The first time I saw him perform live and in person, LeBron James was a senior in high school, drawing rave reviews for his basketball prowess and criticism for tattoos, throwback jerseys, a Hummer and an omnipresent mom.
He was the latest and greatest version of yet another second coming. Big and bad, but refined and respectful, he was said to be the total package on the court, maybe one day better than Michael Jordan.
The list of high school-to-pro guys who enjoyed NBA success had been small, but James was considered a sure thing – even more so than Kobe Bryant.
It was that last part that tweaked my curiosity – more so than Kobe. Really? That seemed hard to believe.
But here it was, an opportunity to see if such talk had any merit. As I entered the arena in Trenton, N.J., that March evening in 2003, it was with a critical eye. James had to prove himself to me.
He didn’t disappoint. Facing reputedly stiff competition in highly regarded UCLA recruit Trevor Ariza, James went off for 52 points. He scored in every way imaginable – dunks, runners, jumpers, fadeaways, banked 3-pointers to beat the buzzer. In truth, he could have scored 20 or 30 more. It was up to his own discretion. He was that superior, and also that much of a team player.
Oddly enough, though, the same impression I had then remains for me today – in regard to comparing him to both Kobe and Michael. To me, he’s a more natural all-around basketball player with innate, sixth-sense skills that neither of them ever possessed. But they’re both better athletes – more electric, explosive, graceful … at least to the naked eye.
Perhaps it is a simple case of body frame, but Kobe and MJ, even today, have that sleek, streamlined physique that gives them the appearance of possibly being faster and more elegant than they actually are. LeBron, meanwhile, is a force of nature, kind of like the Rhino character in the old Spider-Man cartoon series. No one can stop him, physically stop him. Oh, he has speed and quicks, too, no doubt. But it’s his power, combined with those things, that sets him apart – even from MJ and Kobe.
Who’s the best player? Well, it almost seems to be a case of take your pick and you can’t lose. Oh, the MJ hero worship has more staying power than BO at the local gym. In short, it ain’t leaving. Reality, though, is that you can make a case for several players being as good, if not better than Jordan, in the history of the NBA.
Chamberlain. The Big O. Kareem. Russell – especially if you use the measuring stick by Jordan’s former coach, Phil Jackson, of championships won.
For me, Jordan never factored as the greatest ever for one reason – I didn’t hate him. Growing up in Philly and being a hardcore Sixers fan, you developed a passion for disliking certain players: Bill Walton, Magic, Bird. The latter was the easiest to hate; he did the most damage to my team.
Jordan came after that, at a time when my Sixers, frankly, either had no shot to make any noise or simply sucked. No hate could develop there. An appreciation for his talents, yes – but that disdain, the guttural uneasiness about the mere mention of the guy’s name for fear of what he might do, no. There was nothing he could do to my team that was worse than it had done to itself.
By the time his career wound down, the hate measure had departed from my repertoire. But it was too late for me to have all that MJ did register and really sink in, as it does for his fans. By then, Kobe was spreading his wings and about to go off for 81 points in a game – something MJ, honestly, never even came close to accomplishing.
LeBron already was great. He was carrying a cast of no-names, aside from himself, in Cleveland to new heights, including an NBA Finals appearance.
Funny thing is, the hate factor seems to be a telling sign elsewhere to me. Kobe, aside from Philly, really is not a hated figure. He’s a bit on the aloof, reclusive side at times, a somber soul who meticulously works at his craft as others watch in awe at the finished product.
LeBron, though, if hate, indeed, is a measuring stick has struck a chord – most of all with Jordan supporters. A couple years removed from “The Decision” fiasco that landed him in Miami and in a heap of trouble with many fans, he has won over the majority with his brilliant, fundamentally sound play. But mention him in the same breath as Jordan, and you are bound to hear about it from a lifelong MJ supporter, who can either rattle off scoring stats or championship rings as ammunition to shoot down your argument.
Sure enough, MJ tops LeBron on both counts.
But was he a better player than LeBron is now?
I think it depends on what you deem better in a player. LeBron is a better passer, rebounder and truly embodies having a feel for the game that goes far beyond MJ’s instinct of taking over himself at every crucial juncture. He’s also bigger by two inches and about 60 pounds, giving him a physicality edge that is hard to measure.
Following his current arc, LeBron will end up being the better shooter as well.
But he’s not going to be the scorer MJ was, and it’s highly doubtful he’ll match the six titles Jordan earned if he remains with the Heat and fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh continue to break down.
So, take your pick.
Me? I’m going with Kobe.