As the comparisons between LeBron James and Michael Jordan reached new heights and new volumes last season, an oft-repeated line of thinking suggested that the discussion was inherently unfair to the Heat MVP, that holding his play up to that of a legend somehow distorted, downplayed or distracted from his accomplishments.
Shadows don't get any longer, darker or more intimidating than Jordan's, all of that is true, but it must be noted that James himself isn't exactly running from the comparisons. Yes, he famously tweeted "I'm not MJ, I'm LJ" but those words were easy to misinterpret. James wasn't ceding the throne forever. Rather, he was establishing his own identity while paying the proper respect to Jordan, whose accomplishments he can't yet match on a line-item basis.
Days after sending out that message, James called Jordan one of his childhood heroes -- alongside Batman and the Transformers -- but stated his career goal in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I want to be the greatest of all time," James declared to a group of reporters at All-Star Weekend in Houston. "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."
With those words, James made it clear that Jordan serves as both hero and target. Which brings us to this week’s Sports Illustrated, in which senior writer Lee Jenkins goes behind-the-scenes with James during the 2013 Finals.
Jenkins details how James packs on extra weight in preparation for the postseason, only to lose much of it by expending so much energy while playing huge minutes in a variety of defensive matchups. Jenkins notes how James can barely sleep during the postseason, with the excitement, adrenaline and stress keeping him up late night after night. And, perhaps most interestingly, Jenkins details exactly how deeply Jordan's success is ingrained in James' mindset.
During a rare rest in the second week of the Finals, James was lounging in his hotel room at the Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort in San Antonio when Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals came on ESPN Classic. He watched until Michael Jordan held the pose on his last [jumper] in Utah.
Before Game 7, Miami assistant David Fizdale showed James cut-ups of the San Antonio defense leaving him alone near the free-throw line. Then coaches underlined his sterling percentages in that area this season. “Even the best have self-doubt at times when what they’re doing isn’t working,” James says. “You need a reminder.” He does not study hot zones, but he does watch old tapes. He found one that was taken last summer in his high-school gym, at St. Vincent-St. Mary, when he was burnishing his J. “Why would you abandon this thing that’s helped make you what you are?” James asked himself. “Stop second-guessing yourself. Go do it. Make it happen.”
James uncorked 20 shots outside the paint in Game 7, the most since he arrived in South Florida three years ago. He drained nine, including five three-pointers. But with 33 seconds left, Miami was only up by two, and James bounced the ball on the blazing Heat logo at midcourt. He was back in the ring of fire. With the floor expertly spaced by Spoelstra, guard Mario Chalmers darted up from the post to set a screen on Leonard at the left elbow, and James bounded around it. Parker switched onto him, but James planted his left shoulder into Parker’s chest, sending him stumbling backward. Leonard recovered, tossing out a hand to contest, but James did not hesitate. He pulled up from 20 feet, easy as an August afternoon at St. V, with the same result. “I know it wasn’t the magnitude of MJ hitting that shot in ’98, but I definitely thought about him,” James said. “It was an MJ moment.” He paused as a turn of phrase came to mind. “It was an LJ moment.”
Here at The Point Forward, we noted that James' championship-sealing jumper in Game 7 was indeed the signature moment of his career, the perfect addition to a Finals resume that had previously included some outstanding performances but was also remembered, at least in large part, for disappointment (2007), shrinking (2011) and cramping (2012). In defeating the Spurs, James had a totally unspoiled, iconic moment that will be endlessly replayed by generations of fans -- and future superstars trying to emulate him -- for years to come.
What's interesting about James' recounting of his signature shot to Jenkins is that he manages to be both reverential to Jordan's shot -- which was indeed ever-so-slightly more dramatic -- while also finding his own footing as the best candidate yet to challenge Jordan's GOAT standing. It takes a mature, thoughtful, basketball-obsessed mind to find a way to wear both hats -- and make them fit.
Sure, James should be spared the pithy "MJ never did [blank]" one-liners that pop up way too often when he does stumble. Beyond that, though, the Jordan comparisons are a service -- not a disservice -- to the league's reigning MVP. They are clearly fuel for James' fire and, importantly, they would be taking place inside his head even if our national obsession with the topic didn't exist.
So let the conversation and debate rage on. We would only be acting unfairly toward a player as talented as James if we decided not to hold his play -- indisputably established as the best among his contemporaries -- against the highest historical standards. He's earned the conversation for now, whether or not he ever manages the seemingly impossible task of unseating Jordan. Watch the shot below again -- keeping in mind the extraordinary level of play exhibited by both teams in this year's Finals -- and try to convince yourself otherwise.