faced the media on All-Star Weekend on Friday. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Ben Golliver
HOUSTON -- It shouldn't, but the sound bite virtually always trumps the fuller narrative.
That's a modern media fact of life and it's especially true at a saturated carnival like All-Star weekend and during a free-for-all availability in which questions sometimes sound like pick-up lines and shout-outs are requested in three or four languages simultaneously. LeBron James has been in front of enough cameras and dealt with immense fame for long enough that he was ready to deliver his lines with ease when the inevitable topic was raised on Friday.
"That's his own opinion," James said of Michael Jordan's recent statement that he would pick Kobe Bryant over James on the basis of the Lakers guard's five championships. "At the end of the day, rings [don't] always define someone's career.
"If that was the case, then I would sit up here and say I would take [Bill] Russell over Jordan. I wouldn't. I wouldn't take Russell over Jordan. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six. Take, I don't know, Robert Horry over Kobe. I wouldn't do that. It's your own personal opinion. Rings [do] not define a person's career."
This was a clever, almost senatorial maneuver: James answered the question, shifted the discussion and briefly distracted a five-deep pack of reporters that surrounded him.
"You look at a guy like [former Bulls reserve] Jud Buechler, he has multiple rings, Charles Barkley does not have one ring," James continued. "He's not better than Charles Barkley. Patrick Ewing is one of the greatest of all time, Reggie Miller is one of the greatest of all time. Sometimes it's about the situation you're in, the team you're in and it's about timing as well."
That sound bite was followed by another, in which he tried to play off Jordan's comments.
"I don't play the game and try to define who I am over what guys say or how they feel about me," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. I play for my family, I play for my teammates, I play for our coaching staff and I play for our fans, that's it."
LeBron's sound bites, politically crafted and politically correct, served their specific purpose, providing a rebuttal to Jordan's widely circulated comments. The fuller context -- in this case, still only 30 minutes of questions and answers -- rendered the sound bites wholly unconvincing. The extended conversation gave the impression that James not only cares about the comparisons but that he cares deeply, and implied that he particularly cares about Jordan's opinion. What other impression could be reached after listening to James rattle off his favorite Jordan moments, in honor of MJ's upcoming 50th birthday, in rapid-fire succession?
"I've got 50 of them, s--- I've got 100 of them," James said. "I've got so many memories of MJ. You name it. From the shoes, to him flying through the air, to him hitting the threes against the Blazers, to him being on the TV screen with Bugs Bunny. From him jumping over the buildings in a suit in the commercials. To him hitting the golf ball, swinging the baseball bat, so many memories. Him having the [ProStars] cartoon, you guys remember that? ... I've got so many memories. MJ was an inspiration to me growing up."
Not only an inspiration but, he admitted, but a full-fledged hero.
"You always tried to look for someone that was a superhero or someone who was beyond life," James said. "Mine was Batman, mine was Transformers and Michael Jordan. Growing up those were the ones. I was like, I wish I could transform into this, I wish I could fly like Michael Jordan, or propel like Batman does."
Does James, who so openly idolizes Jordan as an adult and who wore No. 23 in high school and in Cleveland, really expect anyone to believe that Jordan's assessment of his progress doesn't matter to him? As James' friend Jay-Z would say, "We don't believe you, you need more people."
But this has morphed past simply validation-seeking now that James has claimed his first title and could very well add a second in a few months. Because just as easily as he made his respect for Jordan known, James didn't blink in putting a target on his back.
"I want to be the greatest of all time," James declared, adding later: "As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don't do it to say I'm better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That's how I help myself each and every night."
The logical next question, then: How will he ultimately decide that he's achieved his goal? Surely championships -- rings -- would be among the criteria, right? Does James have a checklist, a la a young Tiger Woods, who methodically tracked his progress alongside golf's greats? What are the mileposts he is striving to hit?
"Nope, nope, nope, nope," James said, unwilling to reveal any details. "If I go out and play at a high level, those things will take care of themselves."
The fuller narrative, of course, reminds us that James values winning above everything. "It's about damn time," he declared after securing his first title last June. The previous year, after losing to the Mavericks in the Finals, he told reporters that he barely left his house for more than a week, such was his despair. How are we to reasonably believe the spirit of his sound bite -- that rings aren't critically important in judging greatness -- when we have clear and convincing evidence of how much he personally values them?
Moreover, the fuller narrative between James and Jordan, even in just this half-hour window, grew so complicated and intertwined that it became difficult to keep up. To summarize: James disputed Jordan's standard for comparing him to Bryant; claimed he doesn't seek Jordan's validation; ranked Jordan over Russell; spoke openly about how he idolized Jordan as a child; and stated clearly that he wants to be the best player ever, which would push Jordan, Bryant and everyone else to the side.
Eventually James conceded -- not dejectedly but not eagerly, either -- that these comparisons, for as long as they have already raged, are only just beginning.
"That's the life," he said. "I understand it. That's the life I live in. The comparisons are going to come. I'd rather be compared to Michael Jordan than somebody who wasn't in the league very long. It's very humbling. I'm grateful for the opportunity I've been given. Mike is in his own lane and I try to create my own."
What happens if and when James gets his second title? His fifth? His sixth? What happens if and when he passes Jordan -- and Bryant -- on the all-time scoring chart? What happens if and when he hits statistical peaks for career points, rebounds and assists that have never been achieved by the same player? What happens when he's 50, like Jordan will be on Sunday, looking back on his career with the next generation of stars going after his records?
"How do I want to be remembered when I'm 50?" James asked rhetorically. "I'm 28 years old, I ain't thinking about that."
There it was, one last unconvincing sound bite. He wants to be the greatest and, like any man, he wants his due. Jordan won't yet give it to him, but James is savvy enough not to whine about it and smart enough to make his case on the court. The fuller narrative suggests that the comparisons will be even more difficult and more complicated five years from now. Friday's full narrative suggested that James knows that better than anyone.