GOATs on GOATs: LeBron and MJ in their own words through the years


Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 14, 2019.

Stop us if you've heard this before: Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. Six championships. Count 'em. OK, stop us if you've also heard this: LeBron James is the GOAT. The King is simply bigger and stronger, and he has done it longer.

The two never faced off in an NBA game. Jordan played his last game for the Washington Wizards on April 16, 2003 -- two months before the Cleveland Cavaliers made James the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But their paths have been linked for as long as we can remember -- and crossed again March 6 at Staples Center as James passed Jordan for fourth on the all-time scoring list.

So who is the real GOAT? The debate rages on. On your television. In the comments section. In your Twitter replies.

But it doesn't matter what we say. Here are Jordan and James, in their own words, talking about each other over the past 17 years.

2001: The first meeting

LeBron James was a young high school star who had yet to make his big impression on the national stage when he first met Michael Jordan, who was preparing for a comeback with the Wizards. James spoke about that first meeting this past December as he prepared to play the Jordan-owned Hornets in Charlotte.

LeBron: First time meeting Jordan was 'godly'

LeBron James reminisces about the first time he met Michael Jordan in 2001.

"It was godly. I've said that over and over before, but it was like meeting God for the first time. That's what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.
-- LeBron James
Dec. 15, 2018 (Source: Multiple, pregame media availability)

2002: LeBron hits the scene

Just a year later, James himself was getting compared to deities, being dubbed "The Chosen One" on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" as a junior in high school.

"He's very talented. But he's young, and there's a lot of things he doesn't know."
-- Michael Jordan
Jan. 18, 2002 (Source: Associated Press)

"If you have a chance to talk to him, you listen. More people listen to him than listen to the president of the United States."
-- LeBron James
Nov. 5, 2002 (Source: Newhouse News Services)

2003: Jordan exits, James enters

"Is he capable? Yes. He has the skills that most 18-year-olds do not have. Now, if you equate that to playing in the league, I think he would be an average player in our league right now with the potential to be a better player. To say that he can step in at the same level as a Tracy McGrady or a Kobe Bryant would be unfair to LeBron James."
-- Michael Jordan
Feb. 4, 2003 (Source: MSG Network)

"Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever and ... if anybody in the world can criticize somebody, it can be Michael Jordan. There's no way I'm going to get mad at Michael Jordan criticizing me. There's no way. Michael Jordan is like a dad. If Michael Jordan is going to tell anybody to do something -- the players, the media, the coaches -- you should do it. Simple as that."
-- LeBron James
April 16, 2003 (Source: Associated Press)

"I'm not going to be able to do it the way Jordan did, I can tell you that. I think I can produce enough, contribute enough, on and off the court, to lift the city of Cleveland."
-- LeBron James
June 27, 2003 (Source: New York Post)

A changing of the guard was taking place, whether Jordan wanted to acknowledge it or not. Jordan played his final game as a member of the Wizards on April 16, 2003. Two months later, James was selected No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers, a team Jordan famously tormented during his NBA career. The next generation had arrived.

Before his first game as a professional at Chicago's United Center -- The House That MJ Built -- James tried to downplay the comparisons.

"I'm not trying to be Jordan. I'm not trying to compare myself to Jordan or Magic [Johnson] or [Larry] Bird. A lot of people are, but I'm not. They have their own legacies. I'm trying to build my own. I know Michael, but I don't communicate with him. I'm just trying to be me."
-- LeBron James
Dec. 19, 2003 (Source: Chicago Sun Times)

2004-2006: James on the rise

Though James downplayed the Jordan comparison, he was forced to face it again in 2004, when he made his Team USA debut -- wearing the same No. 9 that Jordan had worn with the Dream Team.

"It didn't matter what I said, I knew you guys would make that connection anyway. That was the greatest basketball team of all time."
-- LeBron James
Aug. 13, 2004 (Source: The Record -- of Bergen County, New Jersey)

"I think he's doing fine on his own. Obviously, you guys are comparing him with me. They did it with me when I came up with [Julius Erving] and Oscar [Robertson]. But I think the thing about LeBron and what makes him hopefully survive is that he does what's best for LeBron, not what people expect him to do, who think he should be Michael Jordan."
-- Michael Jordan
Feb. 10, 2005 (Source: New York Daily News)

"I've seen classic games of Jordan versus the Pistons and the Bulls versus the Pistons. To become the best, you've got to beat the best. It might not happen the first year or the second year or third year, but you just got to keep working at it and, hopefully, you'll get over that hump. [Jordan] was able to overcome adversity and overcome the beast. He became the beast."
-- LeBron James
May 9, 2006 (Source: The Globe and Mail, Canada)

Those classic Pistons-Bulls clashes -- four series from 1988 to 1991 -- saw Detroit's rough-and-tumble "Jordan Rules" blitz and bruise the Bulls star with a defensive scheme now outlawed. The Pistons overcame Chicago until Jordan got over the hump in 1991. Before Game 2 of the 2006 Eastern Conference semis during James' first postseason, James considered the obstacle of the modern Bad Boys, a Pistons championship group that would make six straight conference finals from 2003 to 2008. James, it turned out, was a year away.

2007: LeBron makes 'The Leap'

On This Date: LeBron scores Cavs' final 25 points

On May 31, 2007, LeBron James scored 48 points as Cleveland beat Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, James put on a Jordanesque show, scoring the Cavaliers' final 25 points to lift them to a double-overtime win. Two days later, Cleveland reached its first NBA Finals by eliminating the Pistons, the same team Jordan had gotten past to reach his first Finals in 1991. Though James and the Cavs would end up being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals, Jordan was complimentary of James' accomplishments ... to an extent.

"What just transpired was something I felt was needed for the league, was needed for Cleveland, was needed for LeBron. Making 'The Leap' is where you do it every single night. It's expected of you, and you do it. ... Not one game, not two games. It's consistent. Every defense comes in and they focus on you and you still impact the game. I think he's shown signs of that."
-- Michael Jordan
June 4, 2007 (Source: Chicago Tribune)

"Anytime you get praise from the guy who basically laid down all the stones for you to get here -- I grew up idolizing his game and how he played the game of basketball -- it was definitely great to hear."
-- LeBron James
June 4, 2007 (Source: Associated Press)

2008-2009: LeBron strikes out on his own

"I'm a totally different player than Michael Jordan. As far as the next Jordan, there is no such thing. There's one Michael Jordan and only one, and no one compares with him."
-- LeBron James
March 6, 2008 (Source: Chicago Tribune)

Flashback: LeBron sinks Magic with dramatic buzzer-beater

LeBron James nails a 3-pointer over Hedo Turkoglu as time expires to give the Cavaliers a 96-95 win over the Magic in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.

"That guy is not in the league anymore. The other 23 is on the good side now."
-- LeBron James
May 22, 2009 (Source: Associated Press)

Of course, Jordan had been retired for six years, but the memories of his dominance hadn't faded, especially in Cleveland. That's why when James hit what he called the biggest shot of his career to that point, a buzzer-beating 3 over Hedo Turkoglu to beat the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern finals, the hometown hero said it was out of his "Michael Jordan bag of tricks." But the Cavs would go on to lose the series in six games.

2009-2010: The Decision and the aftermath

"He's made his mark in Cleveland. I know New York fans would love to have him, but you need a lot more components than just one player. He's done a heck of a job in Cleveland, and they deserve to have him there."
-- Michael Jordan
June 13, 2009 (Source: New York Daily News)

"In a fantasy world, there are a lot of guys in the NBA you would love to see who could you be on the same team and see how you match up with the rest of the NBA. Not just myself, everybody in the league has visualized playing with somebody, even guys who are not in the league anymore. I visualized playing alongside Michael Jordan when I was a kid. Everyone has that vision."
-- LeBron James
Nov. 12, 2009 (Source: Toronto Star Newspapers)

"It's time. He's the best basketball player we've ever seen. Mike does it on the court and off the court. If you see 23, you think about Michael Jordan. You see guys flying through the air, you think about Michael Jordan. You see game-winning shots, you think about Michael Jordan. You see fly kicks, you think about Michael Jordan. He did so much, it has to be recognized, and not just by putting him in the Hall of Fame. He can't get the logo, and if he can't, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23. Nobody. If I'm not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it."
-- LeBron James
Nov. 12, 2009 (Source: TNT)

In retrospect, James' comments before and after that Nov. 12 game in Miami -- a game Jordan watched from a courtside seat -- should've been a sign. James talked about teaming up with "a lot of guys" (perhaps his good friend Dwyane Wade, for example), then said Jordan's 23 should be retired leaguewide -- like it already was in Miami, though Jordan never played for the Heat. James wore No. 6 during his time in Miami.

"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.' But that's ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."
-- Michael Jordan
July 18, 2010 (Source: NBC)

In an interview that aired 10 days after "The Decision," Jordan made it clear where he stood on James teaming up with Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. It was in line with many of James' critics who believed the NBA's best should be playing against one another.

2011: LeBron's Finals failure

Scottie Pippen, Jordan's co-star for six titles, had said that James could, someday, be better than Jordan. At 26 years old, James already had developed into one of the best all-around players in NBA history.

"I'm gracious. Humbled by Scottie's comments, especially with him being a teammate of his and seeing Michael on a day-to-day basis. But as far as me, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm better than Jordan. I'm not better than Jordan."
-- LeBron James
May 28, 2011 (Source: Associated Press)

Ten days after these comments, James would have perhaps the worst game of his career: a deer-in-the-headlights, eight-point stinker in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Heat would lose to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.

2012-2013: Count the rings?

"Jordan was my superhero growing up. He was the guy I feel helped me get to where I am today. As a competitor, who would not want to go against the best? That's like asking [Tom] Brady would he want to go against [Joe] Montana in the fourth quarter."
-- LeBron James
Dec. 6, 2012 (Source: Sports Illustrated)

James might have won his first title in 2012, but he still had a long way to go in Jordan's eyes. When asked which player he would choose if he was starting a team from scratch, James or Kobe Bryant, Jordan sided with the Lakers star, who already had a fistful of rings -- though still one less than Jordan himself.

"If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice, but five beats one every time I look at it. And not that [James] won't get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one."
-- Michael Jordan
Feb. 15, 2013 (Source: NBA TV)

"At the end of the day, rings don't always define someone's career. If that's the case, then I'd sit up here and say I'd take [Bill] Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn't take Russell over Jordan. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six. Or I'd take Robert Horry over Kobe. I wouldn't do that. ... You look at a guy like Jud Buechler, who has multiple rings. Charles Barkley doesn't have one ring. He's not better than Charles Barkley. Patrick Ewing is one of the greatest of all time. Reggie Miller is one of the greatest of all time. Sometimes, it's the situation you're in. Timing, as well. I don't play the game and try to define who I am over what guys say or how they feel about me."
-- LeBron James
Feb. 16, 2013 (Source: New York Post)

2013-2015: The debate heats up

"If I have to guard him, I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10 he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."
-- Michael Jordan
Feb. 22, 2013 (Source: ESPN's Wright Thompson)

Like the ring-counting argument, James didn't side with Jordan here, either, calling Jordan's theory "wrong." Two weeks after Jordan's comments were published, James beat the Magic with a buzzer-beating layup off a drive to his left. James then did the same to Paul George two months later to win Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Was Jordan on his mind? We'll never know.

"I watch Jordan more than anybody; for sure, MJ wasn't perfect. MJ had bad games. He had turnovers. He had games where he felt like he should have been better. But I think the greatest thing about MJ was that he never was afraid to fail. And I think that's why he succeeded so much, because he was never afraid of what anybody ever said about him. Never afraid to miss a game-winning shot, never afraid to turn the ball over. Never afraid. That's one of my biggest obstacles. I'm afraid of failure. I want to succeed so bad that I become afraid of failing."
-- LeBron James
Oct. 19, 2013 (Source: ESPN)

Though James and Jordan never met on the court as opponents, they've been in the same building plenty of times, including during the 2014 playoffs, when James' Heat swept the Jordan-owned Charlotte Bobcats in the first round. During Game 3, Jordan had a courtside view for a vintage James breakaway dunk, one that seemed to follow James shooting a look at Jordan.

"No, no. Don't start that. Absolutely not, man. Absolutely not. I was able to read [Josh] McRoberts, get a steal and push the lead back up. I absolutely didn't look at MJ, for sure."
-- LeBron James
April 26, 2014 (Source: The Charlotte Observer)

"Why you guys ask me this question? You know this is an ESPN question. You know it's gonna be all over ESPN. If I was in my prime, could I beat LeBron in a one-on-one game? No question!"
-- Michael Jordan
Aug. 10, 2015 (Source: Bay Area HQ via MJ Flight School Camp)

Jordan was holding court with attendees at his Flight School camp when the question came up -- though it's unlikely it was the first time he was asked about it. We'll never know the results of a hypothetical matchup, but we can at least check out the tale of the tape:

2016: Chasing ghosts

"My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing. The ghost played in Chicago. ... I think it's cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary."
-- LeBron James
Aug. 2, 2016 (Source: Sports Illustrated)

One day before his 32nd birthday, James was asked by a reporter if he studied a 32-year-old Jordan, whose game had evolved from all fire and fury at the rim to more fadeaways and jab steps. Jordan, as the reporter pointed out, last averaged over 30.0 points per game in his age-32 season. James didn't bite.

"No, I haven't [studied Jordan], because our games are so different. He was much more of a scorer. At that point, he did a lot of post work, but our games are just different. His body is different, my body is different than his. You recognize the dominance that someone had at that age, but there's no similarities in our game, at all."
-- LeBron James
Dec. 29, 2016 (Source: Cavs.com)

2017-2018: Mutual respect

"I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just seeing what he was able to accomplish. When you're growing up and you're seeing Michael Jordan, it's almost like a god. So, I didn't ever believe I could be Mike. I started to focus on myself, on other players and other people around my neighborhood, because I never thought that you could get to a point where Mike was. I shot fadeaways before I should have. I wore a leg sleeve on my leg and folded it down so you saw the red part. I wore black-and-red shoes with white socks. I wore short shorts so you could see my undershorts underneath. I didn't go bald like Mike, but I'm getting there. Other than that, I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm. I didn't do the hoop earring, either. That was Mike. But I did everything Mike did, man. I wanted to be Mike, so for my name to come up in any discussion with Michael Jordan or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] ... it's a wow factor."
-- LeBron James
May 26, 2017 (Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer)

"I support LeBron James. He's doing an amazing job for his community."
-- Michael Jordan
Aug. 4, 2018 (Source: NBC News)

After the beef between James and President Donald Trump -- Trump tweeted that CNN anchor Don Lemon "made LeBron look smart, which isn't easy to do. I like Mike!" -- Jordan backed James, who has been a loud and frequent critic of the president. While Jordan mostly stayed quiet on political issues during his playing career, his level of involvement has increased in recent years.

"MJ made the game global. He made the game global. He made people all over the world want to watch the game of basketball because of his marketability, because of the way he played the game of basketball, because of who he was. He kind of transcended that era."
-- LeBron James
Dec. 15, 2018 (Source: ESPN)

2018: The last word?

LeBron feels he's the GOAT after Cavs' 2016 title win.

In the latest episode of "More Than An Athlete," LeBron James says his historic 2016 NBA Finals win made him the greatest player ever. Go to ESPN+ and subscribe now to view full episodes.

"That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That's what I felt. I was super, super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year drought. ... The first wave of emotion was when everyone saw me crying, like, that was all for 52 years of everything in sports that's gone on in Cleveland. And then after I stopped, I was like -- that one right there made you the greatest player of all time."
-- LeBron James
Dec. 30, 2018 (Source: "More Than An Athlete," ESPN+)