By Jason Keidel
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While LeBron James stretches his Secretariat-like lead on the NBA’s MVP race, there’s a two-tiered debate in the Tri-State area.
Believe it or not, there are still people dialing WFAN to assert Carmelo’s Anthony’s eminence, that Carmelo is clearly the best player in the NBA this season, despite 5-for-24 shooting one night (OK, he was banged up), while scoring 42 with one assist the game before. While a wildly gifted scorer, Carmelo is a specialist, a one-trick player in a sport that demands more versatility from its immortals.
Meanwhile, LeBron’s Playstation run of 30-point games while making 60 percent of his shots has mesmerized our sports-starved nation, still sick with the tremors of football withdrawal. LeBron’s orbit so high that some say he’s encroaching on His Airness. The LeBron debate is bordering on the sacrosanct, his mouthpiece and fingernail-nibbling refrain approaching the soaring, scissor-kick visage of Air Jordan. The comparisons are particularly poignant while the world blows the candles on Jordan’s 50th birthday.
But it says here the comparisons are quite premature.
We all want to think our halcyon years were the best. From the Greatest Generation that saved the world to the Civil Rights era to the Summer of Love to the Summer of Sam, we assert that our cultural and athletic icons changed the world for good and for the good.
Boxing was perhaps my first love, and though i was blessed to see Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Duran, Arguello-Pryor, and Mike Tyson, I can’t deny that Muhammad Ali was indeed the greatest and that the sweetest Sugar Ray was named Robinson. Likewise, in football, I adored Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, and Barry Sanders, but I wasn’t there for Jim Brown – the great negator of all gridiron squabbles.
But I did see Michael Jordan, from whistle to gun. And LeBron, sublime as his skill set is, is no Michael. Being the latest does not make you the greatest. If you wipe the faerie dust of projection, then you’ll see that MJ was singular, monolithic, and without peer.
It ‘s not just about championships, otherwise Bill Russell, with 11 rings in 13 seasons, would be the winner nonpareil. You must absorb the man in full, rub the bias off your glasses – which, oddly have no lenses these days, with the “Geek Chic” look, the Rambis refrain, all the rage these days. Everything comes full circle, back to Jordan, the standard, the template, his soaring stamp the de facto logo after Jerry West’s silhouette. He gave Dean Smith his first NCAA title after decades of anguish, then tolerated Bobby Knight long enough to win Olympic gold. Then he won it again with the only Dream Team in 1992. None of this includes his NBA bona fides.
ESPN’s Mike Greenberg made a salient point vis-a-vis the MJ vs LJ debate. He said the only way he could anoint LeBron the best ever was to make him, Mike Greenberg, 24 again – the age he was when he covered the Bulls as a beat reporter. No doubt we romanticize the pioneers of our youth. But it’s more than that with Jordan. He didn’t save the game – Bird and Magic saw to that – but MJ made the game the global brand it has become, why people who can’t speak English still speak buckets.
LeBron doesn’t need six rings to equal Jordan, but he sure as heck needs more than one. Right now he’s 1-2 in the NBA Finals, making it impossible to crack the seal on Jordan’s reign. He gets a mulligan for losing to San Antonio with a far inferior Cleveland club. But his historic gag against Dallas, with superior team, his two-point, fourth-quarter average, is hard to erase from our conscience. Let’s just say last year did a lot to repair his carpet-bagging, dream-team building, crunch-time cramping image.
In order to commandeer the crown from Jordan and squeeze it over King James’s headband, he needs some historic streaks in June, not in February. In case you haven’t heard, Jordan went to the NBA Finals six times, won them all, and was the MVP every time. And, along with this double-digit scoring titles, he was also the best defensive player in the NBA.
LeBron’s Miami Heat have the mandate of a great team: O’Brien Trophy or bust. LeBron is lovely. LeBron is great. The greatest? Ask again in five years.
Think King James will eventually take the crown from His Airness? Be heard in the comments!