LeBron James and Michael Jordan: Transcending Greatness in the Internet Age

FOR FAR TOO LONG, I’ve been joking that people who don’t like LeBron James are racist. I don’t halfheartedly disperse accusations of racism often, but when I’m huddled around the TV watching an NBA game with some LeBron-hating friends, or when some thoughtless Facebook status pops up on my feed (i.e. “lebron is such a bitch”), I feel compelled to retort with venom.

Unfortunately, my attempts to get people to rethink the way they perceive LeBron have been lackadaisical and, as a result, unproductive.   You can’t invoke race without taking the time to justify its pertinence.  I’ve learned that its not uncommon for people to shy away from serious conversations about race while watching sports.  It’s true that they often go together, but not at the same time (people are usually too transfixed or distracted by the game at hand).  Its even less common to create productive dialogue on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, where comments are often rendered inaccessible through the depersonalizing nature of the medium and interesting ideas are prone to simply linger about in social media limbo.

Why are we compelled to compare these two men?

All of this has led me here.  Nowhere else have I had the patience or attention to develop my thoughts on these issues, which maybe goes to show how hard it is for Americans to talk about race and sports at the same time.  Let me just make it clear now: if you dislike LeBron, I don’t think you’re a racist, but I do think it’s possible that you’re overlooking the effect that race has on your assessment of his abilities, personality, and legacy.

The first thing you have to know about LeBron is this:  he’s the King of professional sports, not just basketball.

Really though, he’s more special than you realize.  Like some other super-star prospects, he’s been hyped as a basketball prodigy for almost as long as he’s been alive.  But as an 18-year-old boy, he went straight from high school to the NBA and immediately lived up to his billing, putting up 20 points per game en route to the rookie of the year award.  Two MVPs and seven seasons later, he’s still amazing us with a skill set that we’ve never seen on the basketball court before. Yesterday, my friend Emma wrote on Deadspin that LeBron’s entire career has been “dedicated to the proposition that a player can completely dominate a game in any number of ways.”

I agree completely–LeBron has revolutionized what it means to dominate sports, on and off the court.  It’s the way he fills stat sheet like no one before him, the way he moves in the open court, his dunks, his defensive prowess.  More than anything, it’s the the way he captures our imagination of possibility and greatness–LeBron has become the most amazing thing we’ve seen–in all of sports–since Michael Jordan.  And that’s why the comparisons are drawn.  When you consider all that was at stake during Michael Jordan’s career, it’s reasonable to come to the conclusion that he has been the most dominant athlete in history.  When you package Jordan’s abilities–his clutchness (the game-winning shots!), unprecedented competitiveness (an unhealthy obsession with being the best), his championships (six!), his marketability (he’s still selling shoes), and the entertainment factor, that is, the popularity of basketball and the veneration of the entire city of Chicago–when you take that whole package, no one else has been as dominant a corporate and cultural force in the history of sports.  Yet from the day he was drafted and adopted Jordan’s #23 jersey, there’s been a sense, a feeling, which has since turned into a demand, that LeBron will become the “next” Michael Jordan.

Some have wondered why this comparison, between Jordan and James, has been reiterated with such specificity and vehemence.  We don’t ask Tom Brady to be the next Joe Montana, we don’t liken Albert Pujols to Babe Ruth, and we don’t obsessively wonder whether Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin will eclipse Wayne Gretzky.  Instead, we recognize that these athletes played in different eras with different rules and different styles of play–they cannot be compared in a vacuum simply because they’ve transcended greatness at their respective sports.  When you add the fact that Jordan and LeBron don’t even play the same position (the 6’6” Jordan played most of his career at shooting guard, while the 6’8” James plays small forward), our insistence on comparing these two stars seems even more confounding.

What should he do?

Yet there must be a reason we do it, there must be an explanation for our obsession with the comparison.  I think it has to do with both player’s ability to transcend their sport as global icons.  Let me put it this way:  if LeBron was playing another sport besides basketball, he would still draw comparisons to Jordan.  That is, if LeBron was playing a sport in the same revolutionary style in which he plays basketball, if he was reinventing some other professional sports league, he would still be capturing our imaginations of greatness in ways that we haven’t experienced since Jordan, thus drawing the comparisons.  I don’t think you need the commonality of basketball to compare these two, but the fact that they do play the same sport makes the debate one hundred times more intriguing–it’s the reason we collectively obsess over Jordan vs. LeBron.

The fact that two of the greatest athletes of the past 30 years happened to be gifted with talents in the same sport allow us to focus in more critically on the ways in which their public perception has been shaped by the media.  It makes the most sense to start with Jordan.

Henry Abbott, columnist for ESPN’s TrueHoop, says “Jordan was an otherwordly player, perfectly packaged in a TV era.”  In so many senses of the word, Jordan truly was perfect.  As for his compatibility with the TV era of the 1980’s: he arrived in the middle of the Reagan administration and during a contentious time for race relations in America.  If Kanye thinks George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, I’m afraid to imagine what he thinks of Ronald Reagan.  Remember that Reagan attacked the government’s civil rights apparatus, scaled back social welfare programs, and pioneered the war on drugs, which targeted poor people of color.  Reagan was decidedly against all efforts aimed to help America become more racially tolerant.

In order to forge a relationship between two groups that were becoming increasingly alienated from each other, the media went searching for a human buffer through which they could filter American blackness into an appealing (profitable) product for white consumers.  These corporate masterminds were not inspired, of course, by the prospect of increasing exposure between races–rather, they saw a golden opportunity to make lots of money. And so, as Jordan’s amazing abilities on the basketball court flourished, making Larry Bird look slow and boring, so too did an impressively opportunistic public relations ensemble, working to carefully craft Jordan into a white-friendly symbol.  They did this by feeding Jordan to the public through entirely white modes.  Jordan ceased to become a person, he was more of a mythologized image that the public engaged with only at a distance.  The commercials he starred in, the coverage of his basketball games, they were all carefully controlled by white people in power and filtered through channels that were deemed most palatable for white audiences.

Today, the microscopic, all-seeing eye of the internet has humanized LeBron, which has lead to our “witnessing” of a more authentically black experience.  Our comparisons between him and Jordan have been lodged under entirely different informative circumstances.  With HDTVs that have DVR rewind, and camera phones capable of recording any given moment in time, with YouTube and Deadspin and KingJames on Twitter, we’ve gotten closer to LeBron than we could have ever imagined.

The problem is, people don’t necessarily like closer.

LeBron seems comfortable with the scrutiny--why aren't we?

It’s not surprising that these these internet devices haven’t always looked kindly upon LeBron, but in the face of such scrutiny it is surprising that LeBron has done so amazingly well at presenting himself as nothing but an upstanding, if arrogant, human being and role model.  Jordan was able to hide behind the filters such that no one would ever know if he was having family problems, or facing a gambling addiction.  The details that inform our opinions of LeBron have been so specific that his exposure to us has been a vastly more authentic human experience than Jordan’s, and as a result of the color of LeBron’s skin, also a vastly more authentic black experience than the one we were given by Jordan’s PR team.  All this explains why I believe that many Americans aren’t ready to get so up-close and personal with a black superstar and embrace him the way they did with Jordan, passively worshipping him from a distance as if he were some alien dunking machine (Space Jam?) sent here to amaze us on the basketball court.

Although there are many reasons people dislike LeBron, all of them are inextricably linked to the intimacy through which we have experienced his blackness.  Some people dislike LeBron for The Decision (this is my least favorite reason).  Too many people have hammered home all the points about The Decision being a flop, but not something that we should even think about condemning LeBron personally for, so I’ll skip that reiteration.  What I want is for you to imagine Dirk Nowitzki at The Decision. Sure he’s not a superstar in the same mold as LeBron, but imagine him up there announcing what team he was going to join–it would still be a big deal, I would probably still watch it.  If Dirk was up there, and he did everything exactly the same way LeBron did, we’d think it was mad goofy.  He would look weird and awkward up there, we’d probably make fun of the whole ordeal, but we wouldn’t hate him for it the way so many hated LeBron.

The violent and impetuous backlash aimed at LeBron after he left the Cavs, a team with zero depth and minimal talent that he led to the playoffs year after year, was downright embarrassing to behold.  Race will always be a factor in our assessment of LeBron–and since so many have jumped on the LeBron-hating bandwagon for reasons such as his failure to live up to Jordan, his desire to play with good players, or even petty little grievances like his insistence upon complaining about calls–I find it impossible to believe that its not just LeBron’s personality or playing style that cause so many to assess LeBron negatively.  And as a side note, in regards to LeBron complaining: everyone in the NBA does it, we just notice it more because the camera is always on LeBron after any call or play–even more, when I have to sit next to someone yelling at LeBron for asking for a foul, I’m literally being forced to listen to someone complain about someone complaining.

So as I sit here on the eve of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, with the Heat up 2-1 in the series, we are about to see whether LeBron will make the penultimate step in acquiring his first championship or allow the series to go the distance.  I am unabashed in my support of the Heat.  Besides my love for LeBron, I appreciate the Heat’s amazing journey this year–the emotional ups and downs as they figured out how to play legitimate team basketball with three superstars, their tenacious team defense and work ethic–I even like that I’m rooting for the underdog at the popularity contest.  I’m not trying to convince anyone to root for LeBron or the Heat.  But if you’re not hoping to see, or at least excited about seeing the experience of LeBron finally winning his first championship (this year he’s 26, by the way, Jordan was 28 when he won his first) I must wonder “why” you feel that way.  We are all witnessing a once-in-a-generation sports star, who has gone through more criticism and scrutiny than any athlete in history, finally on the verge of completing a lifelong goal–to me, sports truly don’t get any better than that.

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