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The Quandary


Sometimes I have to admit that, as an outsider to the sports world, I often view things the same way a parent might as they watch their children and their friends engage in their particular brand of conflict resolution. While tempers flare and emotions rise about which particular video game system or Pokemon might be superior, the parent abstains from stemming the tide of the great debate, deferring to simply massaging the encroaching migraine away from their temples as their eyes try to climb out of their skull. I guess in that regard, it's unfortunate to know that those very same children often grow up to become sportswriters.

During my 27 years, I've been privy to no less than eleven basketball players who, at some point or another, were touted to be "The Next Michael Jordan." It's never been any secret, as the ever-extending reach of the media has been able to advertise each more effectively than the last as such, knowing that simply invoking Jordan's name has always been enough for even the most scant followers of basketball to take notice. He is, after all, perhaps the most supreme athlete ever to play any sport. The NBA, in turn, appreciates this, knowing full well that it's never had a more bankable star than Michael, despite searching for one at every possible opportunity, likely fearing the day in which MJ will legally be able to procure a quarter every time somebody mentions his name. Sometimes, with the case of Kobe Bryant, the league succeeds in some approximation of that word. Other times, in the instances of Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway, it's chosen squires are left open to the always unfortunate question of "What if?". And then there are the cases such as Glen Rice, and Nick Van Exel, where you wonder if the league leapt to anointing them in much the way one might pursue a "rebound fling" with a girl.

And then sometimes you get a guy like Lebron James.

Ever since coming into the NBA in 2003, James has been one of three bearers of that mantle, "The Next Michael Jordan." Astute basketball followers will recall that both Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony (not ironically both endorsers of Jordan Brand) have also been called as much at points in their respective careers. Unlike the other two however, James has seemingly been the best candidate throughout his tenure in the league, and the best since Kobe Bryant to wear that comparison. Recently however, there's been an outpouring of references to the argument, not to whether or not James is indeed the "Next Jordan", but whether or not he is or will be better than Michael.

Being that I'm perfectly content to let others fuel the fires of debate with their presentations of statistics, titles, and championships, I instead choose to look at the subject a different way. Most writers, regardless of their qualifications, chomp the bit in order to be the first to present you with their numerological arguments as to why one is or isn't better than the other, but in doing so, they effectively miss the point. Numbers can be wrong as often as they are right, seemingly always tend to fail at the most crucial moments, most usually in either math exams or sports debates. It is for this reason that I tend not to subscribe to them as chief indicators in most any argument.

In choosing to look at the Michael Jordan/Lebron James argument on my own, I feel that it bears mentioning that I have nothing against Lebron, or Michael Jordan for that matter. I tend to err on the side of the coin that says you'll find something to dislike about anybody if you look hard enough, so I'll simply just excuse myself from table of people who claim to "hate" Lebron, which is apparently a vogue place to be right now. Instead, I'm simply going to make my own observations on the matter, and offer them in hopes that they might provide an air of finality to at least somebody, being that they aren't things which seem to have been taken into consideration.


Having become a hardened cynic at some point during my life, I tend to look upon things I'm told with an almost native air of doubtfulness, if not utter disdain. This goes double for most every information outlet that contains the word "news". In an age where people pride themselves on being hyper-accessible, news outlets have adapted accordingly and become equally as prolific. What this means for us is that we are at no particular shortage when it comes to being fed a pre-packaged, pre-biased opinion, whenever we feel like attempting to educate ourselves on a particular subject. Sports, in this regard, are no different. In fact, I would go as far as saying they might indeed be the forerunner on the matter. This one fact means relatively little until you consider that it pretty much didn't exist when Michael Jordan was playing. Until the (final) tail end of his career, most of the minutes he played were done so as part of an era where sports news and opinion was slightly more difficult to come by. He didn't begin his career, or see its prime, during an era when one could log onto Facebook and "Like" him, nor was he able to "tweet" about what he was doing on days where he didn't have a game. Indeed, the fact that the internet was relatively nonexistent during the majority of Jordan's years is something that has, to my knowledge, never once been considered. This means nothing, of course, until you look at Lebron James and consider that he was an internet sensation before he ever stepped foot into the league, and whose own celebrity has grown under the watchful and ever growing eye of technology. In effect, this means that James is more proliferated than Jordan ever was. He's been the subject of ESPN and the rest of the sports world's networking whim long before he made his "decision",and twice as much afterward, ensuring that his name won't go unmentioned for any unreasonable amount of time. That amount remains inversely proportional to the speed of the technology which all but ascertains when and where his name will be mentioned.


One might read this and wonder exactly what it means for either. James can hardly be blamed for being born into an era where technology had long since blossomed, and Jordan himself is more than capable of employing it now. Still, the fact is that James has gained his fame and/or notoriety largely as a result of this abundance of technology, whereas Jordan grew his own legend in spite of it. To me, the simple fact that Michael Jordan was able to effectively transcend the sport of basketball and become a household name and American icon on par with coke during an era where people actually wrote letters in order to communicate, is astounding. I'm not saying James couldn't have done the same, but simply that Michael did. In all fairness, I don't remember Jordan being without his fair share of detractors, but I also don't recall the mania surrounding him to be less than what it is for Lebron, and without nearly any of the same tools.


Moving to a quick glance at the on-court accomplishments of the two, I feel the need to say that it isn't so much what either has managed to do, so much as it is the era in which those accomplishments took part. Like most things, basketball is one of those things that more established (read: older) fans of the sport will look back on as being different, if not necessarily better. Having grown up in the late 80's and throughout the 90's, I can attest to that notion as well as anyone. Basketball's "golden age", as the period from the 70's to those 90's is often referred to, was an era that presented the flow of the game under auspices that stopped just short of glorifying physical contact outright. The basketball of those recent yesteryears (in regard to the 90's) was a rougher brand of the sport that Michael and Lebron have heretofore been so successful at. The difference however, is that Michael played nearly his entire career in a period where a hard foul was a hard foul in every sense of the word. Lebron has played literally his entire career in an era where those very same hard fouls from the 90's warrant an instantaneous ejection and a hefty fine. As such, those fouls have become increasingly less prevalent in an era that awards players free throws if an opposing player accidentally takes a fatigued breath in their general direction. Considering that Michael managed to accomplish what he did in a period of time where players like Laimbeer, Mahorn, Johnson, Mason, Rodman, and Oakley were allowed to and encouraged to play their particular brand of basketball, is quite simply astonishing. It goes without saying that if Jordan had played his prime in this era, where perimeter defenders are not allowed to defend the perimeter, and where modern day post defenders are essentially castrated versions of their basketball progenitors, his accomplishments (and numbers) would be exponentially above what they were.


While this could very easily be lumped once again into unfairly blaming Lebron for being born when he was, the fact of the matter is that, looking at him, one would hardly think he wouldn't hold his own. The fact that Lebron is essentially a rocket propelled Anthony Mason that can actually shoot, means he probably wouldn't have had too much trouble doing what he does now, back then. Still, if one wanted to make that assumption, they'd have to be fair and assume that since the smaller Jordan thrived and flourished during the lawless 80's and 90's, he'd have a field day if all he had to worry about was Carmelo Anthony waving at him as he scored repeatedly at will. Repeatedly.

Winding to a close, it also escapes me as to why anyone has yet to point out the fact that, collectively, the basketball world has yet to stop calling new players "The Next Jordan." To me, if one constantly mentioning his name is either hopes or expectations that his accomplishments will be matched or surpassed, it's a sign of acknowledgement that those very same accomplishments are the best. Though Lebron's career has yet to pay out in full, the fact that no other "Next Jordan" has even begun to approach the real Jordan's mythology is telling. I'd even go as far to say that, should Lebron win more rings and score more points than Michael, that he wouldn't be remembered as fondly. Among other reasons, it'd be because he simply wasn't remembered as fondly. Like I said, Jordan was able to captivate an entire world of people long before it was simply about typing his name into a search bar. The whole process of his endearment was much more organic, as the hype had a chance to arrive long before most people were able to actually see him. In this day and age, that is a recipe for utter disaster, but the fact that he exceeded his own hype, long after the initial fires of it had been stoked, is something of which you simply cannot be unaware. Perhaps that might have been different had Michael been exposed to the rapid moving, far reaching technology that athletes today use, sometimes to their detriment, but the fact is once again, that he wasn't. Michael's own lore is about as homegrown as something could've been during that period, and that he delivered for so many, regardless of their sports allegiance, is astonishing.


I mean, what I'm trying to say is this:

At the end of the day, it seems to me like there's not much of a comparison to make. I'd rather other people say my name as a synonym for the greatest, than call myself a King...