Bill Walton

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Tuesday, November 12
 
MJ's new role will be change for the better

By Bill Walton
Special to ESPN.com

Michael Jordan's intelligent decision to come off the bench with the Washington Wizards this season has caught many by surprise. It has also been a much harder transition than even this master performer could have imagined. Playing literally his whole life as the lead actor in his own movie, Michael now finds himself often struggling mightily to do what just eight months ago seemed so effortless, so natural, so classic MJ. Realistically, it should come as no surprise whatsoever. Everything is completely different for a bench player, even if you are Michael Jordan.

WALTON'S WORLD
Sacramento's final, giant step
The Sacramento Kings are wasting time, energy and much needed credibility on their failures of a year ago. There is absolutely nothing they can do about their monumental collapse in the closing stages of last year's playoff meltdown against the Lakers. To keep bringing it up with claims of superiority, injustice and false bravado only lends credence to those who don't believe they have what it takes to ultimately be the champs.

Sacramento's weaknesses and limitations are mental. There is no physical or talent gap that prevents them from being the best. To be the best, though, requires a mindset that does not allow for excuses, whining and complaining. Why and how are we to believe in them if all we get is cheap talk? There is nothing the Kings can say at this point that will convince us that those air-balls, missed free throws and opportunities not taken are now a thing of the distant past. Move forward, get over it; it was not someone else's fault. Train your mind, develop the mental strength and discipline to anticipate the big moments and chances. Don't be afraid of yourselves, much less the opposition. This takes leadership -- on and off the court. Create an environment so that when you take the floor, the world and the future is yours. Phil, Shaq, Kobe and the guys have already done this for themselves. I don't want to hear about it from you. I want to see it.

Yao Ming
Yao
The sky is yellow, the sun blue
Yao Ming's transition to the NBA is the most difficult one that any player has ever attempted. The unrealistic expectations of early excellence and achievement are doing this fine young man and terrific talent a grave injustice. It is hard enough for any human being to join the NBA. But how difficult it must be with no training and preparation?

It would seem to be the same situation that Bob Dylan faced at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he tried something that he had never done before (plug in his guitar). And they booed him off the stage, ultimately prompting the response that if you've never been booed -- you've never done anything. Like Dylan, Yao Ming undeniably has the gifts. The package is complete but it's just going to take some time to open and polish it up. Yao Ming will not be the first NBA rookie to fail to win the championship, lead the league in scoring or be the MVP in his initial go-round. For some perspective, where was the glaring microscope on Kwame Brown last year. And he is a player who has lived his whole life in this "Throw It Down, In Your Face" culture.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant
Kobe: On the wings of eagles
To be the best takes all you've got ... for a REALLY long time. Kobe Bryant has already figured a lot out at such a tender age. His determined year-round work ethic and commitment to sensible and consistent weight training has separated him from his few remaining peers. Now he's chasing history, memories and guys who can no longer fight back ... and he's only 24. This appears too easy but believe me, it's not.

The added muscle and bulk from pushing that steel and the natural maturation process now enables this grandmaster to regularly accomplish the unimaginable without dragging around excessive bulk and baggage. Most top players get to the point where they truly believe that anything is possible. Most are also governed by gravity, the laws of physics and self-regulating mental control mechanisms. Kobe has left all these behind. The extra strength and stamina have made him a superior 3-point shooter, a most dominant defender and arguably the game's top rebounder.

When that No. 23 guy was on top of the world, he was the very best at every quantifiable measure: dribbling, passing, defending, rebounding, shooting, footwork, well, you name it. Are we running out of mountains here? Thank goodness for self-motivation. The only barriers left for Kobe are the ones scaled by history's, and the game's, greatest thinkers. So, who still wants to play?

As a starter, the world is yours. They bring it to you on a silver platter. You know when you're going to play, with whom and you start with a blank canvas -- able to create your masterpiece. Being there at the opening guarantees a fresh sweat, loose limbs, an accelerated heartbeat, a feel for the ball and the confidence of knowing exactly when it all begins.

As the sixth man, you're at the mercy of the coach, who might forget about you, and subject to the chances that someone else lets go by. You are plagued by uncertainty and often have to turn a garbled jumble into Mozart. And just when you've got it right, you're back on that bench again -- watching, waiting, hoping, dreaming for the coach's call so that you can have a chance to determine your own fate.

This is all so foreign to someone who has been in complete control seemingly his whole life. But it is not only the right move for Michael, it is the only one that makes any sense. Michael has always played to win. Probably for the first time in his life, he can no longer win by himself. As a young player when things weren't going well, he could simply turn on the afterburners and work, run and jump his way back into the game. But now he has reached the stage where his body can no longer cash the checks that his hyper-active mind keeps writing. He has to become the limited role player that the stars often detest and disparage.

His only other option is to walk away. Don't do it Michael! Stay as long as you can. Make them take your jersey away. The day will come soon enough when you have no other choice. Remember: There is plenty of time to be old and unable to play at all.

As your game and role has changed, Michael, so must your mind. Playing off the bench requires you to forget about yourself, maybe the hardest thing for someone of your stature. Everything has to be tightened down, completely repackaged so that when you do get in, you're ready to explode the first moment you hit the floor, even though it's only for temporary duty. Don't try to be a starter who happens to play off the bench, trying to maximize minutes. When things are going well for the team, your job will be to simply keep the flow going. Continue feeding the hot hand, maintaining the pace, style and rhythm that has been set by others. When things are falling apart, you'll have to find a way to abruptly and instantly change the tenor of what's going on. And all in the shortest time frame.

You can't expect the ball to come your way, nor your body to automatically respond to the mental commands that have always been second nature to you. You'll become a defensive stopper for a few minutes here and there. The refs will treat you badly, forgetting what all of us swore we never would. The hot hand of the young star will wave you off to the weak side for rebounding, spacing and his own maddening isolation. If you're lucky, he'll call for a screen.

In the end, your contributions will become ever more mental as you won't get enough minutes to make a real difference physically. Some nights the minutes will be so few, that, sadly, luck will be your only hope. You'll spend more time preparing others, an absurd and unheard of notion just the other day. You'll find yourself on the bench, in the locker room, on the planes, buses and in the huddles trying to generate enthusiasm for the starters with your spirit and personality rather than thinking all these things are nonsense and for lesser lights to handle. And as the game winds down, the bright lights and media moths will follow the heat, leaving you alone to be your own judge.

In the end, it will be the best thing that you ever did. Because all you ever really wanted was to be a part of that special team. And you will find the greatest levels of inner peace and happiness in the joys and successes of others -- your teammates. It's called getting old, Michael. Get used to it. It's a lot better than you think.

Bill Walton, who is an NBA analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.





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