You see it on Twitter, and on TV: “Jordan would have made that game winner.”
You read it on Facebook, and in think pieces: “MJ never lost in the Finals.”
You argue the point in your own conversations: “No one, not even him, will ever be better than Jordan.”
LeBron James might be the most polarizing figure in all of sports. This, despite the fact that he’s never done anything wrong off the basketball court (that we know about), and very few things wrong on it. Yet, he’s undeniably divisive. People either love him or hate him, and these two camps can’t agree on anything — how much help he needed to win his two championships with the Miami Heat; how much better he makes the players around him; whether he has been overrated or underrated throughout his career.
It’s because of this that LeBron’s performance in the 2015 NBA Playoffs — and more specifically, the Finals — is so truly special. For arguably the first time in King James’ career, the fanboys and the haters alike can agree: what we’re witnessing right now is nothing short of astounding.
His has been a historic performance, which is fitting because LeBron isn’t only playing against Steph Curry and the Warriors. He’s not playing against Kevin Durant or Dwyane Wade. He’s not playing against Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan. He isn’t even playing against Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird. He’s playing against our romanticized childhood memories of Jordan, Magic, and Bird. He is a mortal, living in the present, playing in front of millions of people that live-tweet every dribble and Vine every miss, while those that came before him live in the hazy recollection of the past, where every tough shot was made and every defensive stand held.
The things we remember about Jordan’s accomplishments are laughably exaggerated, to the point that no one can recall him missing a shot or committing a foul. He retired as the greatest to ever play the game — but in the years since, he’s become Zeus with a basketball, a god-like figure whose sneakers hold an array of mystical powers. We give him the benefit of every doubt and hold others to a double standard.
We chastise Kobe for his indomitable will to win and the icy way he interacts with teammates, but when we hear that Jordan punched Will Purdue, Steve Kerr, and Jud Buechler, and once referred to the team’s three seven-foot centers as “twenty-one feet of shit,” we laugh it off. Many people knock LeBron for his perceived arrogance. They ignore the fact that, as a rookie, Jordan wore two gold chains in the Slam Dunk Contest and was so cocky over the course of All-Star Weekend that his teammates (allegedly) froze him outto try to teach him a lesson.
By the way, have you seen his Hall of Fame speech?
That’s not arrogant? If LeBron did that, Skip Bayless would have an aneurysm.
We criticize LeBron for losing in the Finals, but most people forget that Jerry West lost in the championship round eight times and his nickname was still “Mr. Clutch.” Those that criticize LeBron fail to acknowledge that to lose in the Finals, you first have to get to the Finals. Let’s not forget that before Scottie Pippen became an all-time great and Phil Jackson became head coach, Jordan’s Bulls were stomped in the playoffs for six years before even reaching the Finals — beaten in the first round by Milwaukee, swept twice in the first round by Boston, eliminated by Detroit in the conference semifinals one time and then twice more in the conference finals. Remember the Jordan Rules? If Twitter were around in 1990, a trending hashtag would be #MJChoke.
For some reason, it’s considered more admirable to lose early in the playoffs. How is losing in four Finals, if Cleveland can’t win Games 6 and 7 this year, worse for the legacy than not even getting there? Not only is James playing in his fifth consecutive NBA Finals, something that none of Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe, or Duncan has ever done, but he did it by dragging this glorified CYO team to the brink of a title. J.R. Smith isn’t exactly Scottie Pippen. Tristan Thompson isn’t Horace Grant. And David Blatt certainly isn’t Phil Jackson.
I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I saw every playoff game Jordan played in, beginning in 1988. I have some of his best games recorded on VHS. I have his stats memorized and his best moments imprinted on my brain. I have his Starting Lineup figure on my desk in my home office. I’ve been a devout follower, believer and defender of Jordan for nearly 30 years. When someone sneezes, I say, “MJ bless you.” I worship at the altar of Michael Jordan, but it’s time to face facts.
LeBron James is the most impressive basketball player I’ve ever seen. He can play all five positions on the court, and play them well. Over his career he has evolved: from swingman to stretch four, to post-up power forward, to point-center, to something that can only be described as a one-man wrecking crew. He does it all, as he has done it for over a decade now. Since the age of 16, he’s had a spotlight on his head (and hairline) and a target on his back. He was proclaimed “The Chosen One” before he could even finish out his high school career. And he hasn’t disappointed. The hype is real. No other player could do what he’s done. None.
Win or lose, LeBron has already proved himself in this series. The Cavaliers may lose and he may even be the goat, but he’s also the G.O.A.T.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more.Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.