God bless Sun-Times writer Steve Greenberg. He recently (and bravely) walked into the landmine field that is the Michael Jordan-LeBron James best-of-all-time debate. He gently left open the possibility that James might someday be considered better than Jordan, a Chicago icon, which could be why Steve hasn’t been seen since writing that column. I’m sure he’ll turn up. Floating.
Jordan backers always come out in force when LeBron has a bad performance, which he did in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. He scored just 11 points in a loss to the Celtics, and astronauts taking a tethered walk outside the International Space Station said they could hear the inevitable response: Michael never did anything like that in a big game!
Um, yeah, actually he did. He went 3-for-18 from the field in Game 3 of the 1993 conference finals. But, MJ fans scream, the Bulls beat the Knicks by 20 that day, proving what a winner he is! The James side counters, just as loudly, that Jordan had a teammate named Scottie Pippen, voted one of the top 50 players in NBA history.
And just like that, we’re tumbling down a hole that has no bottom.
I don’t want to debate. I want to delve.
At its core, the MJ-LeBron argument really isn’t about which player is better. It’s about the people doing the debating, especially here in Chicago, and why they care so much. Many Bulls fans are emotionally invested in Jordan being the best player in NBA history, for reasons most of them, I’m guessing, can’t fully explain. For some of these people, Jordan was a huge part of their formative years. Six NBA titles. Six NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards. “Space Jam.’’ Those “Be Like Mike’’ Gatorade ads.
He had an excellence about him, and people of all ages wanted to be associated with that excellence. It’s why they bought – and still buy – the products he was selling.
But it’s more than that. He put a bounce in the step of Bulls fans. He made a lot of people feel good about Chicago, even at those times when there wasn’t a whole lot to feel good about. If he was the best and if the Bulls were the best, some of that best-ness, by association, rubbed off on his fans, right? That was the idea anyway. Their self-worth was worth a little more if it was attached to Himself.
But it’s interesting how so many people wait until James has a bad game before they give full voice to their low opinion of him. There’s a lot of grumbling when he plays well. When he plays poorly, it’s open season.
It’s not enough that Jordan has to be better than LeBron. LeBron has to lack toughness, cede too easily to lesser teammates, be unwilling to face the big moments and quite possibly push children out of the way while sprinting to the exit during a fire. All that while wearing a villain’s black cloak.
It’s why, when James struggles in a playoff game, there’s not just quick condemnation but a focus on the bigger issues of heart and manliness. Never mind that he put together eight straight games of at least 30 points in this year’s playoffs. When he scored those measly 11 points in the next game, the discussion suddenly turned to whether age and minutes were finally catching up to him. Tough crowd — maybe a crowd that has a little too much riding on seeing him fail.
LeBron didn’t seem himself in Game 4 Tuesday, either, looking out of sorts and throwing several strange passes. Then you looked at the box score: 15-for-27 from the field, 34 points, six assists and five rebounds. Not bad for a weak-willed, washed-up superstar. Also, the Cavs won.
Jordan’s fans protest too much when James succeeds. Perhaps they’ve taken their cue from their hero. He has never been shy about hinting at what he perceives as the pecking order of things.
When LeBron clanged a wide-open tomahawk dunk against the Celtics on Tuesday night, the chorus started up again: Michael never did that, especially in the playoffs. Wait a second, yes, he did. In Game 3 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals, he banged a wide-open tomahawk dunk off the back of the rim.
“Michael Jordan has done the unthinkable!’’ TV announcer Marv Albert said.
Just like LeBron. And just like Mike.