I am hard pressed to name another athlete who has dominated my life quite like Michael Jeffrey Jordan. You see, I was born in Chicago a few years before he arrived in town and I came of age as he himself blossomed from a college hero into a global icon. Somewhere deep inside an armoire drawer, I have a t-shirt that reads: "Sorry Sir Charlie, You Can't Be Like Mike" - a disintegrating curbside souvenir from Game 3 of the 1993 NBA finals, one of a dozen-odd Bulls games I was lucky enough to attend during the team's storybook run. When ESPN announced plans for The Last Dance documentary, I felt vindicated. Here, at last, was the Air-tight argument that would put basketball's all important greatest of all time debate to rest. LeBron James stans would have no choice but to bow down to the man who unironically calls himself "Black Jesus".
And bow down they did, according to a nationwide ESPN poll timed to coincide with Sunday's Last Dance finale. When the network surveyed 615 hoops fans to choose the better player between Jordan and James, 73% opted for the former. Jordan scored with older fans (four-to-one ) and younger ones (two-to-one). He swept all 17 voting categories on offer, the overwhelming choice to take a game-winning shot (76%) and share a drink with (65%). Even Jordan's more narrow victories in categories such as "trust to pass you the ball" (57%), "choose as a teammate" (63%) and positive off-court impact (62%) were comfortable enough. Never mind if these lopsided margins benefited from recency bias. (The polling was conducted over the weekend of episodes seven and eight, as James and his active NBA counterparts were on coronavirus lockdown.)
Rightfully, I should be basking in Jordan's mandate. But truth be told I have never been more conflicted.
When I was a kid, it was enough to take Jordan at face value. As far as I knew, he was an otherworldly basketball player whose vast skill owed as much to natural talent as sweat equity, and whose clutch gene traced to a never-say-die attitude. Sure, there were reports of him sparring with management and tangling with teammates. And sure, there was more recent evidence of him snubbing selfie-seeking rappers, stiffing kids out of free Air Jordans and doubling down on grudges in maybe the most bitter hall of fame speech ever delivered. But it was difficult to argue with the results.
Forget growing the NBA globally. Jordan was an excuse to put off homework for a few hours, a reason to get together with friends - a blissful diversion for me as my parents went through a lengthy divorce. He was an uncomplicated superstar for a relatively quiet time in history when wars were over in a month and the greatest question facing humanity was whether Ross and Rachel would end up together. It was clear to everyone that we were living in a moment.
But now that the moment has passed, who could appraise Jordan on his basketball skill alone anymore? As much as The Last Dance tried to keep a tight focus on the court, with Jordan the executive producer hand-checking the viewer all the while, I couldn't help but note the many belittling references to his "supporting cast" or the villainizing of Bulls GM Jerry Krause - who, it should be noted, is dead and unable to defend himself. I watched Jordan dismiss his 80s-era teammates as womanizing cokeheads and take pride in bullying benchwarmer Scott Burrell and Steve Kerr. I watched him explain away his famous "Republicans buy sneakers too" line as a joke.
More to the point: I watched Jordan speak adoringly about his parents and brother and the off-duty Chicago cops in his entourage without really making much mention of his three adult children. In fact, I was convinced that was where the documentary was headed after Jordan's passionate soliloquy on the price of winning. But the kids only appear briefly toward the end of the series. Certainly, when it came to shutting out the distractions of the world, nobody did it better than MJ. But we don't live in that world anymore. Hence why, an adult now, I find myself gravitating more and more toward James.
At worst James is the single greatest success story in team sports, a child prodigy who not only overcame the hardscrabble circumstances of his youth but fulfilled every expectation that was ever foisted upon him. And then he went well beyond even that. He forced his high school friends on his early money minders, and today they are part of his billion-dollar enterprise. He married his high school sweetheart and can reliably be seen embarrassing his three kids on the family's Taco Tuesday night; he waffles openly between kicking himself for passing his name to his first born-son and flogging himself to hang around the league long enough to play with him. He denounces the unjust killings of unarmed black men, tangles with the commander-in-chief - he built a school in his hometown before jetting off to Los Angeles, for goodness sakes. At the very least he should have drawn even with Jordan in the ESPN poll's "positive off-court impact" category.
As for on the court, well, James sees himself more clearly as MJ's teammate than his rival. "Me personally, the way I play the game - team first - I feel like my best assets work perfectly with Mike," James said in a video released Monday on Uninterrupted's YouTube channel. "It would've been a whole 'nother level with me being that point forward alongside of him during those Chicago runs."
Doubtless many old school basketball fans will read that statement as an indictment of the present generation of NBA stars who would sooner consolidate primacy in free agency than battle one another for it on court. And 10-year-old me probably would have scoffed at it, too. But now that I'm four times as old and a father myself? How could I not think the guy who builds bridges would make a better role model for my son than the guy who would torch anything that lies in his path?
That is not to say one player is better than the other. On that score it's a shame that basketball isn't more like football, where intergenerational talents are seen for what they truly are: descendants of the same line. Just as there's no Tom Brady without Joe Montana, there's no LeBron without Jordan. There's no Kobe Bryant, a GOAT challenger whose copycatting of Jordan I once found as grating as nails on a chalkboard. But when Bryant explained, in footage shot for The Last Dance before his death this year, that his career was essentially a love letter to Jordan, all I could take away was regret. Clearly, eternal greatness doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. It could just be a pleasant distraction, a standard to aspire. It could just be a body of work to appreciate in its time that encapsulated a moment that won't soon be forgotten.