One of the few things I remember from the Highlander series is the epic line that would be screamed aloud just before two immortals (unless you chopped off their heads) shouted right before they began hacking at each other with their long swords. “There can only be one!” they’d cry. But in the world of the NBA, fans and pundits are always calling for the “next Michael Jordan,” like they can conjure that persona simply by invoking the name (a la Candyman). But maybe the truth is that there can only be one.
Peer pressure: Watching The Dream Time retrospective, twenty years since the All-Star collection of NBA players barnstormed their way to the Barcelona gold medal, I was struck by the number of players then and now who went out of their way to talk about Jordan’s greatness. None of them said he was a great friend, a good person, particularly likeable, or fun to be around. None of them talked about how much money he’d given away or time he’d spent healing sick children, but they all talked about his killer instinct on the court. [For the record, if any of them had talked about his “goodness,” a quick review of his Hall of Fame speech would’ve cleared up any misconceptions.] There was and still is a reverential awe around MJ that others haven’t been able to provide in their peers (even if MJ hasn’t been able to spark the same fire as an owner).
The truth is that Jordan dominated from 1992-94 and 1996-1998, years after Larry Bird said that MJ was “the most amazing, awesome player in the game today… God disguised as Michael Jordan.” He’d already wowed the spotlight with ridiculous dunks, defense with crazy abandon, and a “for the love of the game” clause in his contract. But since then, various players have been called “the next Jordan,” including Vince Carter, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. All but the last have surged and peaked, and we’re left with the latest, “King” James, to see if he’ll hold his own.
But he can’t.
Teammates: Various pundits (including former players) and players in today’s NBA have said that James is the best player in the world today. But that today is important, is it not? Jordan is built like an H-back, with speed like a track star, a handle similar to Magic Johnson, and… a little bit of J. Teams might triple-team him, and he might go for thirty points, twelve boards, and six assists, and his team will lose. He traded everything, thanks to “The Decision,” to be with two other All-stars (Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh), and he… still hasn’t won anything. On the other hand, Jordan, with help from a rotating cast of Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Ron Harper, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Bill Cartright, Luc Longley, and Dennis Rodman, won six titles. Which one of those guys is a regular All-Star without being next to Jordan? [Pippen probably, but see 1993-5 for further evidence on that argument.] James has better teammates but Jordan had the better team.
On and Off The Court: We can talk all about stats but the difference remains off the court. Sure, Jordan had a gambling “situation,” was believed to have been unfaithful to his wife, and was absolutely cutthroat. But he was never, outside of New York, the guy that the general populace loved to hate. If anything, James has become the Tiger Woods of the NBA: he’s good for the game, he’s an amazing player, but his personality and Decision-making (sorry, couldn’t help it) have made him dislikeable. On the court, it’s not much different. MJ was taking the shot and everyone knew it (except for two or three notable times when he dished), including the other team. James should be more difficult to guard because who knows whether he’s going to shoot or pass, but either way, his team has failed so far. MJ believed in his shot, in his ability, while James seems to doubt that he can actually push his team over the top.
If James wins the 2012 NBA Finals over the Thunder, he’ll have won his first title at 28, the same as MJ. But the way he’s gone about it, and his disregard for the age-old “how the game should be played” remains in doubt. We’re not bought in. Regular polls (discounting Cleveland and Miami) seem to show that the sports crowd wants him to go down in smoke. If he loses, he’s not going to exactly go away, but that will just be one more dart on the board. Another would-be prince down…