One time, an upstart player for the Washington Bullets named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points in a losing effort against the Chicago Bulls. After the game he told Michael Jordan, “Nice game.”
Jordan was pissed. He stewed about this comment, took it as a slight, vowed to get even. Next game against the Bullets, Jordan scored 37 points in the first half, and held Smith to 15 points overall.
That right there would demonstrate the ruthlessness of Michael Jordan.
But it’s worse. Jordan admitted years later that Smith never actually said “Nice game.” Jordan had made it up.
He used an imaginary diss, a comment most players would have just considered a sportsmanlike platitude, to fuel his revenge against a player and team they had beaten.
If anything distinguished Jordan, caused his separation from the rest of basketball’s all-time pack, it was his competitive rage.
Whenever we debate relative greatness across generations, it can devolve into a battle of numbers. You can find this on the web right now: writers defending LeBron’s losing Finals record by analyzing the statistical strength of his opponents compared to Jordan’s Finals opponents. I have a feeling that, in the data-obsessed world we occupy, the sports gurus will look back at LeBron’s gaudy numbers, his longevity, and conclude he deserves a spot on the highest mantle next to Jordan.
When it comes to assessing performance in sports, numbers can be deceiving. Like they can be in assessing anything. Poll numbers in politics. Test scores in education. There’s more to the story.
We love discussing which athlete is the GOAT — the Greatest of All-Time. But statistical arguments don’t capture the transcendent. We need a clearer picture of what constitutes “greatness.”
I am going to compare two iconic players: Jordan and LeBron. I’ll stay away from the numbers and focus on qualitative analysis: accomplishments, social context, narratives, and public impressions of these athletes during three distinct stages of their careers. Finally, I will reflect on their legacies beyond the game of basketball.
I. Coming of Age
Jordan had to prove himself from the get-go. He had to prove himself as a high schooler. After not making his varsity team as a sophomore, he was driven to prove his coach wrong. He did. By the time he graduated high school, Jordan had distinguished himself as a top prospect, wowing crowds during games and wowing college coaches during workouts.
Recruiting was different back then. The University of North Carolina had heard about Jordan, so invited him to a summer camp. An opportunity to compete against other prospects. He stood out, and UNC expressed early interest. Later on, Jordan played in a “5-Star” camp, where his outstanding performance garnered national attention. But it was too late. North Carolina landed the hometown star.
Back in the 80’s, even the best players usually stayed three or four years in college. Teams were stacked with juniors and seniors who had been coached up and played together for a few seasons. So Jordan had to work for his minutes, prove himself to his coaches. He did. And in an NCAA championship game full of future NBA greats, it was freshman Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot.
He would play two more years in college, becoming a two-time All American and the Player of the Year in 1984, before declaring for the NBA draft.
Before the draft, Jordan played in the summer Olympics, was the top scorer for a gold medal American squad. After the Olympics, Indiana legend Bobby Knight, who coached the team, talked with “an NBA executive who had a very high pick.” Knight said Jordan is the best player I’ve ever seen, you should pick him. The NBA executive replied, but we need a center. Knight said, well, then play him at center.
Michael Jordan was picked third, after two centers, by the Chicago Bulls.
Jordan erupted as a superstar in his first NBA seasons. Rookie of the Year in ’85. Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in ’88.
He electrified crowds and dazzled even the game’s greatest players. After scoring 63 points in a double-overtime loss in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird famously said, “He’s the most exiting, awesome player in the league today. I think it’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Despite his dazzling performances and a few game-winning shots, Jordan couldn’t quite get to the Finals. His teams were gradually improving, especially after drafting Scotty Pippen and Horace Grant. But he got bullied by strong Eastern teams like the Bad Boy Pistons. Good as he was, Michael Jordan would need to trust his teammates more to win an NBA title.
At 17 years old, LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine with the heading: “The Chosen One.” The media was always clamoring for the next Jordan, and thus LeBron was crowned.
By 2000, high school prospects competed in club basketball summer tournaments. Club coaches recruit high school players; their teams travel around the country showcasing their talent.
On the club circuit, LeBron was the man. I personally played in the same tournament as him in Vegas (not the same division), and even before social media, there was hype and chatter, everyone asking if you were going to watch LeBron play.
There was never more of a sure thing than LeBron James in the 2003 NBA draft. At 19, straight out of high school, he was drafted #1 by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
He was immediately scrutinized, and immediately very good. Rookie of the Year in 2004. The team improved 18 games over the previous year, and had a winning record by his second year.
The 2004 Olympic team was a disaster. The Americans embarrassingly took home the bronze medal. Coach Larry Brown and his players, to put it mildly, did not get along. LeBron James barely played, and almost wasn’t invited back for the Olympics in 2008, due to his “immaturity and downright disrespectfulness.”
In his fourth season, a 22 year-old LeBron James led his team to the 2007 NBA Finals. He put up monster performances in the conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. In the championship round, though, the Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Back again playing for a re-tooled American Olympic team in 2008, James blossomed under Coach Krzyzewski, and was praised by Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo for his personal growth. LeBron played very well in the games, but to clinch the gold medal game against Spain, he deferred to the alpha-dogs: Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade.
Behind the scenes of those games, LeBron was plotting to join forces with Wade and fellow Olympic teammate Chris Bosh. An engineered take-over of the NBA.
Like Jordan in the early years, LeBron kept coming up short in the playoffs. He was league MVP in 2009 and performed strongly in the playoffs. But he put up his least inspired performance in a game 6 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the game, King James walked off the court and left the arena without shaking anyone’s hand or talking to any reporters. He told reporters days later, “It’s hard for me to congratulate someone after losing to them. I’m a winner.”
II. Battle Tested
Michael Jordan lost, again, to the Detroit Pistons in 1990. After the game he was asked by a reporter what he was saying to the other players. Jordan replied “All you can do is wish them good luck, you know. We fought hard. They were the better team … We want to be where they are, but we still have to wait our turn. We’re still trying to improve our team.”
That was the last time Jordan would lose to the Pistons in the playoffs. The following year he walked off the court victorious, sweeping the defending champs, punching his ticket to the Finals.
In his first Finals appearance at 28, Michael Jordan’s Bulls took down Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games. A book written about the season was revealing. Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules depicts a manic competitor who bullied and intimidated weaker teammates, and made demands on management. Not satisfied with the rush of basketball competition, Jordan would stay up all night playing cards or walk 36 holes of golf before a game, even into the playoffs. Slowly, throughout the season, Jordan was corralled by zen-master coach Phil Jackson, who had been trying to put in an offensive system with more ball movement and shots for other players. Jordan pushed back fiercely against the “equal opportunity” system, but was ultimately convinced that more balance was the only way to win a championship.
Michael Jordan did not relinquish the title. In 1992 he beat Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the East before taking down Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers for another title.
The summer of ’92 was the year of the Olympic “Dream Team” who absolutely crushed everyone in their path. What it really shows is how much talent there was in the league. And if you notice a few of those players: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing. They have some things in common. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame. None of them ever won an NBA championship. Each of them lost at least once in the playoffs to Michael Jordan.
To be in your prime along with Jordan was to lose to Jordan in your prime. So it went for my Phoenix Suns in 1993. After watching the final game, eight years old, I cried and then went outside to shoot hoops, vowing to avenge the loss someday.
On the podium, crowned champion again, asked to compare himself to the greats of all-time, Michael Jordan said he was proud to have accomplished what Magic and Bird never did: three straight championships. He said if you look at sustained success, you have to put his name up there with the all-time greats, although, “I’m not up here campaigning for best player in the world or in history — I’m not saying that, because everyone plays differently in different eras. But to say that we won three in a row, and I was part of that team, that means a lot to me. ”
“Not one…not two…not three…not four…”
This was LeBron James, sitting on a stage with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, summer of 2010, gloating about how many championships they were about to win together. He went up to “not seven…” on the stage. They would eventually win two.
It wasn’t simply that LeBron James left Cleveland that had Cleveland fans burning his jersey. It was the way it happened.
After losing to the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron walked off the court, removing his jersey in the tunnel. Was it symbolic?
During that series, ESPN writer Brian Windhorst used the following descriptions of LeBron’s performance: “nonchalant attitude” … “lack of focus” … “standing quietly on the weak side during offense” … “staring into space during huddles.”
Did LeBron already know an easier path awaited him in Miami?
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert accused him later of quitting on his team, not only in the elimination series of 2010 but also in 2009. “Go back and look at the tape, ” Gilbert said. “He quit.”
Maybe Gilbert was just bitter. Some of the blame must lie with ownership and management for not surrounding James with better tools to win.
In any case, after the season, unrestricted free-agent LeBron held a one-hour TV show to announce where he would play the following season. The show was hyped for weeks, promoted on LeBron’s website. Sportswriter Bill Simmons wrote before the show: “Picking anyone other than Cleveland on this show would be the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city.”
That’s how a tortured sports city lost it’s home-grown basketball savior. With a spit to the face.
In reflecting on LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in such immature fashion, journalists picked apart the causes. Perhaps too much too soon. Maybe it was lack of a father figure growing up. No sense of grounding. Too many people blowing smoke. Who ever tells him no?
Cleveland fans no doubt reveled in LeBron’s early struggles in Miami. The Heat lacked chemistry. Dwyane Wade had been the Finals MVP in 2006. Who was Pippen and who was Jordan in this scenario?
The Heat lost the Finals in 2011 to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Bill Simmons again, writing midway through the series:
“You can’t call it a meltdown or a breakdown; that would belittle what happened. Call it a LeBrondown.”
“In pressure moments, he comes and goes … and when it goes, it’s gone. He starts throwing hot-potato passes, stops driving to the basket, shies away from open 3s, stands in the corner, hides as much as someone that gifted can hide on a basketball court.”
“There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant. The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem … name a great player other than Wilt, it just wouldn’t have happened.”
In 2012, LeBron redeemed himself. He played brilliantly in the Finals as first-fiddle, defeating a talented Thunder team (starring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden). LeBron took home the NBA Finals MVP. He figured out how to win. Shit, maybe this would be the next dynasty.
In 2013, the Finals came down to game 7 against San Antonio. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided to make LeBron beat them with the outside shot. Perhaps his only weakness? LeBron made him pay, hitting mid-range and long-range shots all night to win a second straight championship, redemption against the team who handed him a sweep in his first Finals, which now seemed like ancient history. Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan conceded, “LeBron was unbelievable. We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
At 28 years old, LeBron James was reining two-time champion, one of a select few in NBA history to have won consecutive Finals MVP’s.
III. The Second Culmination
The words reverberated across the sports world.
After his third straight title in ’93, at the height of his powers, at 30 years old, Michael Jordan surprised everyone by retiring. The absence of Jordan in ’94 and ’95 created a vacuum in the NBA.
Why did he retire?
Maybe he felt spurned when the NBA opened an investigation into his gambling issues. Maybe he felt spurned by the media, who turned on him in the midst of a potential scandal. Or maybe it was that, in the summer of ’93, his father was murdered.
For a year and half Jordan mourned, reflected on life, and played minor league baseball.
In 1996, his first full season back, the Bulls put together the best regular season record in NBA history (surpassed by the Warriors in 2016.) In the Finals that year, the Bulls faced the Seattle Sonics with Gary “the glove” Payton and Shawn Kemp, beating them in six games. Jordan’s fourth NBA championship. After the last game, back in the locker room, he collapsed on the ground and wept. For the first time in his life, Jordan was celebrating a championship without his dad. It was Father’s Day.
The conclusion of the next two Finals seemed inevitable. The Bulls twice faced Stockton and Malone’s Utah Jazz, beating them twice. Watching the playoffs in ’97 and ’98, you just knew the Bulls were going to win. They had MJ.
Even when the Jazz would win a game, or even when they took a lead late in game 6 in ’98, you knew Jordan would deliver. With 30 seconds left in that game, down by one, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone on defense, dribbled down the clock on offense before swishing the game-winning jumper.
His championship rings could no longer fit on one hand. He retired again after the season, age 36.
Though he came back later to play for the Wizards, the legend lives in a Chicago Bulls uniform. Undefeated in the Finals. Took home the Finals MVP six times. The snapshot of MJ hitting the game-winning shot for a second three-peat cemented his reputation as eminent champion.
And clinched the ultimate crown: Greatest Player of All-Time.
Going for a three-peat, the Miami Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals. In what was predicted to be a close series, they got crushed. It was the largest margin of defeat in Finals history. Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard hoisted the Finals MVP trophy. Bill Simmons (who literally wrote The Book of Basketball) said that Leonard “can always brag about going toe-to-toe with LeBron — in his prime, in the Finals — and being better than him for three straight games.”
The excuses poured in. Dwayne Wade was gimpy. LeBron was tired from logging so many minutes over the years.
The LeBron James era in Miami was over.
All was forgiven in “the Land” when LeBron announced he was returning to his hometown. In his absence, the atrocious Cavaliers drafted a point guard named Kyrie Irving, and had the salary cap flexibility to built a contender. Outside shooters James Jones and Mike Miller followed LeBron like the pied piper from Miami to Cleveland. The Cavs traded another young prospect, Andrew Wiggins, for all-star Kevin Love.
For the fifth straight season, LeBron was back in the Finals in 2015. Facing elimination against the Golden State Warriors, much was made about the banged up Cavaliers team. Kyrie Irving was hurt. Kevin Love was hurt. Was LeBron worried?
“I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
LeBron was confident in his status as the best player in the world, and maybe even as the best coach in the world. Upon his arrival back home, James brushed aside the strategy of head coach David Blatt, who had been hired as the reining Coach of the Year from Europe. In training camp that summer, Mike Miller called Blatt’s offense “borderline genius.” Teammate and a former champion Shawn Marion called it “free-flowing.” But it never got the chance to manifest. Two months into the year, LeBron abruptly changed the offense, putting himself as point-guard and moving Irving to the wing. Asked if he had consulted with his coach on this change, LeBron answered, “No, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask.”
The Warriors eliminated the Cavs in six games. The Finals MVP went to Andre Idoudala, whose main responsibility was guarding LeBron James.
LeBron faced the Warriors again in 2016, this time with a healthy Kyrie and Love. (Maybe it goes without saying that David Blatt was fired midway through the season.) The Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 hole to win the championship, and the Jordan comparisons heated up. LeBron had been to seven straight Finals. Yes, he lost more than he won, but his losses were to really great teams. Could he eventually be the GOAT?
This past year, 2017, saw the whole repertoire from LeBron. Equal parts dominant and petulant during the season. One minute the Cavaliers are on a roll, the next minute they’re on a losing streak and LeBron is publicly criticizing the general manager. Just recently this summer, Dan Gilbert fired general manager David Griffin. LeBron, perhaps forgetting about his midyear criticism, tweeted, “If no one appreciated you Griff I did!”
The firing has created an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Cavaliers and LeBron. Pundits speculate LeBron may be heading to Los Angeles in 2018.
In the 2017 Finals, the Warriors beat the Cavs handily. LeBron’s Finals record is now 3-5. Another name added to the list of players to have won Finals MVP against LeBron.
For some, the “best player in the world” torch has just been passed from LeBron to Kevin Durant.
Others are awaiting a resurgence of King James.
He’s 32 years old and still playing strong.
Conclusion: Beyond the Game
Competitive fire may have enabled Jordan’s greatness on the basketball court, but it doesn’t age well. He’s restless. At 50 years old, MJ admitted, “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.”
The cultural explosion of Air Jordan was a synthesis of basketball prowess and marketability. Above all, MJ was freaking cool. He became a symbol of victory, whose endorsement would catapult Gatorade, Nike, Hanes, Wheaties, and McDonald’s into market domination. He single handedly shaped the mega-contract, mega-endorsement, super-duper-star sports world that LeBron inherited at 17.
On the floor as a player, Michael Jordan should be considered the greatest of all-time. It’s impossible to foresee anyone ever overshadowing him, even if LeBron wins two or three more championships. There’s no opponent Jordan didn’t mercilessly vanquish. He came, he saw, he conquered.
Off the court, LeBron seems willing to harness his cultural power for a different contribution.
James won the NBA Citizenship Award in 2017. His foundation gives tens of millions of dollars to target academically struggling students in Ohio for support, and to provide college education for kids who can’t afford it.
Some criticize LeBron for vocalizing support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Stay out of politics. But when your house is vandalized with a racial slur on the eve of the Finals, in 2017, speaking about race is not “playing politics” but a moral imperative. Yes, racism still exists. No, being rich and famous doesn’t put you above the fray. Following more in the footsteps of the vintage “GOAT” Bill Russell, who was a voice for civil rights in the 60’s, LeBron recognizes that his microphone can be used to advance social equality.
LeBron James isn’t the competitor who would rip out your eyeballs before he would let you win. His conceitedness and petulance often shine brighter than his talent.
But his spirit of camaraderie and identification with real world community hints at a deeper vocation.
LeBron has a chance to inspire a new and different kind of greatness. I hope he does.