LeBron James has been the best player in the league for quite some time but several weren’t willing to acknowledge his surreal talent because he had not yet won an NBA title. Whether that was fair or not, the narrative may change now that he has finally reached the mountaintop and was also named the 2012 NBA Finals MVP.
The interesting aspect of James’ ascension as well as his crowning as a champion is that it has put Michael Jordan’s first title — that he won 21 years ago — into perspective.
Many will say that it is blasphemous to even put both players in the same sentence given that James is only celebrating his first championship, but that’s exactly the point; comparing their situations leading up to their first title.
LeBron James became somewhat of a villain after The Decision and then made things worse by holding essentially what amounted to a pep rally in Miami in which he proclaimed that his new team would win multiple championships.
His reputation suffered and as he gave the masses the fuel to assassinate his character.
But prior to those events though, James was by and large the most gifted player in the league, mind you comparisons to both Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan — his Hall of Fame peers — were deemed to be outlandish. The King was good and all, but those players had won multiple rings and accomplished things that only some of the best players in league history had ever done.
What had LeBron done? Accumulate stats? Win a couple of trophies that failed to associate with the name Larry O’Brien?? That’s how many viewed LeBron’s pre-Miami career.
And then he appeared before a national audience and gave us what I called at the time The TeLeBron; and that sealed his fate in the eyes of many. He was great, but not pantheon level great.
But let’s rewind to a little more than two decades prior the present day.
Michael Jordan was also a supremely gifted athlete that dominated the court with his highflying ways as well as his statistical brilliance. He could do it all: score, rebound, pass, defend and put a whole team on his back. He was by all accounts the best talent in the game, and yet many debated whether he would ever truly be the best.
Jordan was not Bird nor Magic; sure he could collect awards, but rings, well that was an entirely different conversation. Consider this: in 1988, Magic Johnson made the statement that the Cleveland Cavaliers would be the team of 1990s. Yes, the Cavs.
Jordan was viewed as the one-man show that provided great theatrics, but that probably would not elevate his team to a championship, regardless of the circumstances he played in. His teammates may not have measured up, but that didn’t matter. Magic and Bird — despite the fact they had Hall of Fame level teammates — were better because they had won titles; and that put them in the conversation for greatest of all time.
Bob Cousy shared this quote with legendary basketball writer Jack McCallum in the March 3rd, 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated (note: Bird was in his seventh season at the time):
“[…] Bird came along with all the skills, all the things a basketball player has to do. I think he’s the greatest.”
Jordan had to face the idea that no matter how great he played, no matter how much heart, effort and hustle he put in to the game of basketball, if the Chicago Bulls didn’t finish the year by winning their last game, he would never be in the same category as his iconic peers. Hell, things were tough enough as is for MJ, and yet his coach wanted him to change his game for the sake of incorporating his teammates.
Indeed, after years of coming up short in the postseason against the Detroit Pistons, Phil Jackson felt that implementing the triangle offense would not only entice Michael to spread the wealth, but it would also encourage his teammates to look for their own shots and build up their confidence for all the open looks that the Pistons would give them given the amount of attention directed at the Bulls’ superstar. Jack McCallum covered this in the December 17th, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated:
“Jackson became convinced of the merits of Winter’s offense this summer after he researched the fate of teams for which NBA scoring champions had played. He discovered that only once since the 24-second clock was instituted in 1954 had a scoring leader been on an NBA championship team—in1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee Bucks to the title.”
Between the pressure in the media to win and his coach’s urges for him to curtail his game for the benefit of the team, it just seemed as though Michael couldn’t do anything to satisfy the masses. He wasn’t Magic, nor Bird, nor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for that matter. He dominated games and elevated his teammates and yet the term winner did not apply to him.
Things began to change in the 1991 playoffs as Michael systematically incorporated his teammates — with the aid of Scottie Pippen — into the fold. They had improved and became a mentally tougher group, but they needed Jordan to trust them to get there.
And that they did.
The Chicago Bulls swept the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and would then take on Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers with the title on the line in the NBA Finals. Michael would have arguably the best Finals performance of his career, but that often gets overshadowed by the fact that he and Magic went head-to-head. In the end, Jordan finally earned his place amongst the greats by conquering his demons and also winning his first ring at the expense of one of the NBA’s biggest icons. He solidified his spot as the top player in the league but some still had some resentment towards him. In the June 10th, 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum shared the league temperature with us during the NBA Finals:
“Among the players, Johnson is more popular and more respected—a small segment of the NBA considers Jordan too flashy, too cocky, too rich, too self-centered, too something.”
If we fast-forward to the present, we might as well take Jordan’s first title year and put it right next to LeBron James’ and draw the parallels.
The criticisms about James has been that he only wishes to be a global icon, is too self-aware and yet not self-aware enough, lacks humility and did things the wrong way (entirely subjective, but that’s thought process). In addition, many current as well as former players have intimated that they feared and respected Kobe Bryant more, for reasons that have never truly been explained.
Those who begged and pleaded for LeBron James to change his game — despite how effective and dominant he had been throughout his career on the wing — finally got their wish as the league MVP went down on the block and punished defenders.
Whether many choose to accept it or not, Michael Jordan and LeBron James experienced some similar hardships on their paths to their first NBA crowns. Their accomplishments may have come 21 years apart, but it’s almost as if they took the same route.