Lebron James May Or May Not Be A Better Basketball Player Than Michael Jordan, But He's A Better Man

YouTube screenshot via NBA
YouTube screenshot via NBA

It's apropos that Lebron James, the greatest basketball player of the 21st century, has made (and will continue to make) the debate about whether he or Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever a valid and relevant one with his most underrated characteristics: his stamina and consistency. There has not been an NBA season since 2003 where Lebron wasn't a prominent figure; and we'd have to stretch back seven years (!!!) to find one where he wasn't still playing in June. I almost — almost — feel a tinge of sadness for those committed to keeping the JORDAN IS THE BEST EVER AND LEBRON IS A WHINY BITCH BABY torch lit, because this debate will continue to get louder as Lebron collects more accolades, and their indefatigable dismissal of Lebron's status and their steadfast standom for a guy who retired two decades ago will seem progressively more illogical and hysterical.

The relentlessness of Lebron's career mirrors the cumulative effect he has on opponents over 48-minute-long games and seven game playoff series. He's such a tireless and singular and violent force of nature that he eventually just wears people out; squeezing them into juice and grinding them down into powder. If Jordan was a bolt of lightning, with a flash and a sparkle and an incandescence that captivated and blinded people with its brilliance, Lebron is a tsunami; an extinction level event with Karl Malone's body, Magic Johnson's game, Julius Erving's hops, and Bobby Fischer's brain.

(As far as my feelings about the Jordan vs Lebron debate, I can go on for 3000 more words, but I'll simplify them. Michael Jordan was a perfect basketball player. His near perfect skillset allowed him to be so transcendentally virtuoso that his singularity lifted the teams he was on, like a sun providing light for a entire galaxy. Lebron, however, possesses a game and a body and a brain that allows him to play perfect basketball. While his movements aren't as fluid and his game isn't as sexy as Jordan's was, there's nothing physically he can't do and nothing mentally he can't process; a dynamic that allows him to make the best basketball play in nearly every situation. He's not a star or a sun or a planet. He's gravity. So while Jordan, in a vacuum, might have been a more skilled basketball player, Lebron's skills enable him to be more effective. And I choose more effective.)

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Anyway, while the debate about their games and their talents and their respective grades of greatness remains relevant, there's no argument that the 32-year-old Lebron far surpasses both the 32-year-old Jordan and today's 54-year-old Jordan in integrity and bravery. And not the contrived, SkipBaylian artificial measure of character that bases and assesses a man's testicular fortitude on his LinkedIn profile and whether he possesses an arbitrary "clutch gene," but real actual character.

Can you imagine Michael "My Arms Are Too Short To Box With Republican Potential Sneaker Buyers" Jordan, on the night before the NBA Finals, holding a press conference to say this?

"Just shows that racism will always be a part of the world, part of America. Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. It is hidden most days. It is alive every single day. I think back to Emmett Till's mom and the reason she had an open casket, she wanted to show the world what her son went through in terms of a hate crime in America. No matter how much money you have, how famous you are, how much people admire you, being black in America is tough."

This, of course, was Lebron's response to "nigger" being spray-painted on the fence outside of his Los Angeles home. Instead of declining to comment or dismissing it as a distraction — which he would have been perfectly justified to do considering both the timing and the explosive gravity of the incident — he used his considerable platform and influence to remind America (and the world) about ourselves and the pervasive sickness that permeates our bones and vessels. Perhaps Lebron is the most famous athlete in the world; a soon-to-be billionaire with unfathomable access and opportunity and privilege and power. But to many Americans — too many Americans — he's still just a nigger. Just like Emmett Till.

This is far from Lebron's first time speaking out about race (or education or injustice). But I can't recall a time where his words were as clear and sharp and resonate and relevant. And that he'd make this statement while much of the sports world rages in a debate about him and Michael Jordan is timely and telling. Even Lebron himself has admitted to possessing this thought; expressing that his motivation now is "the ghost" he's chasing — a ghost that "played in Chicago." But as we wonder whether he's done enough to merit the comparison, perhaps we're asking the wrong questions. Maybe Lebron doesn't need to be like Mike. Maybe Mike should have been and needs to be like Lebron.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

epsilonicus-disqus
Epsilonicus

First, I think that 32 year old Lebron is a better player than 32 year old Jordan.

Secondly, this incidents is a reminder that wealth and fame does not erase Blackness. A lot of Black folks, and an even larger amount of white folk really try to play that game. This racist system does not care about your money. I had to explain that to a Honduran exchange student in college. He was pissed that a white student from a one stop light town whose parents are broke as all get out said some racist ish to him, a Honduran kid who grew up having staff in the home. I had to explain to him that racism in USA has the poorest white folks thinking they can tell the wealthiest of POC that they ain't ish. And the poorest of white folks truly, madly, deeply believe that.