The first NBA game I remember watching in full was in 1986 when Michael Jordan dropped 63 on the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. I’m certain I watched games before that one, either with my dad or on one of the BETA tape recordings he’d make of games that aired when he wasn’t home. But this is the one I remember most. Probably because it felt like Mike was from a different time and playing a different sport than the rest of them. Like Marty Mcfly morphed into motherfuckin’ Teen Wolf. I also remember how shocked I was to learn that it was only his second year in the league. He’d already become such a cultural force that I’d just assumed he’d been around longer.
In the 34 years since, I’ve watched (and read about) as much NBA basketball as I could. The games that would air on TBS Tuesdays and Fridays. The playoff games on CBS and then NBC. In a box in a closet in my house somewhere are VHS tapes of NBA Superstars 1, 2, and 3, Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers, and Come Fly With Me. I saw prime Magic, Bird, Barkley, Dream, Zeke, Ewing, Malone, and Drexler. End-of-career Kareem, Doc, and Moses. Shaq at LSU. Timmy at Wake. Didn’t just see Kobe in high school, but was two games away from playing against him in the state championship in 1996. And still, the best basketball player I’ve ever seen is LeBron James.
I’ve believed that for over a decade now. Probably since like 2008.
Accomplishments matter, of course, when considering the nebulous concept of “greatness” in the context of a basketball-playing career. But he didn’t need rings for me to know that he’s the best at playing basketball that I’ve seen in my life. I’m aware, for people who are fans of sports—and particularly those invested in Michael Jordan’s legacy—that this might feel like a haphazard rationale that only exists to give LeBron a status he doesn’t deserve. But conflating an accomplishment and circumstance-based “greatness” with what you believe to be the “best” is a sports-specific way of assessing work that I fundamentally disagree with—that most of us disagree with, actually, once you remove sports from the equation. I did not need, for instance, the Academy to tell me that Moonlight was the best movie I saw in 2016. Its Best Picture win mattered, of course, but it changed nothing about how I already felt about it. What I already knew about it.
The biggest difference between LeBron and Mike—and something that complicates this conversation—is that the distance between Mike and the rest of his peers was greater than the distance between LeBron and his. Michael Jordan was an iPhone in a world of rotary phones. LeBron James is an iPhone 9 in a world of iPhone 7s.
If you can, watch this from the 33:33 mark to 36:00. It is obscene how athletically overmatched these people are when trying to guard Mike. There are instances where he’s already landing when some poor center hasn’t even started the process of gathering to jump. All of this footage, btw, is from before the Bulls won any championships. But I didn’t need them to beat the Celtics or the Pistons or the Lakers to confirm what my eyes and my brain told me, which is that Michael Jordan was already the best basketball player I’d ever seen.
Of course, you can argue that Mike beat all-time greats. That is true. But “all-time greats” doesn’t mean “better actual basketball players.” Clyde Drexler, for instance, is considered an “all-time great,” generally regarded as one of the top 50 or 60 NBA players ever. Jimmy Butler is not. But I saw them both play. And I have zero doubt that if you put 1990 Drexler and 2020 Butler on the same court, Jimmy would wipe the fucking floor with him. This doesn’t negate Drexler’s greatness. It’s just how evolution works.
(Also, I’m not doing this today, but an argument can be made for LeBron’s greatness too. There have been 14 NBA Finals played since 2007. LeBron has played in 10 of them. He will also likely retire the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, and might be the top three in assists. Not only is he the best actual basketball player, but he’s also had the longest sustained run of greatness. But, again, I’m not doing this today.)
NBA players—like all other athletes—are better now than they were 30 years ago. They’re more skilled, they’re in better shape, they take better care of their bodies, and they play smarter and more efficient basketball. They have physiological, technological, medical, and dietary advantages that didn’t exist then. Also, they have the benefit of existing later. Michael Jordan didn’t have Michael Jordan to watch as a kid to emulate and build off of. Kobe did. Dwyane Wade did. LeBron did.
Anyone who denies that is just too blinded by nostalgia and their emotional connection to the past to see. Basketball players were better in 1990 than they were in 1960. Are better in 2020 than they were in 1990. And, barring a (increasingly likely) global collapse, will be better in 2050 than they are today. And someone will come along in the next 20 or 30 years who will be better at basketball than LeBron James is. I hope I’m still around to see it. And also that I’m wise enough to admit it when I do.