LeBron James and I were born 89 days apart. It’s fair to say we started playing basketball at the same time, too, and despite the fact that I peaked in high school as the captain of my junior team and LeBron was the most highly-praised high school talent in the history of the game, like all 16-year-old basketball players we had idols.
During my peak years, I wore numbers 21 and 42. My favorite players at the time were Kevin Garnett and Jerry Stackhouse – and of course Michael Jordan, but I dared not wear number 23.
Believe it or not, the captain of a small-town Ontario single-A high school team was not a jet black 6’11” monster with freak shot-blocking capabilities, a devastating low post game and a hard fought mean streak earned from growing up against unfriendly racial circumstances. Nor was I Stackhouse, a high-scoring two-guard from North Carolina who played above the rim, drafted high and got Nike execs in a tizzy (remind you of anyone?).
I wore those numbers because in a crazy way I emulated them: slashing and cutting the way I saw Stackhouse do it at North Carolina or roughing up smaller dudes in the low post with a gnarly look on my face, snarling and talking trash like KG.
LeBron wore number 23 at St. Vincent—St. Mary throughout high school and it stayed the same in Cleveland. If my competitive ceiling was the church basement, LeBron’s is the Sistine Chapel. I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be swatting basketballs like they were beachballs in the NBA, but suffice to say that James not only knew he was going into the NBA, but that he was going to be good, if not great, if not legendary – if not the next Michael Jordan, whatever the hell that means.
He knew these things because that is what people were telling him. During the next decade, that LeBron narrative ebbed and flowed as he became the player we know of him today – but the MJ comparisons remained constant from Day 1 until now.
Comparing the past to the present isn’t new, and except for boxing no sport relies on this constant comparison more than basketball.
And we do it totally wrong. Because the only person we compare people to is MJ.
Imagine if every hard rock band was measured against Led Zeppelin? If every Swedish synthpop dance fairy was measured against Robyn?
Imagine if your mom cooked a Christmas feast of turkey, sweet potatoes, did mashed potatoes your favorite way and intentionally left out carrots because she knows you hate them. Now imagine that while your mom is serving you the turkey and handing you the dish of mashed potatoes, everyone keeps on mentioning this amazing feast your grandma had cooked in the 90s. Y’know, that time she spent her morning and afternoon slaving over ham, brisquet, two turkeys, made the mashed potatoes creamier than your mom’s, and didn’t cower in fear during the fourth quarter of the NBA finals.
Wouldn’t your mom be pissed? And aren’t you still missing one hell of a meal?
When the food hits the table, steaming and hot from the draft, everyone is quick with compliments. “Oh my lord, honey, this turkey is so moist!”, “This stuffing is soooo good!”, “Hey mom, these sweet potatoes show a lot of poise and are making really good decisions in crunch time of important games!” ? and so on.
Inevitably, your uncle chimes in mentioning how the turkey is actually a little dry, your grandpa asks for the cranberries when there aren’t any, and your little cousin bites into something hard, upon which your dad remarks how your grandma not only made sure that there were no bones left in the turkey, but that she also made all of those All-NBA Defensive teams.
And then the conversation turns to that one meal from Thanksgiving ’96. “Remember the sauce on the brisquet? And how delicious the cranberries were? And how good the turkey was as leftovers, left in the fridge while it made a meager attempt to play professional baseball, and almost tasted better the second time around even though it was kind of dry?”
In Miami, LeBron wears number 6, perhaps in a conscious or sub-conscious attempt to distance himself from such comparisons to His Airness. (Make what you want of Kobe’s decision to one-up MJ, choosing 24 from 8 after netting his third championship.) Plus recent events make it easier to stop comparing the two, so maybe this will stop.
Better arguments are made comparing LeBron to Magic Johnson, anyway. Both have a dominating body built for basketball, were hyped immediately coming into the league, both were capable of playing everywhere on the court, and morphed their charm and charisma into a multi-faceted profile rooted in sports and pop culture.
But making that comparison means that we don’t get to talk about MJ. There’s no reason to watch MJ freeze Byron Russell on YouTube or read the full corporate history of the Air Jordan brand for kicks. Writers write about what they want to write about but also what’s easy, and exalting the obvious virtues of greatness is a lot easier than exploring the complexity of the grey area in between Good and Great.
MJ is still unquestionably the game’s biggest superstar, but isn’t Bill Russell the greatest NBA champion of all? The George Washington figure on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore?
The man is an 11-time champion, a leader who led with tenacious effort, exhausting himself as one of the greatest defenders in NBA history. Russell never dug for stats or individual acclaims, he refused to ever give anything less than his all and was motivated by a desire to win that manifested itself at the bottom of a toilet bowl before big games. He’s the man after whom the Finals MVP named, not to mention arguably the leader of the single greatest dynasty in sports and an unquestionable American and civil rights hero.
Is it not Russell that handed sportswriters this proverbial checklist for how to measure greatness? We’re not asking everyone to be a civil rights hero, but everything else is essential: a team-first attitude, consistent and dominating physical abilities on both ends of the floor, and a bordering-on-insane desire to win that is proven with championships.
Russell’s legacy and greatness isn’t properly conveyed to a current generation of NBA fans, all they know is Jordan’s 2.0 of that very same greatness. If it was we’d all be getting hot these last few years over Tim Duncan, who even more so than Kobe Bryant personified Russ’ brand of unheralded greatness while actually winning huge.
Will MJ live on as MJ in 2025? He will, and regardless of any future achievements on the basketball court, so will LeBron. King James’ NBA is a corporate empire built in the image of MJ: shoe deals, global exposure, big contracts, cross-promotion, and the always-looking threat of missing something spectacular. “Greatness” in the NBA is now defined by MJ’s definition and while LeBron is having trouble achieving the stats and the championships, LeBron: The Brand is the biggest in sports.
At the heart of that brand is the ‘Witness’ slogan, one predicated directly on the notion that the scene in front of you is one you may need to testify to and defend against future scrutiny. The LeBron narrative is not the narrative of a single season, but the grooming of a young man to inherit the reigns of a corporate monster.
Russell’s only means to achieve greatness was winning and winning and winning, MJ changed the criteria to include with winning, a worldwide profile and corporate success.
Now LeBron is shifting the importance of actually getting more balls in a hoop than the other team altogether. There’s a reason, despite his not having won a single championship yet, that we already call him King.