Before supplanting Michael Jordan as the N.B.A.’s career playoff scoring leader while cementing an extraordinary seventh straight trip to the league finals, LeBron James pleaded for comparative restraint, for a focus on the here (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) and now (Game 1, Thursday night).
It’s all about the ring, about Cleveland and Golden State.
The Jordan-versus-James debate, he said, is only “great for barbershops.” Bar stools, too, and press boxes.
But with a keen sense of the real world, James understands that the Jordan argument is not for him to make, because it’s one he can’t win, even should he engineer a second straight upset of the Warriors.
Jordan, a six-time champion, is a historic figure whose imperfections have been blurred or whitewashed by time. James, a three-time titlist, operates in a more polarized environment that breeds stubborn and even illogical resentments he is loath to counter by mimicking Jordan’s down-the-middle marketing brand.
Make the strongest case for James to be conferred a more widespread Jordanian acclaim, and it will inevitably fall upon a healthy percentage of deaf ears.
No drugs, no gambling, no known domestic issues, but there’s still something that prevents him becoming that all-around hero,’’ said Charles Grantham, who guided the National Basketball Players Association for much of the Jordan era, and is currently the director of a sports-management program at Seton Hall.
He added, “But the times are different, too, and you have to give credence to that.”
To begin with, James is confronting millions of fans unlikely to abandon the belief that what they witnessed in their most rabid rooting years is unmatchable.
Go argue with the Wall Street banker who watched Jordan drop 55 on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in the fifth game of a March 1995 comeback after nearly two basketball-free years. Try to convince the “Space Jam” generation that Jordan really couldn’t stretch his limbs beyond the limits of human capability.
“Almost a god” is the way James described his own adoration of Jordan when he was an 11-year-old in 1996 — the year when “Space Jam,” the part-animation film starring Jordan and the Looney Tunes cast, opened.
There is also a significant difference in the way Jordan and James have been physically perceived. Jordan, at 6 feet 6 inches, took the baton from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and blew away the longstanding conviction that basketball was, and always would be, dominated by the tallest of the tall.
At 6-8, with about a 30-pound edge on the midcareer Michael, James entered the league as a muscular 19-year-old who quickly redefined the corporal attributes of the multidimensional star.
He emerged as a hybrid of Magic and Michael, with some Karl Malone, too. And as Grantham said, “He has leveraged his talent and power, on court and off.”
That James dictated the terms of his preps-to-pros arrival separated him immediately from Jordan, who played by the established rules. He remained in college for three years. Excluding a comeback with Washington three years after leaving the Bulls, he never challenged the league’s preference for its stars to stay with their original teams, and he did not venture into front-office moves. He mostly refused to take stands against political or social malfeasance.
Those were his choices, his values, his right. Again, in a different cultural setting, abetted by social media, James has created his own operational paradigm. He has weaponized free agency, or the mere threat of it, orchestrated his departures, staged his decisions.
He has thrust himself into the realm of labor management and managed to bathe in corporate coffers while shedding the contractual restraints that were wholly accepted by Jordan.
“LeBron James has drawn up the blueprint for not being muzzled, bridled or led around,” said Len Elmore, who, after his playing career, has been a player agent, the director of the National Basketball Retired Players Association and a television analyst.
“We’re in a different era now than when Michael played, and LeBron has had smarter advisers, more tools. That’s frightening or alienating for people who find it distasteful for a young guy — and one without a college education — to be wielding that kind of power, especially on the political side.”
Yes, James has spoken out on polarizing sociopolitical issues and even attached himself to Hillary Clinton near the end of her presidential campaign. But many other N.B.A. personalities have participated in raising the league’s profile in that regard.
And while Grantham said, “There’s always a racial component to factor into these things,” he, like Elmore, agreed that the resistance to James was more rooted in other factors.
“In sports, you go back to the whole amateur-versus-professional issue, the denial of these young players’ earning potential in order to keep product and price under control,” Grantham said. “The colleges cash in, the value of the pro franchises skyrocket, but if the players try to fight for what they are worth, many fans can’t believe what they are complaining about.”
In effect, he was saying that more than Curry, more than Durant and certainly more than Jordan, the hero that is James may always have an antihero partner running parallel because that’s his burden, and his cause.