Disclaimer: I am a native Chicagoan. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, in the Chatham area. I have been a huge Chicago Bulls fan since I can remember and like many Bulls fans during the 90s, thought Michael Jordan could do no wrong on a basketball court. I am also a huge fan of Kobe Bryant, who has been my favorite player in the NBA for about the last decade or so. While I believe LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet at the moment, I do not consider myself a fan of his, nor do I dislike him for any reason. My objective opinion will follow.
During an interview with NBA TV, retired NBA shooting guard Michael Jordan told an interviewer that he would ultimately choose shooting guard Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers over small forward LeBron James of the Miami Heat. His reasoning? “Five beats one every time I look at it” was his reasoning. No, seriously. A man as intelligent and articulate as Michael Jordan told an interviewer that he prefers Kobe Bryant over LeBron James because Kobe has been a part of five championship teams as opposed to James’ one. Note, I stated that Kobe “has been a part of,” and not that Kobe “has won” any titles. I feel this way because it’s impossible to accredit a title in a team sport to any one player, regardless of their contribution(s).
Never mind that Kobe had the benefit of playing with arguably the most dominant player in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal, way before Bryant reached his prime. Forget that LA has always been a destination for big-name free agents. Ignore the fact that Kobe and Michael both prospered playing under head coach Phil Jackson, while LeBron has never really played for anyone who has made him a better player. Paul Silas? Heh. Mike Brown? HEH. Erik Spoelstra? HEEEEH. No, don’t bring up that during the Lakers’ title runs from 2000-02 and again in 2009 and 2010, Kobe was playing on a team with decent guard play and a massive amount of talent in the frontcourt, as well as a solid bench. Of course it means nothing that Kobe and the Lakers have met up in the NBA Finals with an overachieving Indiana Pacers team, a Philadelphia 76ers team that was Allen Iverson and no one else, a New Jersey Nets squad that represented the East in the Finals because someone from the conference had to, an Orlando Magic team that head coach Stan Van Gundy screwed by re-incorporating previously injured point guard Jameer Nelson into and an aging Boston Celtics team that went about 7 deep on a good day. This means nothing, the same as the fact that in his first appearance in the Finals as a Cleveland Cavalier, LeBron ran into a veteran San Antonio Spurs team coached by one of the best in league history. While Kobe has gone through battles in the Finals with legitimate threats like Shaq, power forward Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum, (pre-Heat) LeBron had to lean on…um…Sasha Pavlovic? Larry Hughes? Maybe Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Sure, LeBron was terrible in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, and by then, he was playing alongside shooting guard Dwyane Wade and power forward Chris Bosh. Kobe wasn’t that much better in the 2004 Finals against the Pistons and the 2008 Finals against the Celtics.
I wrote all of this not to convey that I’d rather choose LeBron over Kobe, if both were in their prime. I’m with Michael; I’d take Kobe over LeBron, too. My qualm lies with Jordan’s horrible reasoning that somehow, some way, Kobe is a better player than LeBron because he has more jewelry to play with. If we subscribe to this awful logic, then former Boston Celtics greats Bill Russell and K.C. Jones should be higher on our lists than MJ. Russell has 11 rings and Jones, 8. We won’t bring up that during the Celtics’ dominance, there were about 10-14 teams in the NBA, or that having an athletic 6’9″ defensive dynamo like Russell during that time made it almost impossible for your team to not have an advantage over most other teams. Nope. We won’t. Screw circumstances, whatever they may be or may have been. According to MJ, we should all take Russell and Jones over MJ.
Jordan’s logic also indirectly takes jabs at one of his best friends, retired NBA power forward Charles Barkley, and other great pro athletes who were never part of a title team. Would MJ rather have Horace Grant over Barkley? Derek Fisher over John Stockton? Robert Horry over Karl Malone? Jim McMahon over Dan Marino? Terrell Davis over Barry Sanders? Jim Edmonds over Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski? HELL NO. Michael may be knocking on 50, but he isn’t senile. All of the players I mentioned in the latter were more talented than those I mentioned in the former, and I believe not many would disagree with me on that, including MJ.
Personally, I think MJ is a little bitter. Here sits one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports and to an extent, he has become an afterthought. When Jordan was a high school senior, I can guarantee that his committal to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill generated a buzz…in the state of North Carolina, not exactly a large media market. When he hit the game-winning jumper in the NCAA title game as a freshman, it essentially came and went. I spoke to someone recently who was 30 when the Chicago Bulls drafted Jordan in 1984 and while this person admitted he knew Jordan was talented, that he had also not really been led to believe that Jordan was an exceptional talent. During the Bulls’ dynasty, Jordan was a global phenomenon, but there was no Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, no smartphones, and the internet was not something that was seemingly everywhere you went. The most popular thing about Jordan during his heyday? The shoes. And again, think about how the internet was not as popular as it was today, meaning that LeBron’s brand currently reaches far more people than Michael’s ever did. Oh, also make sure to factor in that the NBA is more popular on a global level than it has ever been. Sure, international interest in the sport ratcheted up primarily because of MJ, but I’d argue that with the popularity of the internet, there are more who are familiar with the name “LeBron James” than those who were familiar with “Michael Jordan” 20 years ago. It has to unnerve Jordan that so many appear to be desperate to find his replacement, or at least make comparisons. Since MJ retired the first time, the hunt to find “the next Michael Jordan” has been on. Remember, Kobe was supposed to be that guy once he found his bearings in the NBA.
Suddenly, in 2003, MJ is faced with LeBron James, a wunderkind who was tabbed by Sports Illustrated at the time as “The Chosen One.” How the hell does he get that title when he hasn’t even played an NBA exhibition game? I’m sure MJ thought as he flipped through the pages of a magazine which he essentially owned during his playing career. I sort of sympathize with bitter Michael because he came along at a time that had not yet found that many ways to adore celebrities. The greatness of MJ did not reach everyone, and it wasn’t as easy 20 years ago to keep up with Jordan as it is to keep up with LeBron now. It took years for MJ to become great in his peers’ and many journalists’ eyes, and seemingly, LeBron received that label as soon as he put on a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. Hell, I was incredibly annoyed by the fact that as an 18 year-old rookie, LeBron actually embraced the nickname “King James.”
LeBron responded to MJ, saying that he thinks it’s unfair to compare players based on championship rings and that rings don’t totally define a player’s career. He’s right on both accounts, although I’m sure the overwhelming response to LeBron was that he’s whiny, nowhere near as great as either MJ or Kobe, eats puppies, kidnaps Girl Scouts, et cetera, et cetera. You see, LeBron James simply cannot win in the eyes of many people. Tons loved to know that MJ picked Kobe over LeBron, and I’m sure many of them are still cross over “The Decision.” Wah. Boo hoo. Tough cookies. In sports, sentimentality often prevails over sensibility, which leads to people rushing to denounce LeBron despite his greatness while doing what they can to lionize MJ despite his bitterness. Michael Jordan is a motherfucking icon, and for many, it’s not right that anyone is compared to him, let alone someone who had to “abandon” (exercising your rights as a free agent isn’t an example of a