HOUSTON -- Ten years of retirement have colored our understanding of Michael Jordan’s infamous drive in a way six rings, six NBA Finals MVPs and five regular-season MVPs never could.
Because since stepping away, for a third time in 2003, Jordan has made it clear that he isn’t content with having dominated his generation and earning superiority over every player up to that point. He wants to beat any current player that challenges that unquestioned supremacy, whether it be now or 30 years from now.
In the speech for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, an event to honor his past accomplishments, Jordan spent some 23 minutes coarsely dispelling any debates that have persisted since he hung it up, like Bryon Russell being able to stop him, and even joked that you might see him playing professional basketball at 50 -- an attempt at humor that came off more as a boast about what he’s capable of.
Jordan, who turns 50 years old today, hasn’t gone as far as to suit up again, but he is indeed battling today’s players, if only in his own head, as we found out in Wright Thompson’s illuminating profile of him:
Jordan plays his new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be as successful in his era. “Our era,” he says, over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he’ll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation’s players.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he says. “I can only come up with four.”
He lists them, with explanations: LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki. As he’s making his argument, [his finacee, Yvette Prieto] walks into the living room area, and in a tone of voice familiar to every husband who argues sports with his buddies, asks, “You guys need anything?”
When someone on television compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. “It’s absolutely ... ,” he says, catching himself. “The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he’s playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game. ... That’s not a fair comparison. That’s not right. ... Now, could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No.”
Jordan is correct: It is not a fair comparison.
It is an impossible comparison.
One that even Hall of Famers from the same era wouldn’t make.
“The thing is we’ll never know,” Dominique Wilkins told me. “My thing is, I hate comparisons and those sort of things. But those ‘80s and early ‘90s were just a brutal time to play basketball physically. It was a physical league. And the guys played more natural positions -- a 2 played the 2, a 3 played the 3. And guys were big, physical guys. It was a little different then.
“But LeBron James is a monster. He can play. And he’s kind of that throwback kind of player. But you look at that era, and the way the defenses were played, it made it difficult not for guys to have high-scoring efforts, but high-scoring percentages.
“But LeBron would have been great in any -- any -- era. Period.”
You can argue, like Nique does, that Jordan’s NBA was more physically taxing because it was played before the hand-checking rules. And for the other side, you can point to the advancements of today’s athletes. But until we make major advancements in the technology that brought Tupac back from the dead at last year’s Coachella festival and pit in-their-prime holograms against each other, there’s no way to settle this.
And that powerlessness, for one of the most powerful and influential persons in the world, has led to today’s Jordan. This cannot be solved with a last-second jumper or a steal, and so Jordan blankets himself in nostalgia and largely secludes himself from the rational world.
This is not about Michael versus LeBron. It’s about Michael versus his own mortality.
For once, Michael is losing.
And it seems to be affecting today’s league as much as any of his accomplishments.
In the midst of one of his most trying experiences, Kobe Bryant, a player who’s seen as most driven to match Mike’s drive, has found some sort of zen, at least for now. And it’s refreshing to hear LeBron dismiss talk of rings defining a player’s worth and focusing on “maximizing my potential” rather than trying to adhere to the bar anyone’s set for him.
LeBron clearly has the type of drive that spurred on Jordan’s greatness. He’s just not letting it consume him anymore, not after what happened in his first season in Miami, when he said he retreated to a more bitter, angry state.
Be like Mike?
Being LeBron seems way more fun.