Growing up as part of Generation Z, having been born in September 1997, I was a little over a month old when the Bulls, the Spurs and the rest of the NBA started the season featuring the “Last Dance.” Growing up a Spurs fan, I was a one year old when the Spurs won their first title. I was blessed to see my favorite team excel and compete against the best teams over the past 22 years.
Kobe Bryant was a nightmare for me. I would practice the butterfly effect before I even knew what it was, believing that by sitting at the right angle and wearing the right jersey Tim Duncan would make all of his post shots and Bruce Bowen would stop Kobe from his fadeaway jumper. I remember that dreadful moment when Derek Fisher hit that jumper on us. I was so upset I couldn’t sleep. The attachment I had to the Spurs was so great that when they lost, it felt as if I had lost. The passion from a seven year old kid from the San Antonio suburbs was the realest thing I knew at the time. My shot was modeled after Tony Parker, my drives were inspired by Manu Ginobili’s gritty two-step, and my post moves were taken from The Big Fundamental himself.
Seeing those greats age into their post-retirement as I have aged into post-graduation, both of our basketball careers now behind us, their’s in the NBA and mine in 6A high school basketball (my team won one game all year, but I’m telling my kids that we made it to the playoffs while I averaged 15 ppg anyway.)
Despite all of this, I’m still rooting for the Spurs. The only thing still familiar from when I first started watching is Coach Pop, who looks like he’s hardly aged since 1999, and the jerseys that have not changed over the years (please give us fiesta colors). Even though the silver-and-black aren’t the team we are used to, and even though they are at risk of losing their long playoff streak which is as old as I am, I’m still proud. I still get goosebumps thinking about how historic this run has been for them.
Obviously, quarantine has slowed everything down to pretty much a halt. The economy is suffering and things are more hectic and chaotic than I’ve ever seen. With all of the illnesses and death it’s hard to think about basketball coming back right now. We’ve been forced to sit in our homes as ESPN has become ESPN Classics (I forced myself to watch the 2013 Spurs-Heat Game 6 and I still ask myself why Pop didn’t have Tim in during those last seconds of the fourth quarter).
And then there’s the Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” a fantastic doc filled with dunk highlights, the Bad Boys tearing people up, and Dennis Rodman rocking a wedding dress with more confidence than me when I’m taking grad pictures.
This documentary was everything we needed during this pandemic. If we didn’t have it, I would probably be stuck watching LeBron James do tiktok dances and listening to NBA podcasts struggling to find material. Not only that, but it gives someone like me, who never got to watch Jordan, see him show off his magic. And no, I’m not counting his stint with the Wizards as ‘magical’ (no pun intended).
Not only is this documentary entertaining, it’s also teaching younger heads like me how much of a winner Jordan really was. He was absolutely ruthless, and with sports being cancelled for the foreseeable future, the focus on MJ is at the highest since he was in the league, which is something I’m sure he doesn’t mind. Watching him play in this doc has shown me why Kobe had created the ‘mamba mentality’ and why LeBron might not actually be the GOAT. I can see the influence MJ made on basketball culture, whether it was his shoes (I’ve had Air Jordans 1, 4, and 7) or his determination to do whatever it takes to get a W. He won every championship he appeared in, something LeBron, Kobe, and Timmy (thanks a lot, Ray Allen) have never done.
Yes, I get it now. Now I know why my dad and older cousins tell me that MJ is better than LeBron. I’m not saying he is, but I’ll summarize it with my father’s words, whom I “interviewed” before writing this article so that I could get a better idea on what sets MJ apart from LeBron. He said that “LeBron is the greatest player of his time, Michael Jordan is the greatest player of his time, Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest of his time and Oscar Robertson was the greatest of his time, but I think Michael Jordan was the greatest winner of all time,” and I think that I agree with him.
Sure, Bill Russell got 11 championships, but he was competing against players half his size and in an era where there were only 15 teams playing. MJ was showing up night in and night out playing each game with a single purpose, to win, by any means necessary. Did he care that his feet were drenched in blood while dismantling the Knicks? Nope, he cared about getting that bucket and then mocking Patrick Ewing about it afterwards. Did he mind that he was being a jerk to his teammates? Nope, he thought that getting in their head was the best way to prepare them for the playoff chirps. His mindset was there deeper than anybody I’ve ever seen, and this was only from watching the documentary and seeing highlights throughout my life.
I think LeBron is a superior athlete, maybe the greatest we have ever seen in the NBA. He’s also a team-player. That isn’t to say MJ wasn’t there for his teammates, but you don’t hear about LeBron punching one of his players in the face to make a point to the head coach. For the Bulls, everything fell into place and MJ was at the head of the ship. It didn’t come easy, it took years of hardwork and one of the greatest head coaches of all time (my favorite part of the doc was seeing Phil Jackson with his Pau Gasol fro and the doc calling him a hippie).
Am I saying that LeBron should have punched J.R. Smith in the face after he dribbled away the shot clock? No, but that would’ve been hilarious. I think the difference between LeBron and MJ is that LeBron watched J.R. get that rebound and dribble the game away while MJ would have been right there getting open so that he could finish the game. It’s the little things. When J.R. got the rebound, it’s clear that he was looking to pass it to LeBron. Meanwhile, LeBron stood there at halfcourt watching. I don’t want to sound like Skip Bayless with his LeBron slander, but I do believe that MJ would have instinctively rushed to get an open shot. LeBron trusted his teammate to put the ball back up, and while MJ trusted his teammates to get the job done, he believed in himself way more.
My dad made a very interesting comparison. He compared Magic to Lebron in the sense that LeBron wants to win but he also likes the show. He could have stayed in Cleveland his whole career, but he moved to Los Angeles to boost his career after the NBA. And there’s nothing wrong with that. LeBron has never had a great coach, let alone a Jackson-esque coach. Imagine if he paired up with Pop, he never would have left. I’m not saying he isn’t a leader, either. Tim Duncan was a great leader yet he only spoke when he needed to. He wasn’t aggressive like MJ or even Kobe but he got to the point. LeBron sees the game differently than everyone else, like Einstein with quantum physics. There’s calculations going on in his head each second and he’s deciding which one will give his team the best opportunity to win, whether it’s a pass, a screen or a jump shot. From what I’ve seen, and correct me if I’m wrong, but MJ didn’t seem that way. He seemed to jam it down the other team’s throat, and then he was going to brag about it afterwards in such a way that didn’t make him seem like he was too arrogant, just a winner.
I’m not trying to say MJ had no skill or that he didn’t see the game at a different level. He obviously saw the game, read it and analyzed it better than anybody during his time. He was an efficient scorer and would make most of his points at the mid-range, which is now known as the least efficient spot to shoot from. Another thing I noticed was the fear. Whether it was the teammates, players from the other team, or even Jerry Krause, people feared Michael Jordan. LeBron does not have that effect on people. The top players in the world are not scared. Sure, Gary Payton and Isaiah Thomas may have claimed to be fearless, Larry Bird and Magic were probably not scared, but I think all of them recognize that MJ was better (except maybe Isaiah Thomas).
I still think LeBron is the best player right now, but I think that there are a lot more players that are unafraid by his talent and might, while the documentary seemed to show MJ as on a pedestal so much further up above everybody else I compare it to the height difference between Jerry Krause standing next to Shaq.
This documentary has taught me so many things. It taught me that it takes a lot of patience to deal with the team that Phil Jackson had to deal with. It taught me that Jerry Krause was the butt of every Bulls player’s joke (he had it coming) and that MJ was going to do whatever it took to win. I think that was what set him apart and still makes him the standard for every NBA player. My dad said that defenses were more physical and they could hand check and body up on defense. He pointed out how MJ used that to his advantage, and would get a bunch of breakaways as a result. He used that time to his advantage, to the utmost extreme. Not only that, but he was able to combat those handchecks when he was on offense and still dominate. If there was a tiny gap, he would take it and drive in to make a layup or an extraordinary dunk. If the hole was sealed, MJ would get a jumper off. LeBron is different. He doesn’t send each play to the max. It’s as though he’s a bit more conservative. LeBron lets the game come to him more, while MJ will grab it by the horns.
My dad mentioned that he was glad they did this documentary the way they did it. On “The Mike Taylor Show,” Mike Taylor mentions that the quarantine boosted the focus on MJ, and that it gave everyone the opportunity to see him at his prime, and the challenging journey he had to go through. Players didn’t take care of themselves as well, either, workouts were not nearly as advanced and they didn’t use the analytics nearly like they do now. It was just simple, hardwood basketball. Now it’s technical, futuristic with shoes that mold to the player’s foot and help their landings, knees and so forth. This makes it hard for me to say that LeBron was better than MJ, but it also makes it tough for me to say the opposite, too. The most I can take from this was that MJ was dominant and that LeBron and the rest of the NBA can take something away from his complete, ruthless focus on winning, as well as appreciate the huge path he paved for the league today.
“It was just a different era, it was a different kind of game,” my dad said. I get that now.