The Greatest Ever: MJ and the never ending debate

It won’t have gone unnoticed in any basketball household that the most recent All Star weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of Michael Jordan’s birth in Brooklyn.  The Jordan family moved to North Carolina when Michael was a youngster.  In North Carolina, Michael excelled at several sports, but it was in basketball that he achieved a scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina in 1981.

Ever since 1998, when Jordan hung up his boots for the last time as a Chicago Bull, we – as a global basketball family – have been desperately seeking Michael.  We loved that he came back, especially those of us who had an opportunity to see him play as a result of this comeback, but deep down we knew that it was, much like the Stone Roses comeback, not really for the best.  It’s hard to accept that all good things must come to an end.

The All Star weekend in Houston was notable for the number of mentions a guy who hasn’t played professionally in a decade received because of a variety of statement, both by him and by others.  MJ would “take” Kobe over LeBron.  The world would “take” MJ over LJ.  MJ tells us that LJ goes right and does x, goes left and does y.  MJ is coming back at 50.  MJ’s desire to work out with a view towards dropping 40 lbs, not easily done at 50 incidentally, to get back to his playing weight.

The number 40 is also significant because it was the age that Jordan last played competitive basketball.  Of course, we all know about how competitive he is in one-on-one games against MUCH younger players.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a man deemed the second best player in college basketball a year ago (by Jordan himself, although two words will continue to haunt Jordan when it comes to talent identification: Kwame Brown), even admitted being defeated by Jordan in a recent one-on-one contest.

That all said, ten years is a long time to be away from professional basketball.  Even for Michael Jordan.  Those ten years have seen him hit the half century as well.  The oldest player to ever play in the NBA was Nat Hickey at 45 years, 363 days, but that was in 1948.  Since then, Kevin Willis has played at 44 years, 224 days, but that was at the end of a long career, not after having retired a decade previously.  Current active players of advanced age include Kurt Thomas and Grant Hill – Thomas is coincidentally only one day older than Hill.  Jordan himself makes the “oldest ever NBA player” list at 16.

Now, there are a lot of NBA stars playing well into their thirties these days, but let’s not forget that Michael Jordan’s kids don’t even play basketball any more.

But Michael Jordan is of course the greatest ever.  Or is he?

It is not a popular view to argue that Jordan is not the greatest ever basketball player.  But the truthful answer is that we just don’t know.  You can make a very good case in an argument that he’s the greatest ever basketball player, but that’s it.  You just can’t prove it.  There’s no fair way of comparing him with anyone other than the players against whom he competed – and there is little reason to argue that any of his contemporaries were even close to Jordan when it came to talent, drive and ability to perform when it really mattered.  Jordan was clearly the best player of his era.  Indeed, if we base our assessment on these latter two qualities, the argument that Jordan is the greatest ever is a little more convincing, but it is the inability to accurately compare him with a significant number of basketball’s greats through the years on the first category, talent, that damages any arguments over “who is best?”

The simple reason for this is that if we take a comparison between Jordan and, given the relevance of this debate (itself imposed upon us by the mainstream media), LeBron James, we can assess their drive and ability to perform in the clutch and we would most likely all come to the, perhaps slightly premature, conclusion that Jordan is better.  But how can you fairly compare them when you are talking about guys who play in totally different eras?  Jordan retired from basketball, for the second time, in 1998 when LeBron James was 13. They don’t play against the same players.  They don’t even play against the same teams.  The Charlotte Bobcats didn’t exist in Jordan’s day, nor did the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, nor did the Memphis Grizzlies.  The key point is that the NBA of 1998 is not the NBA of 2013 and to suggest that Jordan would have done this or that if he was playing today can only ever, at best, be a matter of informed opinion.

To go all Bill Simmons on you for a moment…a few of you might have read about a television programme called “Ultimate Warrior” which compared the IRA to the Taliban.  Here’s Charlie Brooker making fun of it:

This is just silly, isn’t it?  But, if you really think about it, how is this significantly different from arguing that Michael Jordan is better than LeBron James?  We’re talking about two things which are fundamentally fairly similar, but contextually actually pretty different.

 

He’s pulling up!

The need to compare is at the heart of sporting debate.  Part of this is driven by ESPN, who base the vast majority of their daytime talk shows on such debates.  Indeed, ESPN’s Sport Science segment is currently conducting a “scientific” comparison to decide who is the greatest athlete ever.  I use inverted commas because there is nothing scientific about suggesting that objects in different environments are in any way accurately comparable.  They compared Pele and Tony Hawk in this particular “sweet sixteen” style series.  Like there is any way in the entire world where we can accurately compare a 72 year old football player with a skateboarder.  Unless of course Tony Hawk ever scored an overhead kick in a World Cup final, or Pele has ever successfully completed a (quickly checks wikipedia to come up with a skateboard move) kick flip.  Or something more complicated, I dunno, it’s skateboarding.

Sport by its very nature answers a lot of these questions through direct competition between two teams or participants; the better competitor usually wins.  Unless he or she is juicing.  Unless of course everyone is juicing and it’s the best juicer who wins.

The recent Performance Enhancing Drugs controversies which have plagued most notably cycling (although basketball isn’t immune – Hedo Turkoglu recently failed a drugs test and received a ban.  Whatever drugs he was taking could scarcely be suggested to have enhanced very much at all, though) and baseball have raised the issue of what is fair in competition.  Do PEDs mean that an inferior competitor could beat a superior opponent?  Possibly, but they are hardly going to turn Bill Bergen (look him up) into Barry Bonds.  They have also brought about an interesting dimension to the comparative aspect of sports chat: for example, post-allegedly-PED Barry Bonds when compared with pre-allegedly-PED Barry Bonds.

 

I thought drugs made you better?

The PED era in baseball has allowed journalists to revisit the comparisons between historically great players and the greatest players of the PED era, the latter in many cases breaking records established during the former era.  This is perhaps necessary, if we accept that those who took PEDs, not at the time illegal in baseball, were in fact cheating.  Such a comparison would allow us to figure out who was the best “clean” player of the era.

If, however, we are talking about a sport where PEDs have not changed the landscape of the sport’s history, the real question here is “is it worthwhile even making these comparisons?”

The Jordan-James comparison is made for a number of reasons.  In some cases, it is out of respect for what LeBron James is currently achieving in basketball – why wouldn’t anyone want to be in a conversation which compares you to Michael Jordan?  But in many cases, the comparison is made in order to undermine LeBron’s credentials.  For me, there are two main reasons for this:

Reason One: A lot of the people who control the media are Jordan-era sports fans.  True, many people over the age of 25 are on the fringes of the Jordan era, but I’m talking about people who were fully grown adults throughout Jordan’s career and able to appreciate it fully in the context of what had gone before (namely, the Magic and Bird era) and have been able to appreciate it in the context of what came subsequently (namely, the Kobe and LeBron eras).  In many ways, the world makes sense when Michael Jordan is the best basketball player on the planet.  This argument, however, rather assumes that whatever is currently taking place can never be as significant as what has gone before: “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

Reason Two: People are disinclined to like LeBron and therefore seek to force a comparison which is unhelpful and counter-intuitive, but in particular, difficult for LeBron to “win”.  People don’t like LeBron for “the Decision”.  True, it was a little tasteless, but was it really any more tasteless than any of the manufactured press conferences where high school athletes sit in front of a row of college caps whilst making their own “decision”?  At least LeBron is relevant.  We should never forget that “the Decision” raised $6 million for charity.  Is sacrificing your popularity worth making $6 million for charity?  People also forget that LeBron has had all this attention since he was a teenager – and a young teenager at that.

You don’t need to like LeBron, I’m sure he doesn’t really care in any case, but you can’t really question his character.  We should be amazed that LeBron has turned out as well as he has.  There is no good reason for a kid growing up to a 16 year old single mother, with boyfriends of questionable character, in poor areas of Akron should do anything other than turn to a life of misadventure.  There’s no reason for a guy who has had the basketball media fully focused on him since his junior year of high school to have set up a charitable foundation and to help to raise so much money for it and other charitable ventures.  There’s no reason for LeBron to have a business portfolio as advanced as it is, securing his families finances for generations to come.  Unless, of course, we accept that LeBron is actually (a) smart and (b) a good person.  It’s actually pretty funny that the numerous occasions when Jordan behaved badly towards others are overlooked when he is compared to LeBron.

Of course, we should also consider that Michael Jordan was the second highest paid athlete of 2012.  He doesn’t actually appear on the top earning athlete lists because, again, he hasn’t played in a decade, but his $60 million earned in 2012 would place him second in the top earners list, after Floyd Mayweather, some $4 million ahead of Manny Pacquaio and $5 million clear of Tiger Woods.  Fair to say that Jordan is fairly savvy, too.  Will LeBron still be making $60 million a year in 2030?

A recent Outside the Lines piece by Wright Thompson quoted Jordan as having such an intricate understanding of LeBron James’s game that he could predict what LeBron would do depending on what way he played him.  For those who haven’t read the article (1) you should; and (2) LeBron usually goes to the basket if he drives right, whereas he usually pulls up if he goes left.  Jordan said he would play LeBron to go left as the jump shot is a lower percentage shot than the inevitable layup he would get if he got near the rim.  That’s of course dependent on LeBron not shooting a long jump shot, a shot he is shooting at a far higher percentage this season as well as Jordan still being able to guard LeBron, which of course he couldn’t.  That’s not a slight on him, he’s 50.

It’s interesting that Michael Jordan has continued to follow basketball in such a precise manner as he has.  It was particularly noteworthy that a guy who thought that Kwame Brown (by the way, STILL only 30 years old) was a better prospect than Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Shane Battier, Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace…hell Antonis Fotsis has had a better career than Kwame, is capable of this level of analysis of a player with whom, as Charlotte Bobcats owner, he only has occasional contests with.  The ability to understand the game of a fellow professional was perhaps part of the strategy that propelled Jordan to the top of the game, but it is odd that he was unable to apply the same obsession to drafting a kid with small hands and poor coordination.  Still, Kwame’s made almost FIFTY NINE MILLION DOLLARS…WHAT?…in his career, so who’s to say who was wrong?  Except it was clearly Michael Jordan.

Why Jordan has not been able to translate his skills as a player and, clearly, as a game strategist into more effective leadership from off the court raises questions about his post-playing legacy (again, his playing legacy is not in question here).  He’s absolutely right about LeBron by the way.  Just go and watch a Miami Heat game, you’ll see LeBron pull up going left quite a lot.

One of the key factors to consider in the LeBron-MJ debate is that Jordan changed the landscape in immeasurable ways.  Jordan didn’t have to play out his career in the shadow of Jordan.  Everyone since does.  But then again, what Jordan would have done, hypothetically, in the NBA of 2013 at the age of 28 can only ever remain a matter of debate; not a matter of fact.

Perhaps the silliest thing of all is that we are actually choosing to not fully appreciate the LeBron James era for what it is, because we are too busy trying to find faults, a search which is partially motivated by a desire to compare him with others including Jordan.  Ask anyone who’s been to see a recent Barcelona game what the Lionel Messi experience is like.  We are living in an era where some of the finest sportsmen and women EVER are plying their trade.  Indeed, if you made a list of the people who were the best ever in their chosen field in all walks of life, I wonder where LeBron James and Lionel Messi would rank.  For example: is the best brain surgeon ever better at brain surgery than LeBron James is at basketball, or Lionel Messi is at football?  Of course, we can’t really answer that (although a prize to whomever can name the best brain surgeon in the world), but I think the point needs to be expressed again: enjoy it while it lasts.

We cannot debate that Michael Jordan is the one true NBA icon.  The only person who would even get a look in to that debate is Jerry West, and then only because he is “the logo”.  Whether he is the greatest ever will remain a matter of debate, regardless of how loudly people want to shout.  And, as materialistic as it is, we should never forget that Jordan is at least partly responsible for these:

About

Andrew was something of a latecomer to the game of basketball, having given up rugby after leaving high school. Joining Edinburgh’s fabled Pentland Tigers, he quickly moved on to the East Lothian Peregrines in the Scottish national league before moving to Belfast where he played with Queens and then with Belfast Star. After a year in the superleague, he moved back to Scotland and played with the Scottish Rocks in the BBL. He “retired” (the McDermott rule for using the word “retire” instead of “stopped playing” does require you to have been paid to play, so technically he retired) and moved to Seattle where he began life as an academic, which currently sees him working at University College Dublin. He is a legitimate non-frontrunning Miami Heat fan, having taken up following the team in 2001.

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