Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jordan vs. James: The GOAT Debate

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I was nine when Michael Jordan drained the winning shot in the 1982 national championship game, 12 when the first Air Jordan shoes were released, 14 when he claimed the NBA’s dunk title, 15 when he won his first NBA MVP award and 18 when he won his first NBA Championship.  During this period I attempted his dunks on Nerf rims, imitated (poorly) his jump shots on any available court and admired his confidence and ferocity (neither of which I was capable of duplicating) - and I wasn’t even a fan of Jordan’s or the Chicago Bulls. 

This is all to say that I witnessed, at very impressionable ages, Jordan’s rise from unknown North Carolina guard who played in the shadows of Sam Perkins and James Worthy, to basketball’s Greatest of All Time (GOAT) and the most consequential athlete of my generation.

With those admissions and declarations, I’ve found the periodic suggestions of LeBron James challenging Jordan for the NBA’s throne quite irritating.  But with James’s most recent playoff run, again with a cobbled together band of nondescript session performers, another Jordan vs. James debate has started.

A resume review should end the conversation quickly.  Here’s the scoreboard, with Jordan’s count first, followed by James’s.  Championships: six to three.  NBA MVP awards: five to four.  NBA Finals MVP awards: six to three.  NBA All-Defensive First Team: nine to five.   

Let’s go deeper.  Jordan’s 6-0 in the NBA Finals.  James is 3-5.  What’s more, James has often shown indications of competitive anxiety at the biggest moments of the biggest games.  Jordan had not one discernible trace of fear on the court – ever.  You want to give James extra credit for more Finals appearances?  Fine…but then acknowledge that he has feasted on a pathetic Eastern Conference for his entire career.  Meanwhile Jordan had to overcome the Bad Boy Pistons, Patrick Ewing’s Knicks and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic, among others.  And then there’s this: if you had to win one game and had to choose between peak Jordan or any version of James, Jordan would be the majority’s choice. 
Debate.  Over. 

Well…sorta.  There are other data points.  If the criteria was expanded beyond basketball accomplishments, James surges.  Jordan wasn’t a great husband, was notoriously ruthless to his teammates and, for all his fame and potential influence, chose not to engage socially or politically.  On the other hand, James is, by all accounts, a solid husband and father, a good teammate and has shown a willingness, despite rude admonishments to “shut up and dribble”, to engage on social causes.

This isn’t an argument for James over Jordan.  James just isn’t of Jordan’s basketball ilk at this point.  I’m fortunate that’s the case because I’m resistant to even consider ranking James over Jordan.  The truth is the gap is closing and narrower than I’m ready to admit. 

Why the reluctance?  If wrapped in Wonder Woman’s truth lasso, I’d offer this response: I’m biased.  A cognitive corruption has stolen my objective analytical ability.  As a basketball player, I value Jordan more than James.  It’s not that I dislike James – quite the contrary…I’ve defended him many times in this column over the years – it is simply that Jordan is the icon of my youth.  He made an impression on me at very impressionable ages.  I don’t want his standard of greatness to be challenged; I want James to leave my adolescence alone.

This bias is likely shared with other Jordan supporters of my vintage; similarly, more youthful basketball fans may be inclined to argue for James.  Bias can be based on just about anything.  It creeps into your mind, clouds your judgement and skews reality.  We are all capable of it, and it’s habit-forming.  When debating such things as basketball’s best, it’s benign; in life, biases can be misleading and fundamentally wrong.  The trick then, is to be more conscious of their formation and, most importantly, to consistently identify that important line between silly debates and things that really matter. 

To that end, I’ll prepare myself for an objective Jordan vs. James discussion.  But not yet.  Jordan’s still the GOAT - for now.

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