Ever since Scottie Pippen said “LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game” he’s been called every variation of a blaspheme. How could the man who played alongside Michael Jordan and won six NBA Championships for his troubles utter such a thing, out loud?
Sports commentators have the luxury of citing the fact that Jordan generated billions of dollars, dominated the league for a decade and had more team and individual accomplishments than anyone else in the last 40 years. But that’s not the only way to determine if someone is one of the most important people in sports. As we watch LeBron play in his second NBA Finals at 26-years old (Jordan didn’t reach his first until he was 28) he has already done the ‘transcendent’ basketball thing, whether the Heat win this series or not.
What makes an athlete great isn’t simply their championships, although that’s a big part of it. It’s their Story, the Passion and the Rules. You see, Jordan wasn’t great just because he won, he was great because he brought these other elements to the table, and LeBron is the only other NBA star to pull off this tri-fecta (rings coming soon) in the post-Wilt Chamberlain era.
Michael Jordan always had a great ‘story’ to go with his on-court presence. Even casual fans might’ve heard how he was cut from his varsity high school basketball team as a sophomore, but instead of sulking used that as motivation to become the greatest player ever. People love these stories, it helps create a mythical quality to the player and excite the casual and die-hard fan. And what kid growing up in the late-80’s didn’t either own or watch Come Fly With Me on repeat after school? There have been quite a few documentaries and television movies based on the “Jordan” story and America eats it up.
LeBron is doing same thing. This kid was left out in the cold by a crack-head mother, got the chance of a lifetime to play basketball at a prep-school in Akron, Ohio and made lifelong friends. After losing the state championship his junior year due to arrogance and poor planning he came back a senior and won it all showing hard work dedication and discipline. The story was so compelling that a whole documentary was made about it, as it was happening.
Nobody else has that kind of story, no matter how many rings they’ve won. Here we are at the end of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan’s careers and nobody wants to make movies about them. Yeah, Spike Lee made a one game documentary on Kobe, but we all know how wack that was.
The other legacy that Michael Jordan left in the league, that only LeBron has matched, are actual rule changes. There are only about three players in NBA history who were so dominant, that the league altered rules or coined phrases for dealing them on the court.
Wilt Chamberlain was so dominant that the NBA widened the lane, invented the ‘goaltending call’ and forced players to shoot free-throws. Teams were so terrified of Michael Jordan’s skill set that the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks invented the “Jordan Rules” to try and stop (or maim) him. Which eventually led to Phil Jackson creating the “Triangle’ Offense” to counter this strategy. Shaquille O’Neal was such a force in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that the “Hack-A-Shaq” strategy was employed to force him to hit free throws (which he was terrible at) rather than risk him dunking and posterizing another hapless defender.
Now we have LeBron, and the NBA rules have changed so much due to him that he ought to have stake in the league. On the court, the King’s infamous “hop-step” caused referees to dig through their old rule books again for the first time in years to realize that he wasn’t actually travelling. But it’s his off the court moves that has the league shaking.
Quiet as kept, the NBA’s age minimum regulations are a “LeBron rule.” Since LeBron entered the league in 2003, and lived up to the huge hype that came with him, team owners went crazy trying to get the next high school phenom. Unfortunately for them, their gambles did not pay off, prompting the league to pass a new rule outlawing players from entering the NBA draft until they were either 19 years old or a year out of high school. You didn’t see rules like this come about after Kevin Garnett, Kobe or Jermaine O’Neal were drafted out of high school.
The second “LeBron rule” could be coming later this year as the league is proposing a series of rules to make sure that no one ever pulls off what LeBron did with his “Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and “take his talents to South Beach.” Again, we didn’t see such uproar when Clyde Drexler went to the Houston Rockets, Shaq to the Los Angeles Lakers or even when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen went to the Boston Celtics.
Finally, LeBron is already Jordan’s equal when it comes to being a draw for the NBA. Not since Michael Jordan’s era has one player grabbed this much attention from the casual to the die hard fan for simply playing the game of basketball. Notice, similar to Jordan, LeBron is never in any trouble, hasn’t started any major businesses or gotten involved in politics. His primary business is self-promotion. Michael Jordan’s first game back from retirement was one of the top five highest rated events in NBA history, LeBron’s “Decision” was the third highest rated cable television event in 2010.
Miami Heat games have garnered some of the biggest ratings in years during the playoffs and going up against a big market team like the Dallas Mavericks is sure to bring even more attention.
Of course, in the end all anyone will really care about is if the LeBron and the Miami Heat can finally win a title. But even that won’t stop the legions of people who detest LeBron from coming up with some other reason to hate the guy. However, when it comes down to the ways that matter, LeBron has already matched Michael Jordan, so perhaps the debate shouldn’t be whether he is the next Michael or better than him, perhaps now it’s time to start discussing if we’ll ever see another player like LeBron James.
This article originally appeared in TheLoop21.com under the headline “NBA Finals: LeBron is already better than Jordan, without the ring.”