The King is Dead: Long Live the King
By Brian D. Sadie, 17 June, 2015. Image from Chalk ad by Nike
Nothing seems to elicit more public fervor and argument than popularly recognized greatness in sports. Add notions of individual versus team with ideas of best ever and a nation’s worth of folks declare hatred or, at least, display unmitigated enmity for even unselfish team-players who seem generally decent and socially-responsible both on and off the court.
So it is regarding the public aspect of LeBron James and the myth and deification of Michael Jordan. Jordan was undeniably talented and great. The same is true of LeBron James. So they are always in the emotional fan wrestling match for greatest ever. But they and their worlds are significantly different.
To casual or even avid sports fans without a team interest watching an NBA Final, that kind of thought typically runs too deep, but one shouldn’t spew bunk about any serious or accomplished athlete, let alone highly regarded professionals and the acknowledged best, without some consideration of relevant things.
Last night a friend of mine, a recent Emmy-winner for his part in the tremendous effort that gave us the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl broadcast, met me in a restaurant-bar in a small town in the sleepy-quiet corner of Connecticut. After helping the barmaid find the channel, we watched the last game of the 2015 Finals. The barmaid was a former NCAA scholarship basketball player who knew the game and knew what I’m speaking of here. But many at the bar, and clearly many, many more all over the country, don’t. There was plenty of LeBron hating and misty Jordan love.
James and Jordan are remarkably different individuals, and that, mixed with the varying talent on and capabilities of their respective teams and the character and quality of competition in the NBA over time, resulted in wins and losses that cause many to insist that Jordan was greater than James. Why watchers and fans go to such extremes in their discussion likely has nothing to do with the sport, since they must all know that – with the possible exception of baseball, which has the phenomenal anomaly of Babe Ruth – a Hall of Fame is always a pantheon with no absolute or permanent Zeus. The afterlife’s glorious amphitheatre in the sky is full of a lot of dudes named Diomedes and Ajax competing in a perpetual chase for sporting kleos. At any given moment someone has a ring but another is always about to be taken or awarded.
Being a great athlete can help win a championship and resultant jewelry, but having at least three other excellent, intelligent teammates on the floor is essential to make your team a great and winning one in the NBA. Jordan never pulled a team the way or as far as LeBron has, and LeBron has done so at least twice. He nearly beat the East single-handedly with Cleveland every time that city made the Finals and he almost beat the historically accomplished Warriors three times in this Finals – twice in their own building. He did beat them once in Oakland, and his statistics are phenomenal across the board to boot!
Jordan never had to carry a team so ridiculously or so long: opposing teams had to guard every Chicago player. Jordan simply drove or shot, and he could with those Hall of Fame teammates. But LeBron in Cleveland?
The Warriors never had to guard anybody on Cleveland’s replacement squad so they blocked the box and harassed James on every play. Eventually, even an athletically-fit giant gets tired, and those contested shots over long arms late in the Fourth of a Finals game get downright nasty and tough. What LeBron James accomplished this entire post-season is something that Jordan never did, and the statistics aren’t empty or meaningless. James was the Cleveland Cavaliers, and this Finals was still a good one even with a Cavs team at maybe 30% and LeBron accounting for or having a hand in as much as seventy percent of the team’s scoring. Overall he engineered nearly sixty percent of every Cleveland point, taking another old record from Michael Jordan.
Jordan never made four consecutive Finals, let alone five: despite the opportunity, he and Chicago lost early in the 1995 playoffs and the following year, after posting the best single regular season won-lost record at 72-10, still lost two games and nearly three in the six-game 1996 Finals. LeBron James just appeared in his fifth consecutive Finals with a team of lead-filled mannequins and took the Warriors to six. I mean no disrespect to any player because to simply make the NBA means that one is among the most dedicated and best in the world. Regardless, levels of greatness do exist. For nearly his entire NBA career, including sometimes while in Miami, and always with Cleveland, LeBron has been fighting from a relatively disadvantaged position where coaching and team skill and dynamics are concerned.
Jordan didn’t win until the Celtics were gone, until Detroit had its run, until the Lakers slipped. He never won until his team got superior talent to help him and in his championship years he never faced a team as great as Tim Duncan’s Spurs, and James has met San Antonio three times in his six Finals! Were it possible, a direct comparison of Jordan and James would be fun, but it isn’t, nor is it necessary given the reality of the NBA, and that doesn’t support the notion that Jordan was the greatest ever. Entertaining? Sure, but…
He traveled like crazy and, until he showed up, everybody had gotten nailed for that. However, people loved watching long-jumps and dunks, so traveling became the norm, freeing Jordon to leap and soar and let the flashbulbs pop while shoes got sold. Yes it was cool, and yes, he was skilled, but were he forced to play the old way, Jordan would have been a different beast, just as James, were he given two high-percentage shooters and all-NBA defensive players the likes of Chicago’s Pippin and Rodman and sixth-man of the year Kukoč throughout an entire Finals, would have easily beaten this tremendous Warriors team: a team that earned its 67-15 regular season record – tied for fourth best in history – in the talent-heavy Western Conference, home to five historically great NBA Champion teams and winners of five of the last seven Finals. The lone two Eastern wins were Miami with LeBron.
Two of the men at the bar in Connecticut said they didn’t have to like a player because he was good, but both said they liked Jordan and that he never choked. Is some fog of nostalgia at work? By all accounts Jordan was selfish, arrogant, petty, and abusive. By all accounts James is team-oriented, self-assured, magnanimous, and kind. Which player improves his teammates’ play? James, and he still breaks records, including some of Jordan’s, for individual performance with a grace Jordan doesn’t know or comprehend. The difference, one fellow said, was that Jordan made plays that he remembered, while he thinks nothing of James’ play for all his incredible triple-doubles against superior teams.
Whether or not one likes someone should be immaterial in acknowledging performance greatness, but it isn’t and it colors everything when arguing rank. You’d think that most are happy to see good people succeed, so you’d expect greater popular applause for LeBron James. Detractors complain that he was always touted as the best, even as a kid, but as a pro he chokes. That he is human and doesn’t always accomplish what he attempts is not a failure, especially given that other great talents are keen to interfere with his every dribble and shot. Perfection remains limited by definition and rare in occurrence anyway, even in sports. Is it unique to James that he sometimes memorably faltered or slowed when the stakes were high? No, but time has glossed the memory of a long-ago Jordan only in his prime while James still plays.
Combined with the necessary talent, devotion enables the best athletes to excel at the higher levels of professional sport, but to reign supreme within that already tiny circle takes something else and usually affects personality, and for some that extra something manifests as obsession and narcissism. Jordan more than wanted to be the greatest: he lusted for it, and his pursuit of it showed in the wreckage and meanness that was the individual in the public and even personal realm of life. Always wanting to be the show-stopper, he resented others getting shots or making plays and never gave credit to anyone. Along with basketball Jordan excelled at insulting people. He might not have always done that and may even have played nice in public a few times, but he is well-known for and defined by the former.
LeBron James is the kind of athlete people have traditionally favored, a Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson, who, it’s worth mentioning, managed to hold his tongue instead of fire back and fight the ugly racists in the stands. James, too, is well-mannered and loyal to family and friends and even to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. James sought to share the glory and memorable moments until it became clear that he had to be more sportingly selfish and do more himself to win the way that Jordan did. But one last thing is important to consider before judging or ranking the two players: James is acknowledged by former professionals and his peers as the consummate all-around player, the one who excels at every position and can take a game into his own hands. Jordan was never a complete player, could never play every position or take every kind of shot. Just as the Seattle Seahawks are famous for and have lived and died by, Jordan did what he did and that was it. LeBron worked over years to learn, adapt, and master new aspects of the game and became the model of the complete player. That he continues to do so with respect and grace is testament to his character.
So, whether you admire, respect, like, love, or hate LeBron James, know this: he is a good guy as well as a tremendous athlete; he is the legitimate Finals MVP; and he is among the greatest ever to play the game. If you resent the epithets The Chosen One or The King or the mere sobriquet King James, remember the business and culture of media and sports, or even those of politics and the country in general, and note that LeBron has yet again delivered a moribund franchise to the Promised Land. The Cavaliers might not have won the castle there, but James and hobbled company pitched one hell of a battle against ridiculous odds. For that, or even his remarks about his talent and ability, James deserves no hate, but has earned your respect.