Teacher: "There is no way LeBron will ever be Jordan."
This is an article from the June 13, 2011 issue
Kid: "LeBron James is a better rebounder and passer."
Teacher: "Call me when LeBron has six championships."
Kid: "That's your only argument?"
Teacher: "That's the only argument I need, Shawn!"
The movie Bad Teacher is not out yet, but I already love it. You've probably seen the above clip on commercials during the NBA playoffs—a teacher and a middle school student arguing about Michael Jordan and LeBron James. It is the truest sports scene I've seen in a long while. It's about me. I have become a grumpy old man, a bad teacher. I cannot even listen to the Jordan versus LeBron arguments.
I remember, growing up, when Jim Brown's greatness was declared to be indisputable. That's the word: indisputable. Nobody, my elders told me, could ever be as good as Jim Brown. When O.J. Simpson ran for 2,000 yards, well, that was nice. But he was no Jim Brown. When Earl Campbell was a singular force...he was no Jim Brown. Eric Dickerson? Nope. Franco Harris? Uh-uh. The elders might concede that Walter Payton was more versatile than Brown, with his hammerhead blocking and soft hands.
Even so, he was no Jim Brown.
I was too young to understand then. Nobody could be Jim Brown. Sure, Brown had numbers and highlights and testimony to back up the argument, but the crucial fact was that there was no argument. Jim Brown was the greatest because Jim Brown was the greatest. To argue was blasphemous.
There have been a handful of indisputables through the years: Ruth, Pelé, Ali, Orr—athletes who radiated such greatness that the fans of their time simply could not imagine anyone better, then or ever. During my era as a sports fan (1975 or so to the present), there have been two indisputables. One is Wayne Gretzky. The other is Michael Jordan. Everyone else sparked arguments. Gretzky's indisputable greatness came from sheer quantity: His numbers simply bludgeoned every other hockey player into submission. Jordan's greatness came from another place.
That's why the scene from Bad Teacher rings so true: The teacher is enraged that he even has to explain it to someone who had never seen Jordan play. Frustrated, he wields the big stat. Call me when LeBron has six championships.... That's the only argument I need, Shawn. But six championships really is not the argument at all. Bill Russell won 11. Sam Jones won 10. Heck, Scottie Pippen won six too. No, the difference between indisputable and great is more than that.
With LeBron now contending for his first NBA title, Pippen has entered the discussion. Two weeks ago he suggested on ESPN Radio that LeBron is better than Jordan. Here's the Pippen quote that sparked a million Tweets: "Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play in the game, but I may go as far to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game. Because he's so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved."
The reaction was priceless: Mostly, we made fun of Pippen. How great is that? Somehow we know more about Jordan than Pippen does. Pippen is one of the 25 or 30 best players in the history of the NBA. He played with Jordan for 10 seasons. They won six championships together. Pippen probably spent more time on a basketball court with Jordan—counting practices and games—than anybody else.
And we of the "Jordan is the greatest" generation decided he doesn't know what he's talking about. James better than Jordan? What? Sure, Pippen brings his own biases into the discussion—maybe he was trying to stick it to Jordan, who wasn't always the most supportive teammate in the world. Still, isn't there at least a slight chance that Scottie Pippen might know a bit more about this than we do?
No. There's not. Pippen's wrong. How do I know? I know because in my mind Michael Jordan will always be the greatest player in the history of basketball. I know because I was in high school in North Carolina when Jordan was a freshman at UNC, and I pretended to be him on a basketball court long before he was a household name. I watched him make the Bulls indomitable, and I went out and bought his shoes. I watched him hit the big shot over Craig Ehlo and my Cavaliers. My wife and I raced home early from dinner on our honeymoon to watch him hit the remarkable final shot in 1998 against the Jazz to win his sixth and last championship.
Nobody can ever be Michael Jordan to me. His brightest moments are burned into the memory of my youth, there for recall at any moment. His flaws have disappeared like so many details. Is LeBron a better rebounder? Maybe. Passer? Hard to argue. Is it true that James can do things physically—he's two inches taller and 40 pounds heavier—that Jordan could not? Perhaps. The man can guard anyone on the floor. Jordan couldn't do that.
And someday—if LeBron wins his championships, if he continues to play at the absurd level he plays at now—the Shawns of the world will be sputtering at the next generation that the 7-foot point guard who consistently makes half-court shots is no LeBron James. That's how sports go. For now, though, LeBron James is no Michael Jordan. Why not, you ask.
He just isn't, Shawn.