Just in time to capture a younger generation that can’t get away to its SoulCycle class or its favorite artisanal bar comes the reminder that Michael Jordan is now and always will be basketball’s alpha.
Those of a certain tender age who are stuck in the house would be well-served to catch at least part of the 10-episode ode to MJ that began Sunday on ESPN, if only to gain some perspective on why LeBron James should finish second in every all-time argument. No disgrace in that, any more than it is that Jefferson is slightly less prominent than Washington on Mount Rushmore. Or that the Beatles nip the Stones at the wire.
The documentary “The Last Dance,” which refers to Jordan’s pursuit of a sixth and final NBA title with the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season, certainly will cast a bright light on Jordan’s own brilliance. This programming was custom ordered for him, like a video vanity plate.
With little else to hawk, the Worldwide Leader in Sports has broken out all its whistles and kazoos to herald Jordan’s “Dance.” The documentary stands now at eye level with Mel Kiper even in advance of the NFL draft. The network said the first two episodes averaged 6.3 million viewers Sunday, more than half of them in that all-important 18-to-49-year-old demographic. The social-media people say conversation about the show was really “trending,” which is a good thing, I assume.
Part of that conversation falls back on one of the most reliable arguments in sports — Jordan or James, greatest of all time? It flared up when the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers unseated dynastic Golden State, a 73-win team that season, in the 2016 NBA Finals. Now it is Jordan’s turn to counter, getting a Ken Burns-like treatment here with little else in sports to distract the eye. Just more fuel on a smoldering tire fire of barbershop debate.
James had all the benefit of recency bias until now. Yes, young ones, Jordan wasn’t always the cigar-chomping Boomer in a golf cart who can’t build a team in Charlotte. He soared and scored with a different style than James.
Jordan could leave you covered in goosebumps on his flights to the basket. I just never got that from James, a different build of player, one who is more the shake-your-head-in-wonder type.
A question: Would James, on what might seem to be his last pass through town, inspire more than 62,000 Atlantans to see him play inside a football hall? Consider that many of those thousands wouldn’t actually be able to see him, but they’d show just to wallpaper the experience. That happened at the Georgia Dome for Jordan in ’98, establishing an attendance record that still stands.
No one has been moved to deify James just yet. Not as Larry Bird did after watching Jordan go for 63 — without shooting a single 3-pointer — in an overtime playoff loss to the Celtics in 1986. Said Bird afterward: “I would never have called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
There always was the drop-the-mike argument in Mike’s favor: His six titles to James’ three — case closed. But, now thanks to the documentary, one gets to get a feel for the gravity of Jordan as the rest of the league orbited around him.
I’ll admit to a different form of recency bias — that little recent is as good as used to be. Everything was better back then. All I know, I was never confined to my house in the late 20th century.
While we’re inside, at least now there’s the chance to replay and remember Jordan’s transcendence.
You can weigh all the usual talking points. Jordan’s 30.1 points per game to James’ 27.1. James’ longer run of greatness, he’s played in 186 more career games than Jordan and scored 1,795 more points — and counting. Jordan’s five MVP awards and 6-0 record in the NBA Finals (four MVPs and 3-6 for James). James is the superior rebounder and distributor. Jordan the better defender.
But it is good to also witness once more the combination of competitive ruthlessness and physical superiority that separated Jordan from all others.
Jordan reportedly agreed to green-light the project on the same day James was celebrating the ’16 championship. Was he protecting his legacy? Of course, he was. You don’t think his drive to be the best wouldn’t extend out into infinity?
And it just might work. Danged if Jordan isn’t dominating another NBA postseason, here 22 years after he took his last postseason shot. Oh, and that happened to be a championship-winning jumper over Utah’s Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the Finals. Maybe Jordan pushed off, but who had the stones to call that?
And in the meantime, we’ll just conveniently forget the suspicious mid-career foray into baseball and the unfortunate comeback with the Washington Wizards.
Jordan wins again. Perhaps when the LeBron James documentary comes out in 2040 — and we are confined to our homes because by then it’s just habit — it will be time to reassess.
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