GOAT

05.15.14

LeBron James Is a Better Leader Than Michael Jordan Ever Was

M.J. was famously apolitical, only using his fame to build his brand. L.B.J. started that way and then grew into a figure who now threatens to strike if Donald Sterling remains.

LeBron James was having one of those nights. Dwyane Wade was struggling mightily, so James grabbed his team’s offense by the scruff of its collar and single-handedly eviscerated the Brooklyn Nets, banging home 49 points—a total that exceeded that of the other four Heat starters and their top weapon off the bench, Ray Allen.

He was nigh unstoppable on Monday, sneering, scowling, and bulling his way into the paint time and time again, on his way to hitting a reality-warping 11 of 12 shots in the restricted area. Even without the ball in his hands, whether you want to single out his incredible court vision, his rugged rebounding or his ability to shut down centers and point guards alike, he was a dominant, otherworldly force.

He shot a dazzling 16 of 24 from the field, snagged six rebounds and three steals, as the Heat took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Nets in their second round playoff series.

James actually had a chance to hit the magic number of 50, but he bricked a free throw with 1.1 seconds left and the outcome already decided. Still, he tied his career playoff high with 49 points, previously set in 2009 in the midst of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

He wasn’t as much of a human wrecking ball in the series-ending win on Wednesday night, but he still scored six of Miami’s final 13 points and was the linchpin of a throttling defense that held Brooklyn to just three points in total over the final 4:48 of the game.

And with Miami clinging to a two-point lead with 4.4 seconds to go, James—with an assist from Ray Allen—stripped the ball from a scorching-hot Joe Johnson to send Brooklyn home for the year.

Monday marked the seventh career playoff games for James with at least 45 points, ranking him third behind Wilt Chamberlain (eight) and Michael Jordan (23).

Speaking of His Airness, in a particularly Jordan-esque flourish, with score knotted at 94-all with 57.3 ticks left on the clock, James drove to the hoop, found himself surrounded and—instead of forcing up a contested heave—smartly kicked the rock out to Mario Chalmers at the top of the key. The ball then swung to a wide-open Chris Bosh for a corner three that gave Miami the lead for good.

While James has certainly followed Jordan’s footsteps with regards to building a worldwide brand, as he’s aged he has deviated from the formula.

James may not have received an assist on the play but on a night when he was at his dominant best, it’s hard not to recall Jordan similarly passing to such unlikely heroes as Steve Kerr, John Paxson, and Bill Wennington with the outcome on the line.

As Harvey Araton of The New York Times wrote, “It was much like one of those great New York pro basketball nights in the 1990s, when the best player on the planet would bring down the house and, on very special occasions, close it down for the season as well.”

The nods to Jordan are nothing new. James has been evaluated in relation to the herculean standards set by Jordan since the former’s image was plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the ripe old age of 17 above the not-at-all-burdensome headline proclaiming that he was “The Chosen One.”

The accompanying article even leads with a detailed account of Jordan casually chatting up James before a Cavaliers-Wizards game, and equates said encounter to a teenage Bill Clinton meeting John F. Kennedy. 

As a player, James hasn’t surpassed Jordan yet. And whether you prefer to compare the totals amassed during the first 11 seasons of their careers, or the all-important “Ringzzz” (Jordan has six to James’s two), there is one arena in which James has topped the man he wants to dethrone as the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time.

On a night when many basketball fans were manically flipping dials between a thrilling game and Donald Sterling’s bewildering CNN interview, it’s worth noting that James has become the moral leader of the NBA.

In an interview with Jim Rome, the vice president of the NBA Players Association, Roger Mason Jr., declared, “If it’s not handled by… the start of next season, I don’t see how we’re playing basketball. I was just in the locker room with LeBron… At the end of the day, you know we have leaders. We have player reps, we’ve got executive committee members… Leaders of the teams, they’re all saying the same thing, ‘If this man is still in place, we ain’t playing.’”

When Rome followed up by asking Mason to confirm that James was on board, Mason reiterated: “I was just in the locker room three or four days ago. LeBron and I talked about it. He ain’t playing if Sterling is still an owner.”

James has since distanced himself from Mason’s comments, though he didn’t rule out the possibility entirely.

“There is a more in-depth, longer conversation that needs to be discussed,” he said. “I can’t just sit here and answer for all 15 guys (on the Heat), ‘Hey we’re going to sit out the season and you guys are going to be okay with it. “There’s a longer conversation that needs to be held which I don’t have all the information for, obviously. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens in the near future. And like I said, I believe in Adam Silver and I believe in our league and the direction they’re going I don’t need to worry about anything else and boycotting and things of that nature.”

There’s absolutely zero chance that Michael Jordan would ever endorse a wildcat strike. He’s always been incredibly careful not to say anything that might interfere with the massive marketing apparatus that he built or could in any way give the perception that the entire totality of his being wasn’t focused on destroying any and all opponents in his path on the court.

In 1990, he was asked to support the progressive black mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, who was challenging an icon of racial animosity in Jesse Helms. As Nike’s chief pitchman, Jordan famously refused to give his endorsement because “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

While James has certainly followed Jordan’s footsteps with regards to building a worldwide brand, as he’s aged he has deviated from the formula, saying and doing things that his various corporate partners are probably not entirely thrilled with.

This wasn’t always the case, and the turning point for James’s political awakening appears to have been the election of Barack Obama.

Prior to 2008, James caught a bit of flack for refusing to sign a petition that was organized by then-teammate Ira Newble in response to the genocide in Darfur. People claimed that James, like Jordan before him, was siding with Nike’s business interests.

He then began to dip his toes into the treacherous political waters by donating $20,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund, a joint committee set up by Obama and the Democratic Party for the presidential race.

From there, in a 2009 interview with Maxim magazine, he was asked who one individual he’d most like to dunk on. Shockingly, he didn’t say Jordan, or Bill Russell, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or any former NBA legends. Instead, he brazenly said, “If it doesn’t have to be a basketball player, George W. Bush. I would dunk on his ass, break the rim, and shatter the glass.”

As a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, James led the Miami Heat’s response to the controversy, taking a photo of the entire team wearing hoodies, and sending it out on Twitter and Instagram with “#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.”

Shortly afterwards, they took the court with the messages “RIP Trayvon Martin” and again “We want justice” written on their, yes, Nikes. 

Recently, he’s continued his advocacy for President Obama’s policies, shooting a clip with Michelle Obama to support her Let’s Move campaign, and filming a 30-second public service announcement to encourage young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act.

Regardless of the potential to alienate a huge segment of his admirers, James made it clear that he didn’t care, choosing to stand by his principles. “I mean, I can’t worry about that," James said. “Especially who I am. I mean, I know that everything that I do is going to be bigger than what it should be or blown out of proportion. But what I believe in and the people that I support is what it’s all about. So, I can sleep comfortably at night.”

That’s a fairly startling transformation for James, especially when you consider the fact that he was more or less considered the biggest villain in the sport as recently as three years ago. “The Decision,” a ham-fisted, clumsily-staged, self-aggrandizing media event made him look painfully self-involved and unaware; James looked like the kind of guy that couldn’t care less about the legion of devoted fans in his home state that he was basically kicking in the groin as he walked out the door.

After losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals—a series in which pretty much every fan outside of the greater Miami area was rooting against him—he lashed out at his critics in a truly tone-deaf, narcissistic screed. “People that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.”

“So they can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they got to get back to the real world at some point."

Yeah, that was ugly. “Ha, ha. I’m LeBron James and you’re not,” is probably not the best rhetorical stance to take if you want to win friends and influence people.

So what caused this sea change? Well, it’s partly a question of a human being—even one that’s been a celebrity since well before he was old enough to vote—growing up and, like all of us, deciding what he values in the world.

The 22-year-old player that slung the prejudiced trope that closeted gays are somehow deserving of suspicion, saying of John Amaechi’s decision to come out post-career, “With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy," is not the 29-year-old man that cheered Jason Collins, asserting, “I think it’s very noble on his part. I think it’s a strong thing to do, and I think as NBA players, we all offer him our support.” 

It’s also a question of the changing political climate. As Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote: “Michael Jordan came of age in a very different era: 1980s, 1990s, globalization, brand expansion, all of these things. And I think the time we’re living in now is very different … you’re talking about a situation where only a very small group of opinion makers dominated in sports, and they gave him a pass on that, and they really controlled mass consumption of political opinions about sports. And these sports columnists, there were usually one or two in every city who had the most power; they changed about as often as popes. They would hold onto those jobs forever.”

Jordan’s not immune to the shifting winds either. After the original tape of Sterling was made public, he was one of the first owners to denounce him and demand his ouster.  

None of this makes James this generation’s Muhammad Ali, but one thing is certain: LeBron James is one of the most outspoken, political athletes in the United States. And if Sterling does manage to drag whatever ill-considered litigation he has planned into November, James will not only be the best since Jordan hung up his Nikes, it's possible he'll become the biggest, most famous labor leader in the country too.