Tongues were suddenly wagging on the DC playgrounds. That was the immediate impact of Michael Jordan. Every school recess was an opportunity to play basketball for fifteen minutes. It went without saying. And then out of nowhere, we all played ball with our tongues out. Especially if you were driving on a kid and knew you could score on him. This is not the reason that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, but it is a fact.
Growing up, the inevitability of Jordan’s Bulls teams winning the championship felt unfair. He won so much that we wanted to storm off in a huff and complain to our mothers. And yet, on the court, we’d attempt to soar in Jordan’s dunk pose even if the apex of our leaps stopped a good six inches short of the rim. He was our standard bearer. There was no shame in failing to replicate his moves perfectly.
In my early twenties the media began speaking of a young man in his late teens. The first time I remember seeing LeBron James was during halftime of one of those horrible preseason football telecasts. Al Michaels conducted the interview. LeBron, just eighteen years old then, wore a chain and smiled. He was wise beyond his years. I became a fan.
LeBron James is my favorite basketball player. He has eclipsed Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has lived up to the hype.
As LeBron’s career has unfolded various complications have emerged within the fandom. The first major hiccup occurred as a result of his ill-conceived choice to broadcast “The Decision,” a pre-packaged sitdown with Jim Gray in which he announced that he’d be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Those of us who considered ourselves fans and had no connection to Cleveland considered it a great choice – he’d be with better players. The problem was the triumphalism of the broadcast itself and LeBron’s use little kids at a Boys and Girls club as human shields. Nobody could criticize him if his announcement on basketball was married to an announcement about giving out a few million dollars to the charity, the thinking must’ve gone. The reaction was swift and overwhelming. LeBron became a heel. Fans burned his jersey.
Over time, LeBron recovered, winning two championships in Miami and losing twice in the Finals. His first season in Miami was a joyless affair as he adjusted to the new villain role he’d partially painted for himself. Eventually he loosened up. Within the lines, the basketball was magnificent. That last season in Miami it became evident that his supporting cast was no longer up to the task of winning on the grandest stage.
LeBron has since returned to Cleveland and gone to the Finals three more times, winning once – a spectacular run of seven straight Finals appearances.
Recently, a second major complication within the fandom has arisen: what is LeBron’s place relative to Jordan in the debate over who should be called the Greatest of All Time? The GOAT debate has eaten every other LeBron-related question among fans, suffocating all nuance. By most traditional statistical measures Jordan has the argument won – more points, more championships. And yet, it is said that styles make fights. LeBron’s style of play is so different from Jordan’s that the conversation is always interesting. His preeminence in today’s game asks us whether it is more important to dominate individually or for the team to experience success collectively?
There are other questions that separate Jordan and LeBron: that of an athlete’s role in civil society, in business. Who’s the better actor? Who has better commercials? The vortex of sports- and sports-adjacent takes whips up in force like a cyclone with the power to warp space-time.
I am on the playground again; it is 1989. Pounding the rock and wearing “Sky Jordans.”1 Michael Jordan has taken his game to another level and I can’t wait to get home to watch him take on the Cleveland Cavaliers that evening 2. But there’s some business to take care of on a black top in DC first. A fat kid is guarding me – he’s not a problem – and I can see Kenny shading off of Jeremy in the corner. He’ll be on me as soon as I get to the lane. I’ve got one more dribble left before deciding what to do. A cloud of dust explodes as the ball hits the asphalt. The question is this: once I zip past the first kid do I go with a contested lay-up against Kenny or swing it to Jeremy who’ll be open for the shot? I stick my tongue out and wait for the ball to return to my palm.
Looking back, the future of basketball does not hang in the balance of what I do next. It only feels that way sometimes.
1- In 1989, Sky- and Air- “Jordan” were still used interchangeably in my neck of the woods.
2- Neither Jordan nor myself could know then about a four year-old LeBron in nearby Akron, Ohio.