Oh, how they worship him now, all those amnesiacs and frontrunners who once called him a traitor, a choker, a big-shot-phobic wannabe, a LeBum.
Here’s LeBron James, owner of two championship rings (and a wedding ring), now able to joke that he’s en route to “not 11, not 12, not 13, not 14 …” NBA titles. “Until I win that, I’m not satisfied,” he cracks, laughing. It seems a lighthearted way to launch his latest season with the Miami Heat, a casual acknowledgment that maybe he was a bit foolhardy in forecasting six or seven rings when he brought his skills to South Beach in 2010.
Except LeBron doesn’t stop at that, as he should. No, he decides to go THERE again, as he has several times, to the place he’ll never reach because he already has lost the opportunity.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” James declares on Media Day. “It’s that simple, I’m far away from it, but I see the light.”
That makes it two GOAT proclamations in the same calendar year, including this salvo during All-Star Weekend, per Si.com: “I want to be the greatest of all time. As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say that I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”
First, let’s clean up some b.s here. You don’t repeatedly voice Greatest of All Time aspirations if you don’t want to be remembered as “better than this guy or that guy.” And what exactly is the light he’s seeing? The so-called LeBron vs. Michael Jordan debate went dark for James in the summer of 2011, when he broke down in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, looking timid and afraid to take over when his team needed his immensity. That was James’ second Finals loss, and while he since has tied his ledger at 2-2 with remarkable performances, it’s useless to compare him to the stone-cold legend who undeniably is the Greatest of All Time, a man who never once looked remotely feeble in his biggest moments, even as he was vomiting between jumpshots in Utah with the flu or a reaction to bad Park City pizza.
Do not forget the code to this easy puzzle: 6-6-6. It’s not the sign of the devil, but it is the reason James has as much chance in this argument as he does of growing an Afro. Jordan played in six NBA Finals. In those series, he won six championships and six MVP awards. We could take it a step further from perfection and say every Chicago Bulls teammate improved because of his association with Jordan — Scottie Pippen, for one, might have been traded four times and wound up in jail if not for Jordan, who helped point him to the Hall of Fame. James? I’m still searching for an All-Star and U.S. Olympic team cornerstone named Chris Bosh, but he has regressed in Miami and sometimes zeroed out in playoff moments alongside James.
I’m not going to continue making points. There is no debate.
Yet that isn’t stopping people from actually discussing the notion of LBJ as GOAT. They view it as a distinct possibility, not a folly. Oh, how those people ridicule Jordan now, all the amnesiacs and frontrunners who used to call him Basketball Jesus. There he is in Charlotte, suffering the indignity of owning a team that has been among the NBA’s Worst of All Time. There he is in the hinterlands, reduced to hiring a new no-name coach every year — Steve Clifford? — while trying to wake up a nondescript franchise. There he is in semi-obscurity as a pitchman, still doing those underwear ads — did someone bind and gag him at 21 and sign him to a lifetime Hanes deal? — yet less visible as a global basketball ambassador than ringless rabble-rouser Charles Barkley.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Jordan said of his newfound hoops infamy.
Consequently, for the first time, some actually are identifying him first as one of the worst owners and talent evaluators in sports instead of what his Wikipedia page should say: the most complete champion and badass competitor the game has known.
I have come today to correct this absurd discrepancy, this farcical role reversal. Never, ever can LeBron James be the Greatest of All Time. The advertising world can create an illusion of James as The New Jordan, but the concept was established as flawed a while ago and remains permanently irreversible. That’s because of 6-6-6. No one else in team sports — not Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, not Joe Montana or Tom Brady, not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, not Wayne Gretzky or the world soccer gods — can say the same.
LeBron? Not until the last two Finals did he overcome a revealing run of futility in clutch moments, a taint that can’t be forgotten if he insists on invoking his GOAT ambitions. Not long ago, he played fourth quarters in defining games as if the ball had cooties, fleeing the challenges that Jordan lived to embrace. Michael ALWAYS wanted the ball when it mattered.
I was pleased to see Jordan, though in the context of a promotional video for a “NBA2K14” video, say he would have whipped James in a game of one-on-one if both were in their prime. He mentioned James in a group of greats he’d have liked to challenge mano a mano — Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Julius Erving, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor — and said he’d beat every one but Bryant, with an insult attached. “I don’t think I would lose, other than to Kobe Bryant, because he steals all of my moves,” he said.
James seemed surprised Jordan would go THERE. “MJ said that?” he told the media. “I’ve thought about the matchup, but no one will ever see it and it’s not going to happen. It’s good for people to talk about.”
So I will then. LeBron, at 6-8 and at least 255 pounds, wouldn’t be able to stay with Jordan as he pranced around the court, driving to the hole and stopping and popping for fadeaways. Sure, James could back him down in the post, but Jordan’s defensive quickness would lead to ball slaps and turnovers. Jordan would win the one-on-one game, 21-16. Jordan says players today don’t realize how physical the league was back in his day. “You go in with the understanding of, `I’m going to get hit. I’m going to pay the price,’ ” he said. “But that’s part of the game. I’m not going to be afraid to go inside. Those are the types of things that these kids don’t even have a clue of how we had to grow up and how we had to play.”
In the big picture, Bryant is the one who should be compared to Jordan, not LeBron, largely because Kobe has won five championships. The first three were with Shaquille O’Neal, granted, but the last two were with supporting casts similar to LeBron’s in Miami, if not weaker. Bryant, who has reverence for Jordan while also wanting to top his six titles, tweeted a response to the stolen moves comment: “Domino effect. I stole some of his .. this generation stole some of mine.”
Jordan agrees Kobe has accomplished more than James, telling Yahoo! Sports earlier this year, “If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice. But five (titles) beats (two) every time I look at it, and not that he won’t get five — he may get more than that — but five is bigger than (two).”
No matter how many titles he wins in Miami — and I suspect he’ll fall short this season with a fading Wade and Bosh — James won’t shake the way he quit on Cleveland, skirting the more daunting and noble task of bringing titles to his battered, luckless home region. Also don’t forget how he quit on the Cavaliers during his final 2010 playoff series against Boston, only fueling suspicions he had decided to escape town long before and, thus, may have lost focus — or, worse, laid down — in that infamous Game 5.
I mention these memories to emphasize Jordan never has quit. He may have taken a hiatus for a painful minor-league baseball whirl in 1994, but the detour was understandable as part of the grieving process after his father’s murder. He retired a second time after the sixth championship in 1998, but only because the Bulls were prematurely dismantled by management people fed by delusions that they still could win titles without him (15 seasons and running on that lie).
It would have been easy for Jordan to demand a trade when he was being assaulted in the playoffs by the Bad Boy Pistons, or when ownership refused to renegotiate his eight-year, $24-million deal while the likes of Johnson, Bird and Patrick Ewing were having obsolete contracts ripped up by appreciative bosses. But Jordan never said a word. And when his contract finally expired and he briefly considered signing with the New York Knicks, he felt too loyal to leave the Bulls, prompting chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to say he hoped he wouldn’t regret the mega-investment of $30-milion-plus annual contracts. Yes, Reinsdorf really said that. Three more titles later, management let three Hall of Famers — Jordan, Pippen and Phil Jackson — walk out the door, bringing in the likes of Tim Floyd and Pete Myers. Jordan didn’t quit then, either. He returned in 2001, announcing in a gymnasium parking lot on Chicago’s west side — to me and Associated Press columnist Jim Litke — that he would play for the (gag, cough, vomit) Washington Wizards.
“I’m doing it on my terms,” he once told me.
He wouldn’t say it publicly at the time, but Jordan still seethed because he wasn’t given a piece of Bulls ownership and felt Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had won the power struggle over the two superstars and head coach who made the six-pack happen. To Jordan, a statue outside the United Center wasn’t enough. If he’d built the franchise and the building, he wanted to be rewarded with a prominent position in the organization. Some might say Reinsdorf was wise in keeping Jordan away from the decision-making process, knowing Michael’s track record in his management career. But other than lucking out with Derrick Rose in the lottery, just what the hell have the Bulls accomplished since the Jordan era? They won with each other in the ’90s … and have struggled without each other since.
If ever Jordan might wish to quit, it would be now. He has been an abject failure as an owner and basketball executive, from the day in Washington he chose bust Kwame Brown with the overall No. 1 pick. After the Wizards fired him and sent him into a few years of drifting, he bought the Bobcats (soon to be Hornets), only to let the pro franchise in basketball-mad North Carolina slip into laughable irrelevance. It’s mind-boggling that the foremost symbol of sporting success on Planet Earth has devolved into a loser. Colossal failure torments Jordan so much that he stopped sitting courtside in Charlotte, so he can scream and pound his fist in a private suite.
But please know this: Even if Jordan lost all of his remaining games as an owner, it should have no bearing on the reality that his playing career — and resulting marketability as an international pitchman — is far beyond the stratospheric reach of James or anyone else. In Cleveland, James couldn’t win the big trophy with a decent roster. In Chicago, Jordan turned good casts into champions six times. Everyone who came in professional contact with him should be assessed a Jordan Tax, from Reinsdorf to a one-time drifter named Steve Kerr, who became a Finals hero because Jordan passed him the rock, allowing him to cash in with five rings and a big career as an executive and network TV analyst.
Simply, Jordan’s legend is too great to let his record as an owner and executive mar it.
“I don’t anticipate getting out of this business. My competitive nature is I want to succeed. It’s always been said that when I can’t find a way to do anything, I will find a way to do it,” he told the AP last year, trying to sell himself in the absence of noticeable hope.
“I didn’t get in the business to try to get out. Granted, I want to turn this thing around as fast as possible, but this is obviously a process. I’m committed to it and I want to pass it down to my family members or my kids. I want this to always be in Charlotte.”
So stop any and all arguments. It doesn’t matter if LeBron James wins not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven … but eight titles, which won’t happen.
Michael Jordan is the Greatest of All Time.
Don’t broach the subject again, LeBron.