I never thought I’d see the day…
Being a 23-year-old basketball fanatic who was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, a part of me has always viewed LeBron James as the greatest basketball player of all time.
I definitively viewed him as a stronger and faster combination of greats like Oscar, Magic, and Larry Bird. I couldn’t help but point out how much more versatile a player he was than Kobe Bryant. I frequently would even go so far as to claim that James was an all-around better and smarter player than Michael Jordan.
To me, as well as to many others in my age group, it was simple: LeBron was the guy. I put absolutely zero limitations on his greatness. He was my childhood hero, my biggest role model, and one of the very few reasons as to why I became so involved in basketball in the first place.
Growing up in Cleveland, LeBron propaganda dominated my surroundings. Everyone had a jersey—I, myself, had eight, but who’s counting? Many people had framed images of James in their homes. Young players would pester their parents to purchase them the latest Nike shoe under the James umbrella. At school, kids would trade basketball memorabilia at recess, only to be sure to leave all LeBron items completely off-limits. Hell, the first thing to catch an onlooker's eye upon entering downtown Cleveland was LeBron’s borderline biblical, 25,000 square-foot banner overlooking the intersection of Ontario Street and Prospect Avenue.
As a starry-eyed kid, it was easy to be blinded by James and his greatness. He was everywhere.
Now, as a more educated basketball disciple, looking back on those times has become quite an eye-opening exercise. James has certainly offered up some unbelievable moments—I mean, he brought Cleveland’s five-decade-long championship drought to a screeching halt—but even generational talents like LeBron are no stranger to the occasional hiccup.
From his drama-laden first stint in Cleveland to The Decision…
From frequently lacking a fully competent supporting cast to the occasional shrinkage in big moments…
From disagreeing with coaches and front office executives to his now six Finals losses…
It goes without mentioning that, for as exceptional as he was and continues to be, James has faced his fair share of difficulties along his path to the Naismith Hall of Fame. Whether it be his opponents, his teammates, his front office, his coaches, or even his own inner machinations, LeBron’s road has rarely, if ever, been a smooth one. Yet, despite the bumps and potholes, one thing will always be certain for people of my age as well as all Northeast Ohio residents:
LeBron James is, was, and always will be our guy.
Because of this, it used to be that, when people spoke Michael Jordan’s legendary name, I could not cease my eyes from rolling. Never had I understood the obsession that drove Jordan fans to the brink of delusion. After all, nearly every single deployable LeBron-over-Jordan argument made perfect sense to me.
“Jordan’s competition was nowhere near as skilled and athletic as LeBron’s is today.”
“In Jordan’s era, league rules didn’t permit players to double-team until the opposing player possessed the ball for at least one second.”
“Defenses packed the paint, giving Jordan ample room to create in the zones he was most effective.”
“Jordan wasn’t even the best rebounder, passer, or defender on his own team.”
“Jordan’s Eastern Conference was occasionally just as weak as LeBron’s was.”
“Jordan played on a team that won 50+ games without him.”
The list of arguments one could make was seemingly never-ending.
Unfortunately, many rabid Jordan supporters who read this will be blind to the idea that every single statement above is factual. However, unlike many pieces circulating the internet right now, I’m not here to host a debate with LeBron in one corner and Michael Jordan in the other. Quite frankly, who am I—a young, green sports writer—to pick and choose between the two greatest players ever to pick up a basketball? As famed author Roland Lazenby mentioned in our recent interview, we should cherish every incredible athlete for who they are and the entertainment they provide for us.
So, with ESPN’s new documentary series, The Last Dance, officially premiering three weeks ago, I couldn’t not tune in. Fail to experience the legend that is Michael Jordan? No way. For the first time in my basketball life, I was finally able to put myself in the perspective of even the most crazed Jordan fanatics. And incredibly, after viewing only the first four episodes, I can confidently say something about Michael Jordan that I had never been able to acknowledge before:
For me, seeing Michael Jordan in this kind of candid environment has made him more life-like than ever before. Though I never had the opportunity to watch him live, being able to see bits and pieces of his story has given me insight into the man that many believe to be the greatest basketball player of all time.
Upon entering the league, Jordan played the game with a flare that no one had ever seen before. He was faster than you, he would jump higher than you, and he was more skilled than you. Simply put, Jordan was lightyears ahead of his time. In an era where players played with their back to the rim, Jordan played with his head above it. He was the fiercest of competitors in an age where every player was a scrappy bulldog in their own right. Even though it took Mike some time to experience his playoff breakthrough, he was still head and shoulders above each player in the league at that time.
Even Jordan’s peers thought he was the greatest. Within his first couple of seasons, Magic Johnson openly supported Jordan as being the most skilled basketball player in the league. Larry Bird called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan,” for crying out loud! Jordan was the man and everybody knew it. His opponents feared him. Crowds let out deafening ooh's and ahh's in amazement as they watched him soar as no man had ever done before.
Once Michael knocked down the seemingly impenetrable wall that the Detroit Pistons had built—and through overcoming immense physical and mental anguish in the process—the floodgates opened. For almost an entire decade, the only thing that stopped Michael and the Bulls from annually ascending to the peak of the basketball world was Jordan’s venture into the game of baseball upon his father’s tragic passing. Scoring titles, MVPs, championships, you name it. Having never lost an NBA Finals appearance, Michael dominated the game like no player ever had before and the Bulls became the greatest modern dynasty in sports history. Sure, there were many hills to be climbed through his journey, but Jordan and his Bulls never failed to put on a show. What’s most incredible, though, is Jordan’s everlasting impact on the game of basketball. To this day, we still see the fruits of Jordan's labor via the paths he paved for future generations. Through his trailblazing, Michael helped to usher in some of the greatest players of all time. From Kobe, LeBron, and Durant, to the many other superstars that came shortly after Jordan's time, the hypothetical torch was snatched by the league's elite in hopes of not only writing their own legacies, but passing the fire to the following generations as well.
Through The Last Dance, I have forged an entirely new respect for Michael Jordan. Before viewing pieces of the documentary, the way he played the game of basketball, the way he pushed his teammates, and the way he wowed a crowd was nothing but legend to me. However, after being able to take even the briefest of steps into the mind of Michael, it feels as though I can begin to draw my own conclusions regarding the Jordan vs. LeBron comparison.
LeBron—even with his ups and downs—is indisputably one of the top three greatest basketball players who have ever laced up a pair of sneakers. Through years of work, James found a way to combine characteristics from a handful of all-time legends and work them into his own game. As an all-around player, you would be hard-pressed to find a single hooper—both past and present—who is or was able to do the things James does on an every-night basis. His combination of size, speed, strength, athleticism, passing, rebounding, scoring, defense (when he wants to crank it up a notch), and basketball IQ has never been seen before in league history. He has been the undisputed leader in every locker room he has occupied and has been widely considered to be the greatest player in the world for nearly an entire decade running. Despite his Finals losses, James' greatness cannot be understated.
If a hypothetical book discussed nothing but the greatest NBA players of all-time, LeBron's name would be written in big, bold, golden print.
Unfortunately for James, though, it just so happens that Michael Jordan would be the one who wrote it.
Stay tuned for more pieces from Fadeaway World as The Last Dance continues to air on ESPN.