Michael Jordan turns 50 in a few days, as the cover of the new Sports Illustrated reminds us with supernaturally large numbers. Jordan’s greatness has proved non-transferable — his magic on a basketball court not rescuing him from failure as a team owner and executive — yet his mythic aura survives, even grows. The very fact that Michael turning 50 apparently rates as major news is funny, as if we’d assumed he alone might be impervious to the hands of time.
The implication is that when Jordan swivels that iconic bald dome of his and glances over his shoulder, he now sees the encroachment of mortality.
He should see something else gaining on him.
A 6-8, 260-pound freight train named LeBron James.
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Caution: Objects In The Rear View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.
This isn’t to say, “Step aside, Michael.” (At least not quite yet.) This is to say that day is coming.
I know, I know. That day might not ever arrive by broad agreement. Legends are tough to penetrate once they harden into history. Michael is Michael, the untouchable. Not Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring prowess, Bill Russell’s rings or Kobe Bryant’s stardom could touch him. Not even the NBA-rescuing Magic or Bird could.
To many basketball fans (even some outside of Chicago), there will never be another Jordan in the same way there will never be another Beatles, or Sinatra. Why? Well, because that’s the way it’s always been, right?
Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver football has ever known by such acclaim that when Randy Moss said he thinks he’s better during Super Bowl Week it was met not with consideration but with incredulity. Moss had an argument but was drowned out by media cries of blasphemy.
Such is LeBron’s climb in the Jordan discussion, by perception, at least, still, but less and less by reality.
Heck, just Wednesday, former coach Stan Van Gundy said on 790 The Ticket he thinks LeBron is better than Michael was.
It certainly will continue to be arguable. But it isn’t blasphemy anymore.
Just this week — maybe the most remarkable week in a career full of them for James — he tweeted: “I’m not MJ, I’m LJ’’
He did that because he hears the talk, the comparisons, and he hears the volume increasing. He also did that because he is a student of the game, respects its history and understands Jordan’s unique place in it.
I found James’ five-word tweet interesting because essentially what it conveyed, at least to me, is, “We’re different.”
James will never match Jordan for scoring titles or likely for championships won, the two easiest, default barometers of basketball greatness.
It is in just about every other category that James is better. It is in the overall game that James is better, and it is that title of All-Around Greatest Player that LeBron has a chance to wrest from Jordan.
LeBron is closer in type to Magic Johnson, forward-big but as much a freak-sized point guard. Except Magic didn’t score like LeBron. Magic didn’t have the heft to muscle another team’s center on defense.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra’s nickname for LeBron is “1 Through 5” because he can defend any position on the court. But he can play any position with the ball, too. LeBron could lead the NBA in scoring or in rebounds or in assists if it was his intention to do so. No other player is capable.
Instead James yields scoring titles to Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant because, here, Dwyane Wade needs (and has earned) his touches and shots and points, too. Here even your third option is a 20-point career scorer.
The same sacrifice James showed in coming to Miami in the first place, for less money than he might have commanded elsewhere, is seen in his willingness to play where and how Miami needs him to.
Spoelstra’s mantra is to never take LeBron’s greatness for granted, to constantly appreciate it, but when you ask the coach about James he seldom glows over the dunks or the obvious highlight-reel stuff.
He goes to the essence of the man as much as his game.
“Unselfishness,” Spoelstra says of James. “Commitment …”
Here is Pat Riley’s word for LeBron: “Fearless.”
James accepts the burden of being his best every night, and embraces it. That burden must be wearying, but he carries it as if it were light as air.
His game is a seamless mixture of brute force and ballet, of menace and grace, and right now the Best Player On The Planet is better than he has ever been as he chugs toward a fourth career league MVP award and tries to lift the Heat to a repeat title.
Six games in a row he has topped 30 points on better than 60 percent shooting. No player ever has done that. Not even Michael.
His season averages — 27.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 56.5 percent shooting — have never been equaled across the board. Not even by Michael.
Kobe called LeBron “sensational” after the Heat beat the Lakers on Sunday, and it is pretty impressive when even your greatest rivals are moved to curtsy and bow.
Michael Jordan might always be the greatest player of all time to many, but LeBron James is the greatest all-around player there has ever been.
And getting better, by the way.