- I am too young to remember any of Michael Jordan’s illustrious NBA career.
- “The Last Dance” – ESPN’s 10-part documentary series about Jordan and his Chicago Bulls – provided me with an opportunity to understand His Airness’ legacy far more intimately than I ever have.
- The series moved the needle for me and, I suspect, for many other basketball fans in my same age range in that it made a compelling case that there is no heir apparent to Jordan’s legacy.
- Jordan’s greatness is unparalleled, and that isn’t to say it’s superior to LeBron James’ so much as it is unique, incomparable, and inimitable.
- To me, declaring that James is more or less great when, in reality, he is a different brand of excellence altogether, is a futile exercise.
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Michael Jordan became a legend far before I showed up.
When I was born, Jordan was averaging 30.9 points per game on 49.5% shooting from the field. He was ramping up to compete for his fourth NBA championship in his first full season back in the league after his baseball hiatus, and he was well on his way to collecting the fourth MVP award of an already incredibly illustrious career.
Four days before my grand arrival, Jordan dropped a whopping 53 points on the Detroit Pistons to set a United Centre scoring record that wouldn’t be broken until I was five years old. And five days after I was born, His Airness recorded a season-high 16 rebounds in a sensational 37-point performance on the road against the New Jersey Nets.
I was two years old when Jordan won his sixth NBA championship and played his last game with the Chicago Bulls. I had just turned seven when he walked off the hardwood for the final time.
I remember none of Jordan’s basketball career
Jordan’s legacy was signed, sealed, and delivered before I even had a conscious understanding of what professional basketball was and how it influenced the culture around me. He was retired before I ever thought to sit down and watch an NBA game.
Even so, Jordan was everywhere as I came of age. I knew he was important the same way I knew Babe Ruth was important: two legends of their respective games whose unprecedented levels of greatness rendered them myths in my mind. Ruth hit bombs and wore pinstripes. Jordan hit shots and wore – well, Jordans. That was about the extent of my knowledge on either matter.
Meanwhile, as I grew into a sports fan in my own right, I became aware that LeBron James was the heir apparent to Jordan’s GOAT status. At long last, I thought Jordan had a worthy successor, playing his first NBA game just six months after Jordan ended his career for the third and final time.
Still, I was witnessing greatness in real-time. A mammoth of a man with the finesse of a point guard, the touch of a sharpshooter, and the physical strength of a post player, James had no equal in my mind. Plus, I had always suspected that the tales I had heard about Jordan were a bit exaggerated. Jordan was a relic of a bygone era of basketball, I thought, and the people in my life who had witnessed his dominance firsthand were simply reluctant to hand over the reins.
So when I learned that ESPN was releasing “The Last Dance” – the 10-part documentary series about Jordan and his 1997-98 champion Chicago Bulls – I was looking forward to getting a feel for what prime Jordan entailed so I could formulate a more informed take on the infamous GOAT debate.
Jordan’s competitiveness struck me right away
It’s not that I didn’t know that he was competitive. On paper, I knew it well. But there’s quite a difference between what I gleaned from my dad’s second-hand tellings and what I saw from the first airing of “The Last Dance.”
Jordan wasn’t just a competitor. He was a freak.
His intensity, tunnel vision, ambition, and stunning lack of nuance were so potent it was jarring. From scuffling with his brother, Larry, during childhood to catch his father’s attention to calling his iconic 63-point playoff performance against the Celtics in 1986, Jordan put his unceasing thirst for dominance on full display just two hours into the series.
The examples of Jordan’s unfathomable competitiveness – and the seemingly inconsequential moments that served as his sources of motivation – piled up throughout the next eight episodes. He torched the Seattle Supersonics because the head coach didn’t say hello while they were both at the same restaurant. He took the Dream Team to the cleaners night after night while playing poker. He worked tirelessly to produce on the baseball diamond. Hell, he terrified his own Chicago Bulls teammates!
I’d never seen anything like it. LeBron James has never been much of a trash talker; he lets his game speak for itself. But Jordan ran his mouth and, somehow, always managed to back it up on the court. It’s otherworldly.
His “clutch factor” helped his case, too
I’m pretty sure I already knew this, but now it’s indisputable; with the game on the line, I’m going with Jordan. Every time.
He was doing it back in college, which, as a Duke alumna, was tough to swallow. His Airness secured North Carolina’s come-from-behind national championship victory over Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas in 1982. With under 20 seconds left and the Tar Heels down by one, a then-freshman Jordan rose up and sank an 18-foot jumper that, for many other athletes, would define a career.
But for Jordan, it was just the beginning.
There was “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference opening round, in which Jordan sank a foul-line jumper with three seconds remaining to knock the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the playoffs. He did it again in 1993, this time hitting the game-winner from the elbow in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to send the Cavs packing.
He downed Karl Malone, John Stockton, and their mighty Utah Jazz in the first game of the 1997 NBA Finals with a tie-breaking, deep-two jump shot at the buzzer, only to outdo himself four games later. With the series tied at two games apiece, Jordan strung together a 38-point, seven-rebound, and five-assist masterpiece while battling flu-like symptoms in his legendary “flu game.”
In storybook fashion, Jordan ended his Bulls career with one last clutch moment. He sent Bryon Russell to the deck with a fierce crossover and connected on a jumper from the top of the key in the final seconds of Chicago’s Game 6 matchup against the Jazz in the 1998 Finals. Five seconds later, Jordan officially completed his second repeat and earned his sixth Finals MVP award.
And that’s the thing about Jordan; his clutch moments always,always yielded hardware
I genuinely believe James gets a bad rap when it comes to his clutchness gene. He’s had plenty of game-winners, game-savers, and jaw-dropping finishes, and he’s practically lived in the NBA Finals with nine total appearances throughout his career. But his 3-6 record, once he gets there, pales in comparison to Jordan’s 100% conversion rate in the Finals.
It’s unfair to rest all of the blame for James’ losses on just his shoulders, but it’s impossible to overlook the fact that many of The King’s most incredible moments afforded him little more than a dusty gap on the mantle. Jordan’s trophy case, conversely, is filled to the brim.
After watching “The Last Dance” in its entirety, I understand Jordan’s legacy far more intimately than I ever have
Jordan was the competitor of all competitors, the most clutch of the clutch, and the winner of all winners – not to mention the singular face of the game during his long reign. His greatness is unparalleled. And that isn’t to say it’s superior to LeBron’s so much as it is unique, incomparable, and inimitable.
And herein lies the crux of the greatest of all-time debate for me – Jordan and James boast two entirely different breeds of greatness. Jordan is boisterous and fiery, unrelenting, and in-your-face. James is poised and consistent, patient, and tenacious. Jordan’s legacy was, and continues to be, pervasive; James’ is enduring.
I still believe James is the more gifted basketball player of the two because, somehow, he has become the elusive master of all trades. Nobody has ever played every single position on the floor as fluently as LeBron. He can dribble, pass, shoot, block, lockdown, spot up. He can do it all.
But Jordan did what he did – compete, inspire, fight, and win – better than anyone else who’s ever tried. Six championships, six Finals MVPs, five NBA MVPs, 14 All-Star Game selections, three All-Star Game MVPs, 10 All-NBA first-team selections, nine All-Defensive first-team selections, and 10 scoring championships speak for themselves.
“The Last Dance” indeed moved the needle for me and, I suspect, for many other basketball fans in my same age range in that it made a compelling case that there is no heir apparent to Jordan’s legacy. His greatness is irreplicable, plain and simple, and LeBron will never be what Jordan was.
But to me, declaring that James is more or less great when, in reality, he is a different brand of excellence altogether, is a futile exercise.
- Read more:
- Basketball legend Diana Taurasi said Michael Jordan’s win-at-all-costs mentality resonates with her
- Michael Jordan’s daughter, Jasmine, had to Google her dad to understand his basketball legacy
- Shaq says Michael Jordan is ‘the best player ever’ and that he’d easily average 45 points in today’s NBA
- Charles Barkley said facing off against Michael Jordan in the 1993 NBA Finals was ‘the first time in my life that I felt like there was a better basketball player in the world than me’
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