From the jump, let me say that I’ve never rooted once for Lebron James.
I grew up outside of Chicago, and Michael Jordan is one of my two favorite athletes of all time – Walter Payton the other. I was on the floor, 10 feet from the court, when the Bulls came back from down 15 in the 4th quarter of Game 6 to win the 1992 NBA championship and I have photographic memory of the Jordan era.
During the Jordan years, one of the Bulls’ biggest rivals was the Cleveland Cavaliers. So the dislike of the Cavs was ingrained in me a long time ago, and carried over into Lebron’s career.
That disdain was furthered as It always seemed like he was the one guy in the Eastern conference, first with Cleveland, then Miami standing in the way of the Bulls during the Derrick Rose era. Not to mention, that I scoffed at any discussion that Lebron could even be in the conversation with Michael Jordan as the greatest of all-time.
But leading up to, and in the aftermath of his third championship, I’ve come to reassess how I view Lebron.
Here’s a guy that grew up without a father, dirt poor in the housing projects. He signed a $100 million shoe deal with Nike right after high school, before he was the No. 1 overall NBA pick by his hometown Cavs in 2003.
He had a lot thrown at him at an early age. Given all the access that fame and fortune brings, that story could’ve gone horribly wrong and ended badly. But it didn’t as, by all accounts, Lebron has never been anything other than a pillar of the community, a great teammate and a well-spoken role model to the youth. There’s never been a hint of scandal, let alone ending up in the police blotter.
During the Finals, I gained a lot of respect for Lebron when he was called out by Phil Jackson, with the Cavs down 0-2, and told to dominate more like MJ.
To which Lebron responded, “I think for me to go out and be who I am and play as true to the game and as hard as I can and try to lead this team, that’s who I am. Not anybody else.
“I’m not Michael. I’m not Ali. I’m not nobody else that’s done so many great things for their sport. I am who I am, and if I’m able to go out and put together a game like that, it wasn’t because I was possessed. It’s because I worked on my craft all season long and that’s the result of it.”
I found that statement to be pretty profound and enlightening into Lebron’s maturity and personal growth. So many of us grow up and try to be like somebody else, or let others define us as who they want us to be in life.
Is he perfect? Of course not! But his biggest crimes against humanity have been some public relations gaffes, most notably how he handled leaving Cleveland for Miami after the 2010 season. So chalk that up to youthful immaturity of somebody who was still only in his mid-20s.
For me, if that’s the biggest criticism, along with flopping while trying to draw fouls in a league of floppers, then he’s done pretty well in my book.
With regard to the “greatest of all-time” (GOAT) debate, Personally, I couldn’t care less about debating who is the best. The GOAT — whether it’s on a team level or an individual player — changes every 20 years in every sport. And you really can’t compare different eras anyway, so everybody should just enjoy the greatness of LeBron! He’s a once in a lifetime player that we’ll never probably see the likes of again.
Specific to MJ, again my childhood hero, there is a bit of mythology that’s developed over time about Michael Jordan – probably because nobody has watched anything other than MJ highlights on YouTube for the last 15 years. Don’t get me wrong, I think he was the greatest closer of all time with the greatest will to win and heart of all-time.
But Lebron is capable of doing things that neither Jordan or anybody who ever played the game can do.
If he goes on a run in Cleveland, with back-to-back titles or a three peat for a city that hadn’t won anything in 52 years and with the team that was one of the worst teams in the league before he came back, then he’s going to go down as the GOAT.
If I was starting from scratch, and could take anybody from any era, in their prime, I would take Lebron No.1, Magic No. 2 and MJ No. 3 simply because of their ability to take anybody around them and make them better.
People also forget that Jordan won only one playoff game in three seasons before the Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen. They also forgot that the year Michael Jordan first retired, the 1993-94 Bulls won only two fewer regular games, while losing to the Knicks in a tough seven-game series in Eastern Conference Playoffs, than their 1992-93 NBA championship squad.
There wasn’t as much of a drop off as people might think. So how did the Cavs do in the year after Lebron left for Miami? They dropped from 61 to 19 wins.
My point is not to diminish MJ or to spark a fruitless, whose the best of all-time debate. But rather to say, live in the moment and appreciate the greatness of Lebron James. At the very least, he’s a once in a generation player, and quite likely one that we may never see again.
Enjoy this as a fan, because a decade from now, after he’s retired, everybody will be complaining about how boring the NBA is, just as they did after Jordan retired.
Bill Renje is a contributing writer for the Southern Crescent Buzz. He is also on staff with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes where he serves schools in the South Atlanta Metro area. Follow him on Twitter @BillRenje and follow thecrescentbuzz.com @crescent_buzz.