Something fascinating has happened as the sporting public collectively consumes “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
The immediate reaction online after episodes air in the United States or are available to be streamed in Canada, is to use the most recent episode as a referendum of debating Michael Jordan versus LeBron James.
This seems to be unique to these two and is not a dynamic that happens in other sports.
The Wayne Gretzky 30 for 30 didn’t spark a Sidney Crosby debate, the Tom vs Time Facebook series or even his own documentary didn’t create Joe Montana comparisons and the Diego Maradona documentary didn’t start the debate on whether or not Lionel Messi is a fraud, either.
For some reason, however, with Jordan and James, praising one has to lead to tearing down the other and they can’t be appreciated in isolation of each other.
Even in this scenario the debate could have been the Bulls were greater than Golden State Warriors or Phil Jackson is greater than Gregg Popovich or vice versa, or any other takeaways and revelations. But it immediately reverted back to the age old Jordan vs. James debate.
This has been fascinating to observe and also a little disappointing. It’s not productive because you’re comparing things greatly impacted by wildly different variables, a point the doc actually does a great job of making painfully obvious as we watch occurrences in the 1990s through the lens of 2020.
What we’ve gotten instead of true examination or appreciation are arguments lacking in substance and overflowing in bias.
Take for example the assertion that Jordan is greater because he took the punishment from the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and survived it. It’s coupled with an assertion that basketball and thus its players are soft now.
Jordan was six-foot-six and 215 pounds. He was a baseball player turned basketball star. James, on the other hand, is six-foot-nine, 260 pounds. While being a basketball phenom he was also an all-state football player.
The notion James couldn’t take punishment from Bill Laimbeer in the lane is unfair. James, for one, is bigger than Laimbeer who played at 245 pounds on a six-foot-11 frame, but the fact durability is where you’d centre a debate about James when he came straight from high school and never had a major injury or even a reparative surgery in his NBA career makes no sense.
Jordan, by comparison, was afforded the opportunity to take a year and a half off of basketball when he went and played baseball. A fact weaponized against him when his feats are being held up against James, but that doesn’t make the fact he transformed his body to take the punishment from the Pistons and New York Knicks of the 1990s any less impressive.
There’s also been the argument made about James being a more efficient scorer, but Jordan never had the luxury of piling up big points with the knowledge of the power of the three-point shot. That doesn’t make James’ exploits better, just different.
Jordan surely would have developed a more lethal three-point shot early in his career if that was the style of play back then. And in regards to the unimpressive looking defenders trying to match up with him, those players don’t seem athletic at all because Jordan was such an athletic marvel, and so ahead of anyone else playing at the time.
Jordan’s five career playoff games with at least 55 points is as many as all other players in NBA history combined. James’ playoff career high is 51, but at the time Jordan detractors considered him a ball hog early in his career. Early in James’ career the criticism was he was too unselfish and lacked MJ’s killer instinct. The goal posts always move.
Generations that didn’t see Jordan can’t possibly quantify how he changed the culture of sports.
Those that hold Jordan with nostalgia don’t seem to appreciate the real-life factors like increased media attention, social media, advanced scouting and analytics that are additional pressures James feels in a way Jordan didn’t have to.
Which is why you can’t compare them.
Jordan went to college, took a sabbatical and played in an era with no analytics.
James faced twitter, the salary cap, full free agency and was drafted by a terrible owner.
It’s the ultimate barber shop argument. We all become the old guy making the pitch for the candidate that makes us nostalgic or fits our personal tastes.
The thought experiments comparing them can be fun to reveal what you value in a player. Not to reveal what the right answer is.
So, let’s enjoy the “The Last Dance” as the closest thing to basketball we’ll have for a while and not as revisionist history to try the case of Jordan vs. James. Because if there is one thing the cultural phenomenon that doc has become has taught us, it’s that Jordan and James, along with their supporters and detractors, are more alike than they are different.