While there is considerable conversation these days—with ‘The Last Dance’ in full swing on ESPN and with the NBA stuck in a coronavirus shutdown—about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the better player, James himself picked up not on the differences he has with MJ but on the similarity.
In particular, James seized on the early phase of their respective careers. For the first six seasons of Jordan’s career, he was an obviously outstanding mega-talent but one who just seemed incapable of winning The Big One.
For James, it was longer—nine years and two franchises. He came up empty in his quest for a title in his first stint in Cleveland, then lost in his first superteam season with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2011. Only in 2012 did James, who was drafted in 2003, finally come up with a championship.
Watching ‘The Last Dance,’ James said on Twitter that seeing Jordan hold the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in his career back in 1991 made him get very misty.
“That feeling and level of emotions is unexplainable when you been through the (fire).”
The Detroit Pistons Forged Michael Jordan
Jordan’s fire was the Detroit Pistons, who tormented Jordan for two years with physical play, hard fouls, and a kitchen-sink approach to defending him. The idea was to force Jordan into the middle of the floor and let the rugged Pistons big men—Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, John Salley, James Edwards—hack him, a strategy known as The Jordan Rules.
In both 1989 and 1990 the Pistons and Bulls met in the conference finals and in each series Jordan took nearly twice as many free throws as any other player in the series. He took 79 foul shots in six games in 1989, 38 more than Isiah Thomas of Detroit. He took 72 in seven games in 1990, 30 more than No. 2 in the series, Thomas again.
As Edwards once told me, “Whenever we faced him, that was when the Jordan Rules came about—we wanted to stop him and let the other guys score. We were not going to let Michael Jordan beat us, whatever it takes. Let somebody else beat us. Double-team. Triple-team. As long as it was not Michael.”
When the Bulls finally broke through against the Pistons and won the championship in 1991, then, Jordan was understandably emotional.
LeBron James had Multiple Early Fires
James had many tormentors.
It began within the Cavaliers organization itself, which scrambled to find a suitable supporting cast for James in his first run with the team, from 2003-10, but could not do so. James carried the Cavs to a Finals appearance in 2007, but he had a roster devoid of championship-caliber talent—Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Boobie Gibson, the hobbled dup of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes.
His Cavs also struggled mightily with the Celtics of the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce era. In both 2008 and 10, the Cavs were knocked out of the playoffs by the Celtics.
It wasn’t until after he went to Miami, lost a championship to the Mavericks then, finally, beat the Thunder in 2012 that James joined Jordan as a title winner.
James knows the struggle to get to that point. Jordan did, too.