The question of who is the greatest basketball player of all time is not historically settled, by the very nature of History – people are always making it and adapting from and surpassing the past. It is of little debate that at the present moment, by almost any standard one can apply that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. He has the stats, championships, individual and team accolades and perhaps most importantly, a series indelible marks left upon the imaginations of millions of Americans. Jerry West may be the logo of the NBA, but Michael Jordan is its most shining symbol of glory. Others who have tried to lay claim to the throne have fallen short, most notably Kobe Bryant, the closest approximation to Jordan in style (if not in success) to the point that if Kobe could have killed Jordan on a boat, assumed his identity (along with press conference cadence, fadeaway jumper and gum chewing) and called himself The Talented Mr. Jordan, he might have. But the danger in replicating a great is that no matter how great you are, unless you surpass the original in every way you can never be considered greater. And this goes beyond stats and number of titles, but also the spirit of the legend. Which is why I have found Lebron James so damn intriguing.
Lebron James, I have always said, is the only modern player with a chance to surpass Jordan (read the words haters – a chance – not a declared certainty or a present-day fact) because he is a different model. Kobe challenged Jordan on Jordan’s turf. Lebron’s eventual legacy will challenge Jordan from a new template – a point guard mind- power forward body phenom. He will never score as much as Kobe or MJ, but he impacts the game in a way I have never seen. He is a defensive force and only Scottie Pippen has been as versatile a defender in my life. What other player in NBA history goes chest-to-chest with Tim Duncan and rejects his post shot and then resumes guarding Tony Parker out on the perimeter? Defensive player of the year Marc “Hodor” Gasol?
To watch the San Antonio defense you would think no one on the court exists except Lebron They guard him with multiple players, a layered scheme and are only willing to concede the worst shot statistically in basketball – the 17-19 foot range jumper. He is a gifted passer, a savant of the game and a physical freak, but he has only shown glimpses of an assassin’s mentality on the court and because Jordan set the framework and Kobe followed it, the fact that Lebron does not adhere to that model means in the hater/hoops-simpletons’ minds that he can never be as good or better than those who operate with that mindset.
And yet, Lebron is one game from winning his 2nd NBA title a year before Michael Jordan won his 2nd NBA title. He has collected 3 triple doubles in his last 7 NBA Finals games. He has thrived offensively in a league that, although not as physically dirty than the one Jordan played in and that Kobe began in, is much more sophisticated defensively and the statistics bear that out. Better athletes, more zone defense and more complex stats and schemes make scoring a bigger chore in today’s NBA (not necessarily individually, but the game is a lot slower than in the 80s). Am I in any way suggesting the MJ would not thrive in today’s NBA? Of course not. I think he would excel. But this is more to defend Lebron.
Lebron is playing under a microscope that no other NBA player has ever played under. Jordan felt the glare, but that was the glare of an adoring spotlight for most of his career. He was a Madison Avenue darling very early on and became the toast of the league for the second decade of his career. Once MJ broke through, he was never questioned again, at least not pejoratively. This has not been the case since Lebron won. Lebron has had the spotlight, but much of it has come from the ever present 24 hour news cycle and the 200 foot troll of a magnifying glass known as social media. Every game Lebron plays is not specific enough evidence of greatness or failure – he has every play dissected. After willing the Heat back from the brink of destruction all 4th quarter in Game 6 last night, the instant reaction from haters was that Ray Allen had “bailed Lebron out” with his incredible three pointer. What is Lebron Moses? He gets to lead his team to the Promised Land, but not get to experience any of it?
The problem for Lebron is not that he is not talented or clutch or great. He is all of those things. The real problem for Lebron is that he is the greatest athletic specimen we have on the planet, other than perhaps Usain Bolt, and that shames a lot of the public. See, we live in a society now where everyone’s opinions, thoughts, pictures and mundane activities are on display making us all feel like important celebrities in our individual, mundane circles. Mediocrity has never been more famous and self-important and Lebron has been reminding us for the last three years that he is better than us.
We were OK when he was a nice kid from Ohio, toiling away, earnestly failing to achieve his profession’s highest goals. But then he made THE DECISION. I did not like it, but I got over it, mainly because I enjoy watching him play so much. But what Lebron said is “watch me America – I am important and you will watch me.” And we did watch and then we hated him for showing us how much we cared and how shallow we all felt (THE DECISION was a huge ratings success). We became champions of Cleveland’s dignity, even though many people watching were just hoping their team would be the one to break Cleveland’s heart (Hello Knicks and Bulls fans). Rather than apologize for our own hypocrisy we turned Lebron into a massive villain.
But don’t forget he was arrogant at a free pep rally fgor Heat fans!
And then he lost in the Finals to Dallas and it proved that he was being punished for his hubris and we could all feel good. It was a text book case of schadenfreude. We determined he deserved a comeuppance, he got it and we delighted! Good riddance King James! Except rather than fade away into the Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter wing just outside of the NBA Hall of Fame for underachieving athletic freaks he bounced back and destroyed his rivals en route to his title in 2012. Yes he played with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but only a truly delusional hatred could ignore that Lebron was the Sun that the other Heat players revolved around. And he never had that iconic moment in the NBA Finals last year because he destroyed the OKC Thunder so thoroughly. So other than Boston Game 6 (and Indiana Game 3 if you paid attention), his 2012 playoffs did not give us Jordan over Ehlo or Jordan (shoving) shooting over Russel. Another strike against Lebron!
So we arrived at 2013. The Heat win 66 games, 27 in a row and Lebron puts together the most or oneof the most efficient seasons in NBA History. And then the playoffs happen and it appears that by the Pacers’ series Lebron is no longer part of a big three. He is the Big One and is alternating between dragging his teammates and creating for them. He single handedly vanquished a very tough and balanced Pacers team that specifically were strong where the Heat were weak.
And now the Finals. Standing in Lebron’s way are a 4 time champion player and coach, a team with size and a team with a devastatingly good point guard – all weak spots for the Heat. And with some help, finally, Lebron is one game away from defeating the team that swept him when, like a Mozart of basketball, he took a terrible Cavs team to the Finals in 2007 with only his individual natural brilliance. But now Lebron has mastered basketball. Does that mean he is perfect? No. Did Jordan shoot below 33% in the final game of the 1996 Finals? Did Kobe go 6-24 in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals? Yes and yes. Does that diminish their legacies? No. Yet Lebron for that he has accomplished before the age of 30 and the brilliance with which he plays is still having every dribble examined with heightened scrutiny. So if he were to score 40 and go 15-15 from the field on Thursday, but Tony Parker hits a buzzer beater to win Game 7, this will somehow render Lebron’s admission to the upper elite of the sport null and void. He cannot please these people because they want him to fail. They need him to fail.
Lebron James has shown us that he is great. Greater at what he does than we will ever be at what we do. He has also shown us that he knows he is great and better than us. Not in a brash Terrell Owens sort of way where it feels cartoonish. Rather, Lebron was blessed by God, fate or nature with incredible potential for greatness. He was not born Peter Parker or even Bruce Wayne – he was BORN as Spider Man and Batman. And what is worse is that he is fullfilling that great potential and enjoying it in beautiful Miami. Lebron is better than us, knows it, but what really stings is that we could never be him. No matter how hard we work and dedicate ourselves he was always going to be better. Kobe and MJ gritted their teeth, yelled at and in MJ’s case, punched, teammates – they had the gifts, but they also exhibited the grit that made us feel better about them being better. Lebron is just enjoying a game he has mastered and fullfilling his promise, but with something closer to a child’s enjoyment than a mob boss’ ruthlessness. And in an age where we all think we are so important and special he has shown us that we are not. But that he is.
Good luck in Game 7 Lebron. And get ready to hear “but MJ and Kobe threepeated” or “now Tracy mcGrady has as many titles as you” right after. And then have a hearty laugh.