Given that he’s arguably the greatest player in the NBA — and one day, perhaps of all-time — and also given that the nature of how players are rated by comparing and contrasting their games against the greats of the past, LeBron James routinely is compared to Michael Jordan. Which one was better in their prime? Who was the more competitive player? Who would win in a one-on-one match-up?
MJ answered the last question in comments he made a few weeks ago, saying he would be able to beat King James. But how does LeBron feel about it? How does James see himself when held up in the light and out of the shadows of Jordan’s unparalleled legacy of success and domination? And why is it that he and Jordan have never struck up a friendship?
During an extensive and illuminating interview with ESPN’s Chris Broussard in an article that will appear in the ESPN The Magazine’s NBA Preview, LeBron addressed some of these questions.
When asked by Broussard what he feels he needs to accomplish in his career to be the greatest of all-time, LeBron expressed that he wasn’t quite sure.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it would take for the so-called experts to say that — that’s not what I’m trying to do. My goal is to be the best of all time, and that means maximizing everything I have. And I feel if I can maximize my game, then I can be ranked as if not the greatest, then one of the greatest. Obviously, I have to keep winning. But I’m a winner. I’ve always won. So that’s not a question. And I feel I will continue to win as long as I can stay healthy and be a part of something special.”
The topic of the legacies and successes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant came up, and LeBron addressed how he feels he fits into the pantheon of NBA greats.
A lot of people feel that you have to win five rings like Kobe Bryant or six rings like Mike.
I don’t think about that. That really doesn’t mean much to me. I don’t play the catching game. I’m not trying to catch Magic or catch Bird or catch Kobe. I’m into maximizing what I have while I have the opportunity to do it. I’ve played my first 10 years at a high level, and I’m trying to play my next 10 at a high level, or as high as I can be.
In a lot of people’s eyes, you’re not competing with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, you’re competing with MJ, and to a lesser extent, Kobe.
[Chuckles as the names MJ and Kobe are mentioned] Right …
I mean, when you say you want to be the greatest of all time, Jordan is the one everyone thinks is the greatest.
Yeah, that’s who everyone puts as the best. But you’re always going to have arguments, no matter what. People are going to like Jordan, people are going to like LeBron, people are going to like Kobe and so on. Magic, Bird … But I don’t really think about it too much and say, Okay, I want to catch MJ. I’m saying I want to be the greatest, and I think I have an opportunity to do it just because of my skill set and because I feel like I’ve got a lot of room to improve.
But I definitely look at MJ as the greatest. Without MJ, there’s no me. He gave me hope. He gave me inspiration as a kid. I still watch MJ tapes to this day. I was watching Come Fly With Me and Jordan’s Playground and His Airness on vacation earlier this summer. So I’m watching him all the time, trying to learn from him. I even watched a clip … It was funny. I watched a clip last night when he had 51 while playing for Washington, the game after he scored in single digits. He put up 51 on the Hornets. So …
Broussard then asks James if he wishes he had more of a relationship with Jordan, to which James said:
“Ahhh, I mean, I don’t know. That’s a trick question. I do. I do at times. You know, he’s somebody who I looked up to, and I’ve never had a conversation with him about the game. I would love to sit down with him and just know exactly what he was going through and know what was his mind frame throughout all his special years. Throughout his pains — you know, not being able to get past Detroit, then overcoming Detroit. Or asking him, “Why did you retire? What made you come back? What made you come back again?” You know, everything that we all think we know. Just kind of having a sit-down conversation.
“And then also to hear him talk about me. I would like to know what he thinks about my game and ways I can get better. He probably thinks he can beat me one-on-one right now [laughing]. I know he probably thinks that. I know MJ definitely thinks he can beat me one-on-one right now.”
When asked why the two of them never developed a relationship to begin with, LeBron said he wasn’t sure.
“I think it’s just being busy. Obviously, I’m busy. MJ has a lot going on,’ LeBron said. “I don’t know the reasons, but it’s never been sparked. I’ve seen him at times. Of course, I’ve met him a few times. I went to his 50th-birthday party at All-Star weekend. I went to his party to show respect and pay homage to the greatest. I had a conversation with him there. Obviously, there were a lot of people there. But I don’t know. I don’t know.”
While it is somewhat odd that the two never really have been close — or fostered a friendship at all, for that matter — it hardly qualifies as shocking or mind-boggling. There are more reasons why the two haven’t become friends than reasons why they should be chummy. Jordan is busy, runs a different NBA team than the one James plays for and let’s not forget that Jordan is extremely competitive. Is it possible that Jordan sees LeBron as the true threat who will one day take his place as the “Greatest of All-Time”? While that may be something of an unfair shot at Kobe Bryant, who has five rings to LeBron’s two — although Shaquille O’Neal deserves some credit for that — as it looks today, Kobe, whose body is starting to wear down, will unlikely surpass Jordan, while much remains to be written in the epic on-court story of LeBron James.