“I try to stay away from that, and the reason is: I would never ask a player to play against a ghost; past, present, or future. We could only play against the guy that showed up while we were playing.”
That was Bill Russell’s response to Chris Webber asking him for input in the
never-ending recent debate about individual legacies and how championship rings factor in. It was an especially hot-button issue over All-Star Weekend because Michael Jordan — whose 50th Birthday was being celebrated by the media — said he’d pick Kobe Bryant over LeBron James because, “five beats one every time I look at it.”
Kobe unsurprisingly agreed with Jordan, even dismissing it as being up for discussion:
“I don’t understand what the big hype [is]. It’s real. It’s real talk. I mean, we’re in it to win championships, period.”
The obvious logical fallacy is that, you know, it’s a team sport. Michael Jordan had teammates. They were so good that when he unexpectedly retired in the middle of his prime, they won 55 games and a playoff series without him. Kobe had teammates too. One of them was Shaquille O’Neal, who won the Finals MVP trophy in each of Bryant’s first three title seasons.
LeBron? His key cohorts in Cleveland were Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. When LeBron left Cleveland, they dropped from 61 wins to just 19. That’s first to second-to-worst. (Only our beloved Wolves won fewer games that year.) So unless six-time champ Jordan will concede a higher spot on the Champion Hierarchy to seven-time champ Robert Horry, I think even he has to admit that his argument is vastly oversimplified and disingenuous.
But rather than pick apart that argument and build one up myself, I’d rather just do like Russell and forget it altogether. For former players, obsessing over legacy debates is the pinnacle of pathetic. This is as true in small-town high school talk as it is Michael Jordan versus LeBron James. Wright Thompson of ESPN the Magazine recently wrote a fantastic feature that examines Jordan at 50. In more than a couple of paragraphs, Jordan seems pulled right out of Bruce Springsteen’s hit, “Glory Days.” Thompson describes a scene where they’re sitting around watching — and talking — NBA:
JORDAN PLAYS his new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be nearly as successful in his era. “Our era,” he says over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he’ll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation’s players.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he says. “I can only come up with four.”
He lists them: LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki. As he’s making his point, Yvette walks into the living room area and, in a tone of voice familiar to every husband who argues sports with his buddies, asks, “You guys need anything?”
When someone on TV compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. “It’s absolutely … ” he says, catching himself. “The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he’s playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game … that’s not a fair comparison. That’s not right … Could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No.”
That just doesn’t sound like a healthy person. Certainly not a happy one.
But what about fans debating the same issues? Unless we’re playing NBA2K we can’t see it settled on the court. So what’s the point? I’ve wasted way too many hours conjuring up theories as to why Kobe Bryant might actually be better than Michael Jordan was. (My best is one gaining traction, at least in terms of framing 90’s/aughts comps: relaxing zone defense restrictions made one-on-one dominance more difficult.)
I’m finding more and more true something that should have been obvious all along: It’s more fun to watch the competition in front of me, and focus on that. Getting into legacy arguments as a fan might be less pathetic than as a former player (might be) but it’s equally wasteful of time and energy that could otherwise be enjoying the product itself, and letting the players settle the score.
I hope Jordan can find some inner peace and mentally escape his playing career that physically ended a decade ago. Meanwhile, I can’t wait for another
LeBron versus Durant Heat versus Thunder NBA Finals.