LeBron James is great, but he’s no Michael Jordan
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media June 23, 2012 6:34PM
The number of fingers LeBron James and Michael Jordan are holding up shows the difference in their titles.
Who will end up being the greatest NBA player?
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:33AM
I have no problem with LeBron James winning an NBA
Truth be told, I’m happy for him. If you had occasion to read Shooting Stars, Buzz Bissinger’s revealing, readable book about James’ hardscrabble upbringing in Akron, Ohio, chances are you would be happy for him, too.
Bissinger’s probing look at James the boy foretells much about the man James would become. He never had an easy moment as a kid, despite his size, strength and truly wondrous athletic talent. The eagerness to please that makes him such a good teammate was part of a survival strategy that got James through a childhood in which he sometimes didn’t know where his next meal was coming from or whether he’d have a roof over his head at night.
But good people took him in and were good to him, and James never forgot a kindness. Gratitude fueled his resolve to fit in with his St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School teammates. Sharing the ball and the glory became a basketball imperative.
His unselfishness might have delayed his development into the game-changing, spirit-crushing force of nature his talent suggested he could be, but there were no flaws in the James game this year, as he completed his ninth NBA season with a third MVP award, his first championship ring and a one-for-the-ages performance in the playoffs.
James was so good, he almost has lived down ‘‘The Decision,’’ the wrongheaded, overblown and ill-conceived TV show by which he announced his transfer from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in 2010. ESPN was complicit in the depiction of James as a hopelessly self-absorbed prima donna — an NBA stereotype — when he isn’t.
Now the Worldwide Leader in Sports is leading the charge to declare James the greatest hoopster of all time, and he isn’t that, either. I’d put him in the team picture, though, in the front row alongside co-captains Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
That a man his size can do the things he does is what’s most remarkable about James. He has a Karl Malone-type body at 6-9 and 260 pounds, but you never saw ‘‘The Mailman’’ bring the ball up, initiate plays as a point guard or knock down three-pointers.
James also can guard every position, and at various times in the playoffs he slowed or shut down Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant. Impressive.
But it’s not like he invented or perfected defense. Remember the play that preceded MJ’s signature walk-off shot against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? He stripped the ball from Malone along the baseline near the Jazz’s basket, swiped it from him as cleanly as a pickpocket relieving a tourist of his iPhone on a crowded L train.
Most defenders couldn’t get the ball out of Malone’s meathook mitts with the jaws of life. MJ did.
Jordan was 28 and in his seventh NBA season when the Bulls won their first title. His switched-hands, midair layup in Game 1 and John Paxson’s cold-blooded shooting in Game 5 dominate the highlight tape, but suffocating defense was the story of the Bulls’ five-game dispatch of the Los Angeles Lakers. Scottie Pippen was on Magic Johnson like an extra jersey, and Horace Grant took James Worthy miles beyond his comfort zone.
Jordan had Byron Scott. He didn’t guard him; he disappeared him.
James went for 45 points and 15 rebounds against the Boston Celtics in a must-win Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals. Nice night. ESPN reacted as though Wilt had returned to drop 100 again.
MJ’s playoff high was 63 points, against the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale Celtics of 1986. He averaged 33.4 in the playoffs, an NBA record, and had 38 games with 40 or more. Nice career.
OK, his Hall of Fame speech was graceless, he wasn’t a great husband and he looked more like T.R. Dunn than Michael Jordan in his ill-advised comeback with the Washington Wizards. Longtime nemesis Jerry Krause must be snickering at his missteps as an NBA executive.
But Chicago’s reveling in MJ’s post-Bulls failings is puzzling. It’s also wrong. He was the greatest athlete ever to represent this city — sorry, Jay Cutler — as tough as he was talented, responsible for dozens of our most uplifting sports moments. He won six championships, four more than that cranky, mustachioed restaurateur/pitchman who cuts a beloved figure as the self-styled Face of Chicago Sports.
LeBron James is freak of nature-gifted, maybe more physically talented than Jordan. But Jordan was the better player. James will have to expand his ring collection to sway the argument.