When it comes to basketball, my favorite sport, I was a little late to the game. It wasn’t until the age of 14 and the 1992 NBA Finals that I started to really take notice. And who wouldn’t? The Bulls versus the stacked Portland Trailblazers was a heck of a series. Even with Pippen, Drexler, Porter and the other stars, I was completely fixated on Michael Jordan. Of course I was; the whole world was fixated on him.
Jordan embodied perfection. He was handsome, tall, well spoken, athletic. He could do things no other human seemed capable of – weaving through giants with blinding speed to put the ball in the hoop with apparent ease. My wife has said it didn’t dawn on her right away that he was black; I’m sure she’s not the only white kid who barely registered MJ was a different race. And through commercials and media snippets, Jordan seemed like a great guy. We all wanted to be like Mike.
Then came the multiple retirements, the not-too-subtle whispers of gambling issues, the attempt at baseball. Jordan didn’t seem perfect after all; he was a human being like the rest of us. Fast-forward to his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech – where he was inducted alongside my Utah Jazz heroes Stockton and Coach Sloan, as well as class act David Robinson. It was here I realized how competition-obsessed Jordan was. The man talked about Bryon Russell – the Jazz player whom MJ shook off to hit a championship-winning shot a decade earlier – more than he spoke about All-Star sidekick Scottie Pippen! It seemed, in his head, MJ turned every single speed-bump into a personal attack; he turned every joking word into motivation to dominate.
The proof is in the pudding, but it still struck me as a little bit sad. Part of the reason Jordan was the best is because he wanted it most – in a borderline unhealthy way. What had seemed like playful jabs during the legendary Olympic collective known as the 1992 Dream Team Olympic now felt like just more ammo for the MJ machine gun. It was a foregone conclusion that USA would walk over the competition, so Jordan had to compete against Magic, Barkley and the rest of his stellar teammates to show he was alpha male.
This late revelation doesn’t diminish Jordan’s value or place in history to me one bit. But what if I had known these things from the get-go? What if we hadn’t idolized MJ to such a degree early on, in part due to media and corporate positioning? Enter Kobe Bryant.
My deepest early memory of Kobe was in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, Bryant’s first. He had the ball, and Karl Malone went to set a pick for him – a cornerstone of the Utah Jazz’s success, which won the West that year (and steamroll Kobe’s Lakers). Bryant shrugged off his teammate’s gesture so he could take Jordan one-on-one. I viewed the act as disrespectful and cocky. Kobe had a stunning All-Star Game, with an array of dunks and his showmanship on full display. But I personally couldn’t stand the guy.
Bryant’s legacy speaks for itself: 5 NBA Championships, 17-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA First team, #3 all-time in points. Of course, he’s also missed more shots than any other NBA player in history ;). But with media access being more in-depth and less glad-handing, we got to see the kind of spiteful desire Kobe had inside of it. We saw how he arguably drove the good-natured Shaq out of LA; we saw a sexual-assault allegation tarnish his image and cost him sponsorships; we heard his disparaging and unprofessional comments about Lakers role-players. Watch him play, and he seems to be a vacuum for any balls tossed to him. “Team player” is not high on the list of things attributed to Kobe Bryant. It was easy to label him a villain.
Maybe the label fit better on him than Jordan because, unlike Mike, Kobe didn’t pay his dues in college. Whereas Jordan worked his way up in a powerhouse North Carolina system, Bryant came to the NBA right out of high-school – a golden child born of privilege with a former NBA-player father. Fellow Lakers legend Magic had his share of infidelity which led to being HIV Positive, but hardly anyone holds it against him. Perhaps it’s because Magic is a jolly ambassador of the game, and Kobe seems like a smirking star out for himself. I don’t remember any times when Magic, a team leader and facilitator, was recorded disparaging his teammates. But again, that could be down to the lack of access or openness of the media in his day.
Now, let’s talk about LeBron James. King James. The best player on the planet. The casual observer could think of James as coming from the same win-obsessed mindset as Jordan and Bryant. After all, he took his talents to South Beach. He infamously stated the Heat could win 5, 6, 7 titles. Even in the face of all this, I will opine that James is a different type of player, which I will label a “love of the game” player.
LeBron came from humble beginnings. I’m sure he had a lot of help on the way – he’s quick to credit his childhood teammates – but much of his success was pure hard work and developing his skills. Of course, like Kobe he bypassed college. But unlike Kobe, James is much more likely to share the ball and get others involved. That’s not normal for a 6’9″, 245-pound beast. Of course, LeBron won’t lose many end-to-end races with anyone else in the NBA. His skill-set is just freakish, meaning he’s a stat sheet filler rather than a pure scorer. But we’re more discussing what’s inside.
I heard James tell a story about how his early coaches would put him with his team’s worst players. LeBron would have to find ways to get them involved, no matter how difficult. Let’s compare this to Jordan, who in a recent interview discussed how his coach would make MJ switch teams during practice scrimmages. Jordan would see this as a not-friendly challenge, and make sure to beat his new opponents – still members of the same team – mercilessly. That’s a very different mindset between two all-time greats, wouldn’t you say?
When James came back to Cleveland it shocked a lot of people, myself included. He had a great thing in Miami. But his reasoning seemed so mature. He would go back to his roots and try to build up an ailing Ohio community with his presence and influence. I really respect that, and it made me 180 my position on the transaction. The Cavs had some early struggles, even with Kyrie and Love making an equally-potent Big Three to James/Wade/Bosh. But LeBron, even in an age of social-media and the camera on him nearly 24/7, has never to my knowledge freaked out. He’s stayed calm and confident that the team would work things out. And they have, going a league-best 8-2 in their last 10 games with a real shot at home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
LeBron seems to love basketball more than he loves winning. He’s out there having fun, putting his skills on display and aiding his team in any way possible. He recently said he’d come off the bench if it would help. Those are just words, but I could never imagine them coming out of MJ or Kobe’s mouths. Then again, LeBron has the most career assists of the three superstars, despite playing about 200 fewer games than the other two. Assists aren’t everything of course (despite my love of John Stockton), but sharing the ball can be akin to sharing the love.
Last night, during the Oscars, we watched Wes Anderson’s joy as various crew members accepted awards for The Grand Budapest Hotel and subsequently praise Anderson in their speeches. My wife turned to me and said, “Wes Anderson is a LeBron-type director.” I like that.