It’s official: LeBron James is a four-time NBA Finals loser. In all honesty, I couldn’t care less—my opinions about rooting for professional sports teams are pretty well-documented. But James, himself, is compelling in many ways. One of them happens to be the consistent comparison of James to one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
The comparisons are inevitable, of course. James (I refuse to call him “LeBron,” as though we were besties or something) is widely regarded as the best basketball player in the world. Jordan is widely regarded as the best player in history. James doesn’t typically fare well in these comparisons—after all, James is now 2-4 in NBA Finals, whereas Jordan was 6-0. I have a different ranking of all-time greats, personally, but that’s another post for another time. However, unlike many people who postulate that Jordan’s greatness is indisputable, I actually lived through and remember Jordan’s early years in the league.
You know who we mostly compared Jordan to back in the day? Bill Russell? Elgin Baylor? Wilt Chamberlain? Jerry West?
Actually, it was Dominique Wilkins.
Jordan and Wilkins came into the league within a couple of years of each other in the Eighties. Wilkins was a prolific scorer, but he could never win a title. Even back then, it was a well-known fact that you needed a second banana in order to win a title. The best that Wilkins ever had was an aging Moses Malone at the end of the Eighties—he never truly had a legitimate second option on offense. Wilkins’ career ended the way that so many stars who chase a championship do. He bounced around from Atlanta to the Clippers (back when the Clippers were beyond embarrassing) to the Celtics to the Spurs to the Magic. Even though he averaged almost 25 points per game, and was undeniably a top twenty all-time player, he never got that elusive championship. And for a while, it seemed like Jordan was doomed to the same fate.
The rap on both Wilkins and Jordan was that they didn’t make those around them better. Jordan was a champion in college, yes, but that was with James Worthy as the true star of that team. Jordan didn’t win again after Worthy left. And he didn’t win during the first six years of his NBA career, either. In fact, Jordan’s Bulls were bounced from the First Round of the NBA Playoffs a whopping three times. Jordan was considered to be an elite scorer, but in the Eighties he was well behind Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and even Isaiah Thomas in the NBA hierarchy of stars. He wasn’t a great defender, he wasn’t a great passer. He was a ball hog, somebody who NBA fans were convinced you couldn’t win with.
Don’t like the Wilkins comparison? I have a worse one for you. Don’t believe me? Here, I’ll prove it.
Here are the first six years of statistics for two players:
Player A: Won three scoring titles in his first six years. Made it to the NBA Finals, but lost. Averaged about five assists per game. Led league in steals twice.
Player B: Won four scoring titles in his first six years. Never made it to the NBA finals. Averaged about five assists per game. Led league in steals twice.
Player B was Michael Jordan. Player A? Allen Iverson. Do you see a lot of difference? Other than the fact that Iverson actually got his team to the finals, not really. He could certainly score, but his other skills were in question.
It wasn’t until Jordan had a complete team around him that he became a real winner. People often say, “Well, even Jordan needed Pippen.” Scottie Pippen was, without question, valuable to the Bulls run. But so were Craig Hodges, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, and Toni Kukoc. Oh, yeah, and that one guy who was their coach—Phil Jackson.
Oh, yes, Jordan was considered by some to be a coach-killer. He ran Doug Collins, a widely liked and respected coach, right out of town. His teammates? He was hated by teammates. He punched a few of them. Personal life? He was a philanderer on a scale that made Tiger Woods seem small time. It’s nearly a certainty that his prolific gambling habit led to the death of his father. Many believe that his first retirement was actually a secret two-year suspension by the commissioner’s office for gambling.
Yes, he did win six titles, and maybe he would have won more had he not quit the game twice. Also, Kobe has won five. Magic won five. Russell won eleven.
And don’t forget the Wizards era. An aging Jordan forced himself on a Wizards team, took way too many shots, berated an 18-year-old boy by calling him a “faggot” repeatedly, and failed to get a fairly talented team with a young Jerry Stackhouse into the playoffs.
People complained about James saying that he was the best player in the world after Game 5. Those same people just shook their heads and laughed admiringly at Jordan when he said that, at the age of 52, he could still beat his Charlotte Hornets players one-on-one. Why is one bragging, and one is just “being competitive?”
If you want to compare LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant, or whoever the next anointed one is to Michael Jordan, just remember who Jordan really was. He was certainly great, but his flaws were just as big as his strengths.
Funny because we had this exact same discussion this morning at work. For some reason Jordan got a free pass on a lot of things. Maybe it was because he was made so likeable by the media. Maybe it was because he was just more watchable than most other players. The world ignored or forgave all his flaws because he was the best… when Da Bulls played, people tuned in.
Phil Jackson definitely built that team. That man knew how to mesh talent. In the NBA, *everybody* is a superstar, so you’ve got to win as a team. What an incredible coach.
Lebron James seems to keep out of trouble, is an unselfish player, a clean player, and yet he’s not as likable as Jordan. It’s weird that I root against him, and really have no reason to.
we don’t allow famous people to think they’re good at what they do.
Jordan has 6 championship rings because he wasn’t expected to win it by himself.
Can’t believe you didn’t mention the Worm. Jordan had two Hall of Fame players on the second three-peat team (as well as Harper, Kerr, Cartwright, etc at various times). Wade might get there, Bosh probably won’t, and I can’t think of a single Cleveland player that would even be considered.
Ah, Rodman! Yes, huge oversight on my part.
I have no love for Jordan (Pistons fan), but he worked on his game and became a better shooter and defender. Doug Collins also wasn’t going to get them to a title. Can we also remember who he lost to in the 1986-1990 NBA playoffs? Celtics, Celtics, Pistons, Pistons, Pistons. These are some of the greatest teams basketball has ever seen (’86 Celtics and ’89 Pistons especially).
Sure the team around him got better, but he learned a ton from those setbacks, and applied it. Dominique’s career puts him more in line with Pippen, Pierce, and Gasol. He never got better or reached that next level. He sure as hell didn’t learn how to play defense either.
One thing you got to concede about the record holding Bulls is that their defense was crushing.
Their defense was crushing. Jordan, Harper, Rodman, and Pippen were all elite defenders. Luc Longley was big and was not a defensive liability. Kukoc and Kerr could come off the bench and play defense as well. People forget that Kerr wasn’t a small guy. He’s 6’3″, could shoot the lights out, and was an above average defender.
And speaking of Kerr, he is Golden State’s coach so he just got another ring!
My favorite Jordan story is from 2010. The local Charlotte sports talk radio show had MJ on the phone while he was at a casino in the Caribbean. Jordan had clearly had a few drinks and was feeling no pain. The hosts asked him about the Hornets’ (I refuse to use “Bobcats”) future plans now that they had traded Tyson Chandler and others to the Mavericks. This was news to Jordan; he was very obviously blindsided by this move and really struggled for a minute to A) believe what had happened, and B) how to respond on a live radio show to something he was not aware of, at all.
In addition to the serial trash-talking, gambling addiction, womanizing, and legendary bitterness, you can add “quite possibly was too drunk and/or absent to be involved with the management of his NBA team”.
He was legendary for being totally absent in Washington when he was part of management.
I was a Chicagoan for both 3-peat runs.
And I also lived in Sarasota (then the spring home of the White Sox) when Jordan “retired.”
Saw him in action, in the night clubs. Jordan, now in FL, sans family, limo’ed around town to pre-arranged roped-off VIP areas. His bodyguards would then scope the crowd for “candidates” which had to be attractive, white, thin and tall (he didn’t like to dance with short women). He was, indeed, an all-star philanderer.
Also saw him in action on the field. Sat next to Dick Vitale one evening as we watched Jordan hack away. “What’s he doing out there?” Dick would wonder quietly. (Note: His off camera personality is quiet, subdued, and quite pleasant and engaging, Vitale’s.) The rumors were all over town: Jordan wasn’t doing the baseball thing “for his dad” or because he was “burned out on basketball” — he was suspended due to gambling (on basketball, see Rose, Pete for case study reference) and Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf help hatch a cover story and plan to protect The Franchise. After seeing him play baseball in person, the “Bag It, Michael” SI cover was perfect (and drove MJ into fits of rage).
Heard all the reports of what a horrible, mean-spirited teammate he was. Even got in a fistfight in practice with Kerr, who is regarded by those who know him to be a very nice, reasonable guy. On the bus, Jordan was heard to pick on Kerr about the death of Kerr’s father (who was murdered by jihadists in his American University office in Beirut). Karma, it turns out, made MJ its bitch.
As to who gets most credit turning MJ into a winner: yes, Great Chief Triangle, Phil Jackson gets a lot of credit. He did manage to not so much as manage MJ, but keep the team from mutinying because MJ was (and is) a total jerk. No, real credit goes to A) Tex Winter, architect of the triangle offense which forced spacing, ball movement, movement without the ball, and kept MJ from playing Me-Ball all game long, B) Jerry Krause, the GM who assembled all the necessary components (usually previously unknown budget players) who would fill their roles perfectly around The Franchise. You know, the guy Jordan called Crumbs because he was short and fat. (Crumbs was also one of the best scouts in all of baseball as well — wonder what Krause thought of MJ’s swing, which looked like a gibbon swinging a stick).
Just YouTube MJ’s HOF acceptance speech to hear what an absolutely spiritually-shrunken, craven man he really is. Every motivation was not to be great, for the love of the game, for team or family — no, everything that has ever motivated Jordan was a perceived slight, an indignity-turned-to-vendetta, hatred, anger. It is truly cringe-worthy.
So is James better than Jordan? Record says no, but I hope, as a human being, he is. Kobe? Record is close, but whispered stories indicate Kobe is as bad a teammate — and husband — as Jordan ever was.
Great and timely post, Bark. Makes us pause and question who our heroes are — and should be — in this American life.
Amen,Bark! I was just pondering last night how many all stars/ HOF players Jordan was surrounded by and why the critics seem to disregard this while dismissing Mr. James. The story line is sure to be how he got beat by Steph Curry, with no mention of the multiple double digit scorers he had at his disposal vs the team of bench caliber players Cleveland fielded.
Maybe the 1990’s was just a time when the NBA really needed someone to be its icon, when the game was feeling stale. Jordan was bigger than the game itself. The tongue hanging out, the spread-leg dunk that is still imprinted on tennis shoes two decades later, the rapid gum chewing…
Yeah the sport needed Michael Jordan more than he needed it. That’s why he is still idolized when it’s clear he isn’t a man of caliber.
The funny thing is, the “jumpman” logo wasn’t even Jordan’s idea. It was suggested to him by a photographer in a photo session. I believe Jordan actually had to pay him a fair amount of royalties In a recent lawsuit.
First and foremost, I grew up in Ohio. I am a Cleveland everything fan. Above and beyond that, I am a Lebron James fan. I watched the Miami Heat just because Lebron James was there, and was excited when they won. I do not profess to be an expert on basketball, but what I see him do on the court is just ridiculous. Yes I saw and admired Jordan. I despised him because even when the Cavaliers had a good team, they could never get past the Bulls. I also despise David Justice, Joe Carter, and John Elway ( not in a personal way of course, but because they were all instrumental in Cleveland losing ).
Maybe the Cav’s won’t win again next year, or the next, or ever. Maybe no Cleveland sports team will ever win a championship again. Lord knows Cleveland’s sports teams are aggravating.
For just a little while, it’s fun to watch the best player in the world ( and he is right now ), put on a show that is just incredible to watch.
I was working at a small (couple of dozen people) fairly well-known at the time tech firm on the Beltway, outside of DC, during the time Jordan’s father was killed.
Based in part on what I had read somewhere on some supposed insider sports site, I dropped the opinion that perhaps Jordan’s gambling, along with that of his father’s, may have led to his father’s early demise.
Almost universally I was excoriated as being a “hater”. There was a general groundswell of nothing but sympathy for innocent victim MJ.
I had almost completely forgotten about that incident, until I read your article.
I too am opposed to giving great athletes a pass for their personal shortcomings, when the truth lies elsewhere.
So it was nice to discover that someone whose intellectual integrity and desire for accuracy are well-known, also arrived at the conclusion that the “squeaky clean” Mr. Jordan may have had a darker side, not only re: gambling, but in the way that he treated others around him.
As a long-time fan of the complicated, imperfect, but very much down to earth Allen Iverson, it has always amazed me how MJ is like stainless steel, shiny and undamageable, while AI was considered by many to be gritty and tough, and generally not a nice person.
From all the accounts I could gather while in Philadelphia, AI was just one more case of “conventional wisdom” not being very wise.
It’s always good to hear your “dig deeper”, :”tell the real story” takes on situations like this.
Thanks once again.