Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 23:02
This past weekend Michael Jordan turned 50 years old. It’s important out of simple respect for the greatest of all time that we reflect on not only the legendary career that Jordan had, but also the undying legacy that has only grown since the end of his playing days. I never saw Jordan play—I can’t talk about him like I was there. But maybe that’s what makes his legacy all the more elusive for our generation. For me, Jordan is a mythical figure, something the league and even the world will never see again.
With his milestone birthday also comes the inevitable comparisons. Is Kobe Bryant, “Like Mike”? Is LeBron James better than His Airness? But make no mistake, neither Kobe or LeBron compare to Jordan, nor will anyone ever, simply because Jordan did it first. Jordan is the trailblazer, the athlete who changed the sports world forever. He led the league in scoring for 10 straight years and also became the model for the “two-way player,” as he would become a perennial member of the NBA’s All Defensive Team. Jordan won six championships, in all of which he was the Finals MVP. He was also named NBA MVP five times. But the impact Jordan had on the game goes beyond his mind-boggling numbers and seemingly countless championships. Jordan changed the very concept of the professional athlete forever.
Jordan wasn’t the first athlete to sign a shoe deal. Nor was he the first athlete to buy an expensive car or live in a gargantuan house. However, Jordan was the first to become a brand, hence Jordan brand, not simply be affiliated with one. When he signed with Nike he didn’t just wear their shoes. He was their shoe, having them specifically tailored to fit his skill set and personal preferences while ultimately maintaining their marketability—something all professional athletes strive for today. When Nike signed Jordan, they offered him $500,000. The previous largest shoe contract was James Worthy’s $150,000 New Balance deal. Jordan even singlehandedly led an exodus from the classic NBA short-shorts to the longer knee cut shorts of today. Kobe and LeBron both have their own Nike shoes and clothing lines, but they pale in comparison to the size and stature of Jordan Brand. The Jordan brand relishes in its status symbol, the seeming mark of “class” in the basketball world. The Jordan name in shoes is one of superiority like Mercedes Benz in automobiles or Rolex in watches, and is synonymous with the way Jordan played the game and saw the game. There was him, and there was everyone else.
But Jordan could never have become the iconic figure that he is without backing it up on the court. In his initial contract, if Jordan did not become Rookie of the Year, an NBA All Star, or average 20 points per game, Nike had the right to terminate his contract. But that was never in doubt. Jordan accomplished all three in his rookie season, never leaving in doubt that he was in fact the real deal. Jordan would go on to be the model for all future NBA phenoms, with the likes of LeBron, Kobe, Dwayne Wade, and Penny Hardaway all being dubbed “the next Michael Jordan” upon their entrance to the league.
Of that exclusive group, Kobe undoubtedly is the closest comparison. Similar in stature and playing style, Kobe and Jordan both share similar career numbers and championship totals, with Kobe falling one short of Jordan’s six. But the thing that Kobe shares with Jordan that may not be as apparent in LeBron is their unrelenting competitive nature. The statistic that is most impressive to me is that Michael Jordan never lost in the NBA Finals. In his six trips, Jordan never lost. It is obvious that Jordan not only wanted to win, but he wanted to be the reason they won. Kobe has won five out of his seven trips to the finals, but LeBron has only won once in his three trips to the finals.
As Kobe’s career winds down, the Jordan comparisons have mostly been passed on to LeBron. In the past these have been welcomed—LeBron seemed to enjoy the fact that people speculated who the greatest truly was. But as recently as last week LeBron tweeted, “I’m not MJ, I’m LJ.” To me, this is a concession from LeBron, an admittance of defeat. As LeBron quickly approaches 30 with only one championship, it sounds like LeBron has given up. He seems to be acknowledging that he will never be Jordan or surpass Jordan, and he just showed us why MJ built his legacy in a non-digital age, he didn’t build his legacy through Facebook or Twitter, he said it all on the court, and everyone heard him, loud and clear. Jordan wouldn’t have conceded like LeBron. He probably would have tweeted something like, “I’m not LJ, and I’m better.” And that is why he is the greatest. Happy Birthday MJ, long live “the King”.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.