Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Let’s settle this.
Probably my favorite part of the book Dream Team comes towards the end,* when author Jack McCallum writes about the hours before the 1992 gold medal basketball game at the Barcelona Olympics, when Jordan smoked cigars and played cards with teammates until 6:15 a.m., then shot an NBA Entertainment movie and played 18 holes of golf.
“Micheal tried to get me on his schedule over there, and I just couldn’t do it,” Magic Johnson told McCallum. “I got so I could play cards all night and so did some of the other guys. But then to go out and play eighteen, thirty-six holes of golf? Then come back and get 20 in a game like it’s nothing? Man, nobody could do that. Michael Jordan is the strongest, and the strongest-willed, athlete ever. I don’t care what anybody says.”
And there is also this quote, from legend-coach Mike Krzyzewski: “You understand the respect I have for Michael, but one thing about him – he cannot be kind.”
As we chronicled here after Thursday night’s Heat-Thunder game, LeBron is bombs away from all over the court and setting records for shooting percentage. He’s added the tough play near the basket, where it’s all about jumping from standing position and absorbing big hits. He’s become an unguardable power player with a butt like a snow plow and a cunning assortment of hook shots and head fakes. He is scoring huge points and winning games by scoring inside and outside, while also dominating that burst of speed between points A and points B (for “buckets”).
In his great book “The Art of the Beautiful Game,” Chris Ballard writes this about LeBron:
No NBA player – perhaps no human being – combines power, skill, speed and grace as he does. Don’t take it from me, though. When Sports Illustrated asked 190 players in the fall of 2008, “Who is the best all-around athlete in the NBA?” an overwhelming 66% chose LeBron. No one else got more that 7% of the vote (Josh Smith of the Hawks)…
When I talked to other NBA players about James, they were hungry for clarification. “How much does he weight, anyway,” wondered Portland Trailblazers forward Travis Outlaw. Stephen Jackson guessed “at least 260, right?” and then described D-ing up James as akin to “guarding a brick wall.” (If so, it is a brick wall much envied by others; when I asked Portland All-Star guard Brandon Roy what one part of LeBron’s game he would most want to steal, Roy responded, “Can I steal his body?”)
Jordan weighed 218 and was (is) tall like my dad is tall: 6-foot-6. (So he has one inch on my dad, but 6-foot-6 is not weirdly tall.) He was never in the conversation for strongest player. He was insanely fast as a younger player but actually improved (six championships) when he started slowing down. Basketball became more of a mind game as Jordan got older, and that’s when he excelled like no one else, ever. (Arguably.)
Think about that all-night card playing. Jordan made headlines multiple times in his career for staying up gambling the night before big playoff games. He was keeping himself jacked, right? Fire up those competitive juices at night over cards and come day-time game-time, you’re still pumped up to win. The results speak for themselves: Rookie of the year, five MVPs, six finals MVPs, defensive player of the year, 10-time scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, all the greatest playoff performances ever. Jordan always played great. Always.
LeBron is the best we’ve seen on the physical side of the game, and now he’s added the mental part, the strategy.
Jordan was mental. It made him a darker, more dynamic man than LeBron. Jordan admits with a smile that big games were quests for revenge against some irrelevant or perceived slight. The mind games he played with himself worked every time. One example: In his notoriously aggressive 2009 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Jordan said “As a basketball player, I’m trying to become the best that I can. And, you know, for someone like me, who achieved a lot over the time of my career, you look for any kind of messages that people say, or do, to get you motivated to play the game of basketball at the highest level. That is when I feel like I excel at my best.”
He ended that speech with Bryon Russell, the Utah Jazz forward who, Jordan says, told him during his baseball retirement “Why’d you quit? You know I could guard you. If I ever see you in a pair of shorts…” So, Jordan says, when they met in the finals a year after he returned from baseball, “I’m at the center circle, and Bryon Russell’s next to me, and I look over to Bryon and I say, ‘Man, you remember the conversation you made in 1994 about ‘I think I can guard you and I can shut you down and I would love to play against you.’? Well, you about to get your chance.”
So the final shot Jordan took, the glorious game-clincher that ended his magnificent career with the Bulls, had been fueled, in part, by a diss from years previous.
Jordan was 36 when he hit that shot. He started winning titles in his late 20s, just like LeBron, who is 28 and looking to win his second title in a row. As with most debates, the question of LeBron or Jordan doesn’t have an answer at one extreme end or another. It’s nuanced, somewhere in the middle. LeBron has better tools, but what he lacks is Jordan’s guts.
*(My REAL favorite part of Dream Team is this section about John Stockton and Karl Malone:
They were extremely comfortable with each other. I walked them out to their cars after practice one day in Utah and said to Stockton “Well, John, I bet you have something controversial to say as usual, right?”
“Not much,” deadpanned Stockton. “Only this homosexual problem we’ve got on our team.” He jerked his chin toward Malone. “And it’s worse among our black players. Typical.” Malone cracked up.)