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Give up the GOAT: Why LeBron James Should Stop Chasing Michael Jordan

LeBron can’t match Jordan’s legacy, but he doesn’t need to

LeBron James, Jordan vs. LeBron, Michael Jordan, GOAT, NBA, Chicago Bulls,

LeBron James says he's chasing Michael Jordan's ghost.

David T. Foster III/Getty

Have you ever aspired to be the greatest at what you do? Have you ever chased a ghost? I haven’t, but I think that I aim low.

Yet LeBron James, who just wrapped up one of the single greatest quests in sports history, one that started with him being born and raised right outside of Cleveland, playing for the Cavaliers, leaving his hometown team, then going back to deliver a title to the city for the first time in over 50 years, is now looking to be the next Peter Venkman or Jillian Holtzmann by chasing, and I guess catching, the ghost of the GOAT, Michael Jordan.

This is, of course, a silly thing to say, both chasing ghosts and that you’re trying to overtake another player as the best to ever put on a pair of sneakers, win a bunch of championships and make a ton of money. But you, LeBron James, want to do these things, and that’s your thing. You do you.

“Chasing a ghost is in make-believe land,” B.J. Armstrong, Jordan’s teammate for Chicago Bulls dynasty part one, who was a strong player off the bench, but was even more popular as the face with hearts drawn around it that I saw taped up in a dozen lockers when I was a kid, recently told ESPN. Armstrong, now an agent who represents players like Derrick Rose, is right, but he’s also biased about the whole thing since his greatest triumph as a pro player was being able to say he played with Jordan. That’s his legacy as much as M.J.’s.

Here’s where I, a lifelong Chicago Bull fan and obvious Michael Jordan stan point to what I consider the obvious and give another biased opinion: LeBron James should give up the ghost on chasing the ghost. He’s never going to catch Jordan, the player who transcended his sport, and really all sports, the way Muhammad Ali did boxing or Babe Ruth did baseball, and that’s nearly impossible to replicate. Jordan didn’t just change basketball, he changed all of sports and culture from the way he marketed himself, the way he became a global brand and simply by the way he won. And for those who want to get into the whole debate about James being a better athlete than Jordan, Max Kellerman debunked that myth pretty recently. Yes, LeBron James should give up the idea that he’s going to be like Mike. Can he still be the greatest? Sure. Why not? 

“Greatness is a word, and it’s really whatever you or I want it to be.” 

The idea of a greatest ever is absolute; the greatest is perfection; therefore it’s flawed because perfect, like me ultimately making sense of this, is impossible. There’s no Great American Novel and there is no making America great again; there’s moving forward, there’s evolution and there’s adding to what’s been done. Greatness is a word, and it’s really whatever you or I want it to be. Jordan was never perfect, nor has James been that throughout his career. But we’re sports fans, we need our narratives to fit into specific boxes. There has to be a greatest player ever, right? Let’s just assume that’s true, and that if there is no greatest ever that the world will start spinning out of control, a hole to another dimension will develop and blood-thirsty monster without a face will pop out of it. (Hopefully you’ve seen all of Stranger Things or that makes zero sense to you.) 

Here’s the rub: You only become the greatest in retrospect. When Jordan was still playing he had to compete with the ghosts of Magic and Bird, not to mention Kareem, Bill, Wilt, hell, even the Detroit Pistons squad the Bulls dethroned still had more titles after Jordan and Chicago won the first one. It’s basically all about the mythology, that when you finally retire and cross over into the land of the former players, only then can you see the top of the mountain. People knew Jordan was special, that they were witnessing something that might not ever come around in our lifetimes, but you just couldn’t hand him the GOAT title while he was still playing. It just doesn’t fit the living. The same goes for LeBron. We’re witnessing something great every single time a man we call King James steps onto the court, but something, maybe our pride, maybe our nostalgia, or possibly just plain stubbornness just won’t grant him that extra inch. We can’t admit that there is possibly room for another greatest ever.

As it stands, yes, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time because of what he accomplished both on and off the court during his playing career – which is over unless the 53-year-old stages yet another comeback, which is totally possible with him. Six championships, five MVPs, gold medals, NCAA champ, slam dunk competition winner, offense, defense, Air Jordans, Space Jam, Gatorade, the list goes on and on. LeBron with his three (so far) championships, four MVPs and a whole bunch of accolades still has some catching up to do with Jordan in terms of championships and accolades. In a game of one on one? Sure, I’d give LeBron the edge. I think he’d probably beat prime Jordan if the two of them were on a playground in a neutral city that isn’t Chicago or Cleveland; but basketball isn’t a game between two players. Jordan and his best group of teammates, I’m pretty sure, could beat LeBron and his best squad at the heights of their powers. That’s where I’d give Jordan the edge, and that’s really where it counts.

But none of that stuff matters since 1996 Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman can’t get into a DeLorean and play a pickup game against James and, I’d assume, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. These are all silly points or ideas to even entertain. What matters is what LeBron is doing right now: be the greatest basketball player in the world, and possibly most famous current athlete on the planet making Jordan sponsorship money, but also somebody using his voice and his platform to speak out on matters bigger than basketball. I love Michael Jordan, but his recent decision to speak out against police shootings and donate money to organizations that are trying to get police and communities to work better with each other, frankly, shocked the shit out of people since Jordan is notoriously quiet on matters that don’t involve basketball or him making money. 

LeBron being active and getting involved in bigger issues while he’s the greatest current player is something I feel like people will remember for years to come after he finally hangs up his sneakers. It’s a different kind of greatest, the kind that James should keep focusing on instead of chasing a ghost. I feel weird saying this, but LeBron, you do you. Don’t be a hard rock when you’re really a gem. If you do that, when it’s all said and done, we’re going to have to admit that there’s room for him to sit at the table with Jordan and all the other greatest-ever players. LeBron, Jordan and the other greats can all be happy phantoms together and let the next great basketball player think they’re chasing ghosts. 

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