing that killed his father, King T’Chaka.
T’Challa’s late-film truce with Cap (as opposed to his same-interest alignment with Tony) is the equivalent of Williams joining the Bulls for the final nine games plus the playoffs. He was ultimately more valuable than Williams, capturing Helmut Zemo and giving Bucky both medical attention and a safe place to lay low.
EDGE: Black Panther
Jack Haley vs. James Rhodes AKA War Machine
The only connection between Haley and Rhodey is their role as “friend.” Haley was Dennis Rodman’s teammate, friend and confidante with the Spurs; four days after acquiring Rodman, the Bulls signed Haley as a hedge against Rodman’s potentially unstable personality. Haley played in one game in 1996, was left off the playoff roster and was not re-signed.
War Machine tends to be presented as “Friend of/Foil to Tony Stark,” but he is infinitely more formidable than Haley, carving out his own space — both emotional and tactical — in both Civil War and Infinity War.
EDGE: War Machine
John “Spider” Salley & James “Buddha” Edwards vs. Loki
When the Bulls traded for Dennis Rodman, my understanding of Rodman’s value to our championship pursuit subsumed my apprehension about joining forces with The Enemy. But when we added James Edwards later that month and then John Salley in March, it was too much to bear. Here we were ripping through the league in historic fashion, and a quarter of the roster was ex-Bad Boys.
Loki also started as an enemy. He was Thor’s antagonist in Thor and the main villain in The Avengers. But he reconciled with Thor in Dark World and even though he was back at odds with Thor in Ragnarok, their jousts were more comedic than sincere. Loki spends most of Ragnarok on Thor’s side, and he died in Infinity War as a Thor compadre. Which is all to say that Loki is a defacto Avengers ally, at least for now, or until we’re sure he’s forever dead.
Buddha and Spider played sparingly in the Finals and did not return. At least Loki threw down with Thanos.
Jason Caffey & Dickey Simpkins vs. Wanda & Pietro Maximoff AKA Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver
In the seven NBA drafts from 1989 to 1995, the Bulls used their first round pick on a power forward six times. The only one who panned out was Toni Kukoc, and he only played PF due to his size despite Krause envisioning him as the team’s future point guard. Entering the 1996 season, the two young PFs on the roster were Dickey Simpkins and Jason Caffey. Each was viewed as a potential long-term solution, yet neither was — hence the Rodman acquisition.
Contrast their contributions with that of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who were introduced in the MCU in Age of Ultron as Avengers antagonists. The mutant twins had cause to attack Tony Stark, as their families were killed by Stark Industries weapons. By the end of Ultron, the twins were aligned with the Avengers, and though Quicksilver was killed, Scarlet Witch became a key member of the team, receiving training from Cap and Romanoff at the end of Ultron.
Wanda aligned herself with Team Cap in Civil War, and then had a huge performance in Infinity War, establishing herself as a force capable of bringing the reckoning to Thanos’ feet. Neither Caffey nor Simpkins nor the pair together delivered on their promise at even a fraction of Romanoff’s simultaneous show of power and empathy, as she fought off Thanos while seemingly killing Vision by ripping the mind stone out of his head.
EDGE: The Maximoff Twins
Jud Buechler vs. Sam Wilson AKA Falcon
Sam Wilson is a great teammate who can fly. Jud Buechler was a great teammate who could jump. An All-American volleyball player at the University of Arizona who played professional beach volleyball during the offseason after the 1996 championship, Buechler’s v-ball skills were referenced during Bulls broadcasts every time he leapt for a tip-in or offensive rebound.
And he was pretty good at both. In both the 1997 and 1998 playoffs, Buechler led all Bulls guards (including Scottie) in offensive rebounds per 100 possessions and per 36 minutes.
Wilson, on the other hand, is a military veteran with a portable flight suit. He can fight hand to hand or with weapons, and takes on everyone from Ant-Man to Spider-Man to the Winter Soldier to Brock Rumlow. All love to Bushy, whose jersey I nearly bought in high school, but this goes to Sam.
Bill Wennington vs. Bucky Barnes AKA The Winter Soldier
I’m kind of cheating on this one, since the only real connection between Bucky Barnes and Bill Wennington is that Bucky is the Winter Soldier and Bill Wennington is Canadian. And this is even a double cheat, since “Winter Soldier” does not refer to a geographic location but fortitude in battle, as alluded to by Thomas Paine in his 1776 pamphlet series “The American Crisis.”
Bucky and Bill fight differently, their importance within their teams is different, their skill level is different.
But there is one real connection: trust.
Tony Stark has to learn to trust Bucky Barnes. When Tony meets him, he — Bucky — is just recently rehabbed from his run as the Winter Soldier, and is being framed for the murder of King T’Chaka. And of course, Tony later learns that the brainwashed Bucky Barnes killed Tony’s parents, which obviously obliterates that trust.
Likewise, Michael Jordan always felt like he had to learn to trust his centers. Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, Luc Longley, and Bill Wennington all went through this process with varying levels of success. But when MJ scored 55 in his fifth game back from his professional baseball stint, the Knicks’ double team led to Mike passing the rock for a game-winning dunk by… Bill Wennington.
Wennington passed the first MJ test: he caught the pass. That was always a major sticking point for MJ with power forwards and centers. Another was players laying the ball in when they could have dunked. Therefore I have to believe that Wennington’s clean catch on the ball and immediate two-handed power slam gave MJ the confidence to trust him in future situations.
And because Bucky was never able to make the Avengers feel comfortable with him, I’m giving this one to the Beef Wennington.
EDGE: Bill Wennington
Randy Brown vs. Scott Lang AKA Ant-Man
“Okay, tiny dude is big now. He’s big now.”
That’s Rhodey’s play-by-play describing Ant-Man becoming big during the airport hangar fight in Civil War, but man, it works great as commentary on Randy Brown’s famous dunk on Elden Campbell, don’t you think?
I didn’t love Ant-Man, and while I enjoyed Paul Rudd’s cameo in Civil War, he ultimately had little impact on the fight. Randy Brown had even less impact — his minutes and points declined in the playoffs over the course of three-peat, and he finished no greater than 10th on the Bulls in playoffs MPG. The team signed him in 1995 as a defensive specialist, but Steve Kerr turned into a nifty smaller guard defender (when the task wasn’t occupied by Scottie and Harp) and Brown found himself on the end of the bench with limited purpose.
That said, he not only remained on the team but went three for three in making the playoff roster, so it’s not as if he didn’t have any value. In fact, he had probably the same amount of value as Ant-Man in the Civil War fight: good enough to get an invite, a few moments here and there, but ultimately made little impact.
Ant-Man still has at least one movie to go, and from the trailers and the buzz, it looks like he’ll play a big role in whatever goes down.
But until we know what that is, these two are tied.
Jerry Krause vs. Phil Coulson
Introduced in Iron Man in 2008, Phil Coulson, a high-ranking agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., seems to be if not a villain, then certainly a thorn in Tony’s side. We quickly see though that he is a dispassionate ally, someone Tony and the other Avengers can rely on and believe. He is someone whom they know will work solely for their success.
The same could never be said for Jerry Krause. And listen, I am as big a Krause supporter as you’re likely to find. He gets too much blame for the dynasty’s breakup and not enough credit for its creation. He also openly antagonized Phil Jackson, made enemies of Phil, Michael and Scottie, and regularly pitted the team’s personnel against their hypothetical replacements, threats he ultimately delivered on.
I guess it breaks down like this. Coulson got along better with his team than Krause did with his. Krause pulled off more miracles and impressive transactions — there is no such thing as discovering an unheralded gem when the people you’re scouting are super soldiers and Norse deities. Coulson took people who didn’t get along and helped them successfully work together. Krause took people who did get along and drove them to the brink of self-destruction.
Coulson would have built the Bulls and then gotten out of the way so that they could stack chips. Krause would have built the Avengers, scouted replacement Avengers from different galaxies and asked Tony and Cap to help them assimilate, told the media that “Avengers alone don’t beat the Chitauri, S.H.I.E.L.D. beats the Chitauri,” and tried to trade Cap for Rocket Raccoon and two future #1s.
Phil Jackson vs. Nick Fury
This isn’t a perfect comparison — as director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury’s role makes him part-Jerry Reinsdorf and part-Phil Jackson. And in terms of personality and approach, Phil jives less with Fury and more with Doctor Strange (who I am leaving out of this exercise, because there is no other good fit).
Yet Fury and Jackson would certainly be sympatico when it comes to their organizations trying to undercut them. They both carry an air of mystery. From a temporal standpoint, the addition of Captain Marvel to the MCU lets us see Fury’s life in the 1990s, when Phil was coaching the Bulls. And of course Fury’s first appearance in the MCU was in the post-credit sequence in 2008’s Iron Man, the year before Phil’s fourth championship with the Lakers.
Going back further, I don’t know the specifics of Fury’s comics history, and I haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet so I don’t know to what degree the MCU gets into Fury’s full backstory. But I can assume that he was mixing it up as some sort of agent in his younger years, just as Phil won two rings as a forward for the Knicks in the 1970s. The comparison feels apt.
Toni “The Waiter” Kukoc vs. Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man
Jerry Krause’s vision for Toni Kukoc went unfulfilled: the point guard of the future, team leader and MJ heir.
As much as Kukoc contributed to the second three-peat, his potential always overshadowed his performance. He was supposed to be the young star who inherited a dynasty and drove it to its next iteration. Think Havlicek and Kobe, and to lesser degrees, Rondo and Kawhi. Kukoc never got there. He came through in some huge moments, especially Game 7 against the Pacers, but 1998 should have been the year that he became an All-Star, and he remained a 13-point scorer, just as he was in ‘96 and ‘97.
1999 should have made Kukoc a star, albeit on a trash team. But even that year, with Ron Harper and Brent Barry as the #2 and #3 options, Kukoc could still only put up 18.8 points a night on 17 shots. A year later, he was gone.
Toni’s actual Bulls career was kind of like Peter Parker in the airport fight in Civil War — he brought some nice elements to the table, he was a fan favorite, he gave the Bulls a previously unheld dimension, but he ultimately wasn’t a make-or-break guy. Where the analogy ends is with Spider-Man: Homecoming and beyond, when Spidey, Black Panther and Captain Marvel will lead the MCU into its next iteration. After all, Chris Evans is retiring from the franchise, Chris Hemsworth’s future is up in the air, and the contracts of Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johannson and Jeremy Renner all expire after Endgame.
So yes, Kukoc helped the Bulls win championships more than Spider-Man has helped the Avengers win its battles, whether that means the airport fight or the Battle of Titan versus Thanos. (Though to be fair to Spidey, he had the Gauntlet. Stupid Star-Lord.) Still, Spider-Man is going to take the MCU into its next level. We never got to say the same for Toni.
Steve Kerr vs. Clint Barton AKA Hawkeye
Saturday Night Live once did an entire skit based on the premise that Hawkeye, a guy whose “super power” is “really good with a bow and arrow,” did not belong on the Avengers. Steve Kerr was also a sharpshooting specialist who was clearly not the equal of his more heralded teammates.
But unlike Clint Barton, Kerr’s shooting really was a superpower. It elevated him to the level of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and anyone else on the team, not because he was as good as them at basketball, but because like them, he was the best at something.
In six NBA seasons prior to joining the Bulls, Kerr was a little-known career backup playing just 15 minutes per night for the Suns, Cavaliers and Magic. He shot a respectable-for-him 45% from three, but was a rather forgettable specialist.
When in 1993 he saw an opportunity to replace an aging John Paxson, he signed a one-year deal for the league minimum of $150,000. His highest annual salary in Chicago was $800,000.
Yet he became an indelible part of a dynasty, averaging 23 minutes a night and eight points on nearly 48% three-point shooting for five years, and hitting one of the biggest shots in NBA history, a foul-line jumper to win the 1997 championship.
Nothing Hawkeye has done — at least so far — comes close.
Ron Harper vs. Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow
Natasha Romanoff is a secret agent. Ron Harper was the secret weapon.
Though he failed in his Bulls role as “Jordan Replacement, Take 2,” Harper’s power on the dynasty was as a defensive specialist and the third of Phil Jackson’s “three big guards” approach, originally designed to challenge the Magic. Harper’s size and ability also let Phil run his position-less lineup, something he wanted to do in 1994 with Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc, prior to MJ’s retirement.
Harper’s talents, in fact, are what gave the Bulls the confidence to let B.J. Armstrong walk in the ‘95 expansion draft, thus opening the starting point guard spot as well as a salary slot for a new power forward. (For more on the role Harper played on the second three-peat, see chapters 3 and 4 of my book.)
Black Widow has been just as important to the Avengers, and in a similar way. Both she and Harp are physically limited compared to their superhero/Hall of Fame teammates. Both are respected leaders of a juggernaut, and internal peacemakers when tempers flare. Both are dependable. Both are effective. Harp’s biggest performances were Games 1 and 2 of the ‘96 Finals, when he scored 15 and then 12 points in Bulls wins, along with making the final play of the dynasty when he altered John Stockton’s would-be game-winning three at the end of Game 6. Black Widow’s is probably fighting alongside Okoye to that goblin Proxima Midnight in Infinity War.
I’ll give a slight edge to Black Widow, because she also recruited Bruce Banner to the Avengers, worked with Cap and Sam to bring down Hydra and worked with Cap to train the new Avengers at the end of Ultron. Fighter, leader, spy. Gotta respect the hustle.
SLIGHT EDGE: Black Widow
Luc Longley vs. Thor
This showdown is over before it starts. Luc was a starter by position only, peaked in 1998 at only 11.4 points per game, and rarely remained on the floor for the biggest end-of-game possessions. Thor is the god of thunder. I won’t waste time pretending that this discussion will reach any conclusion other than Thor’s superiority over Lucien James Longley.
But there are two similarities worth noting between the two men. The first is coincidental: both Longley and Thor actor Chris Hemsworth are Australian. The second is substantial: their contribution to the group is rooted in physical strength. Thor is obviously stronger than Longley, even within the context of their respective worlds, and brings other benefits to the Avengers too, but Longley’s big body (7’2, 265) was his best trump card over his backup Bill Wennington (7’0, 245).
Longley’s size was critical in playoff series against Patrick Ewing (7’0, 240), Dikembe Mutombo (7’2, 245), Greg Ostertag (7’2, 280), Rik Smits (7’4, 250) and of course Shaq, who at 7’1 and 325 pounds posed generational challenges. Between Longley’s size and strength and Rodman’s technique and guile, the Bulls had weapons to address the Shaq problem.
And when an opponent lacked size in the middle, Luc had enough of a jumper and post-game to make trouble for them. In the 1996 regular season, he averaged 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. In the 1996 East playoffs, he averaged only 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.
But in the 1996 Finals against the SuperSonics and undersized centers Ervin Johnson (6’11, 245) and Sam Perkins (6’9, 235), Longley had his best playoff series of his career, putting up 11.7 points per game on 57% shooting. That’s a five-point improvement for Longley from the East playoffs to the Finals, at a time when Gary Payton helped hold MJ in the Finals to five points fewer than he scored in the East playoffs.
Longley was at worst the seventh best Bull of the second three-peat. Thor is at worst the fourth best Avenger, and was probably the MVP of Infinity War, despite erring in his final attack on Thanos. Thor is easily better than Longley. But Longley is easily better than his reputation.
Dennis “The Worm” Rodman vs. Bruce Banner AKA Hulk
Dennis Rodman and Bruce Banner share a deep concern: losing control of their inner monster. The upside for Bruce is that his inner monster is the Hulk. There is no upside for Dennis, whose inner monster made him headbutt a referee and kick a cameraman.
The downside for Bruce is that despite his “I’m always angry” credo, he struggles to control the Hulk — to summon him or dismiss him on command. And that’s a problem because obviously, the Avengers need Hulk, yet they need him under control, something Banner cannot guarantee.
The Bulls are in a better position in this respect. They neither needed nor wanted the wild Rodman, so as long as he could control himself — an admittedly challenging proposition — they were getting the best version of #91.
That’s another key difference between Banner and Rodman, which is Banner’s unique place among the Avengers: he is the only one whose “normal” state is more valuable to the mission than his alter-ego. The Hulk is hypothetically more valuable than Bruce, but an out-of-control Hulk is less valuable than Banner, who remains invaluable to the Avengers.
In fact, Banner’s best wins (intel on the Tesseract, his work creating Vision, delivering the initial warning about Thanos) out-rank Hulk’s best wins (the Battle of New York), while Banner’s worst losses (his work creating Ultron, his inability to control Hulk) out-rank Hulk’s worst losses (inability to be controlled).
As for a one-to-one matchup, Rodman’s performance in 1996 and 1998 is better than anything Hulk pulled off. Rodman’s defense was effective and frustrating against Shaq in ‘96, Zo in ‘97 and Malone in both ‘97 and ‘98. Kemp ate on him in the Finals, but Rodman did too, leading both teams in boards every game, averaging 14.7 boards for the series and finishing second to Moses Malone in post-merger Finals history with 41 offensive rebounds.
Scottie Pippen vs. Steve Rogers AKA Captain America
A poor, skinny kid who embraced a higher purpose; an earnest boy who pursued dreams of dominance through commitment to defense; a humble youth who accepted a role of servitude among the burly men whose ranks he worked to join.
Scottie Pippen or Steve Rogers. The outlines are the same. The results mostly are too. A pair of powerhouses, one blooming from 6’1 his freshman year of college to 6’7 upon graduation and the NBA Draft, the other booming from 5’4, 95 pounds pre-serum to 6’2, 240 afterward. Rogers makes a better #1, I think, although neither has a solo championship. Cap’s best showing is destroying S.H.I.E.L.D., even if Hydra remained a nefarious influence after. Scottie led the post-MJ Bulls to Game 7 of the East semis, and the 2000 Blazers to within one quarter of the NBA Finals.
Cap is ultimately a more powerful individual, so I’ll give him a slight edge. What truly binds them is how each man engenders himself to teammates. They’re natural leaders because they are giving. Consider the shared tones between Cap’s letter to Tony at the end of Civil War, and Scottie’s outreach to his former teammates during his Hall of Fame speech.
Rogers: “We all need family. The Avengers are yours, maybe moreso than mine. I’ve been on my own since I was 18. Never really fit in anywhere, even in the Army. My faith’s in people, I guess -- individuals. And I’m happy to say that for the most part, they haven’t let me down. Which is why I can’t let them down either.”
Pippen: “To my teammates, whom lots are here tonight. If you please would just stand so that I can recognize you. I want to thank you guys because I wouldn’t be standing here today -- Steve, Jud, Charles, Dennis, Randy Brown, Bill Wennington, Pete Myers. I thank all you guys. I really appreciate playing with all you guys. And I want you to know you will always be in my heart.”
SLIGHT EDGE: Rogers
Michael Jordan vs. Tony Stark AKA Iron Man
Genius. Billionaire. Philanthropist. Playboy. Those are the labels Tony Stark self-applies. They work pretty well for MJ too, wouldn’t you say?
Some of our comparisons will be seen as a stretch, but the matchup between Air Jordan and Iron Man makes perfect sense. On a professional level, both men are the star attractions of their groups. Both are geniuses in their fields. Both come off as arrogant and brash yet possess a strong heart that endears them to the masses. Both dominate opponents physically while retaining a mental edge.
Both held powerful loves for their fathers, and were spiritually broken upon their fathers’ tragic deaths. Both are leaders more by talent, will, and drive than personal inspiration. Both head industry-leading brands — Jordan Brand and Stark Industries.
It gets weirder. Let’s talk again about their fathers’ respective deaths. James Jordan (allegedly) and Howard Stark were both murdered in or around their parked car on the side of a dark country road. And both deaths are shrouded in mystery, with the “official” story (Howard’s car accident, James as victim of a botched robbery, let alone the date itself) butting heads with the conspiratorial account.
Also in both cases, the pain of the loss for MJ/Tony blended with rage over the telling of the conspiratorial version — Howard’s via video, with Tony watching as Cap retains his silence , James’ via innuendo and speculation about both father and son.
Both responded with rebellion. Tony fought Steve and Bucky nearly to the death. Mike stunned everyone with an early retirement.
Beyond that, though, Mike is vastly superior. Tony’s biggest wins are defeating the Chitauri and saving the president, which is like two championships. Even if defeating the Chitauri counts as three championships, powerful as it is, that’s still just four. And his biggest losses are far worse than stumbles against the Celtics, Pistons and Magic. Stark accidentally creates Ultron, leading to apparently 177 civilian deaths and $847 billion of damage to the town Sokovia; oversees the botched Thanos attack; gets himself stranded in space.
Admittedly, neither would be an ideal leader *alone.* The Avengers benefit from the personality balance of Steve to Tony and the tactical balance of Fury to Tony, just as the Bulls do between MJ & Pip and MJ & Phil. Yet while both have intense strengths, only Jordan has zero relevant flaws. I’m assuming the best for Tony; MJ wrote a perfect ending.
The Bulls vs. The Avengers
Which brings us back to the duos.
The Bulls would have been an all-time great team with a 4-2 record. They could have won three titles in eight years and still been regarded as one of the greats. But they didn’t win three and they didn’t lose two. They went to six Finals and won them all. The Avengers can’t say the same — the conclusion of Age of Ultron is basically a pair of Ls, one because they needed Vision to stop Ultron, and two because they left a brutal trail of collateral damage in their wake with the city, and people, of Sokovia.
Still, the extended Avengers do embody a Bullsian level of greatness. They fall just short, I believe, because of a clash of personalities, along with some truly un-MJ decisions by Tony Stark. On the contrary, the second three-peat truly feels like a “a group of remarkable people,” as it were, drawn together as an ideal. Michael, the greatest player. Scottie, the greatest jack-of-all-trades. Dennis, the greatest rebounder. Toni, the greatest sixth man. Steve, the greatest shooter. Phil, the greatest coach. Krause, the greatest GM.
Look at how they talked about the team.
Jordan to Rick Telander in 1998: “On this team, we love each other — no jealousies, no animosities, no nothing. Is there another team like that? … On our team, everybody gets along with everybody, everybody can go out with everybody. And we’re not afraid to criticize each other.”
Pippen, early in the ‘95-’96 season: “Everyone enjoys the spotlight — being the leader, being the go-to guy. But it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a good group of thoroughbreds you can go to as well, and then you can pick your places.”
Rodman, early in ‘95-’96: “I’ve been around great players before. And these two guys (Jordan and Pippen) are pretty much in a class by themselves.”
It’s quotes like these and so many more that sum up what Phil Jackson called his “totems.” That was the power of the second three-peat. The unity. It’s epitomized by the partnership of Jordan and Pippen — they are unquestionably and without hyperbole the greatest duo in NBA history. Tony and Steve are more Shaq and Kobe: a lesser #1 but a better #2, and yet the personality clashes make longstanding commitment impossible.
With Michael and Scottie, yes, the skillset combination was ideal. But the personality combination is what made the partnership transcendent. That’s how you master the mindset of Whatever It Takes. That’s how you get to six.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, and author of How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls. He is the proprietor of the Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.