We don’t know who is going to win the NBA championship, but we do know that it’s not going to matter.
Oh, I don’t mean that from a “Who cares?” style of dismissiveness. Any sport played at the highest level for the highest stakes is compelling in its own way.
I mean that from a broader, more overreaching legacy standpoint.
Because if the Miami Heat manage to win their second straight title, completing a season as dominant as any in recent memory, the ESPN-driven talking points will center on comparisons between LeBron James and the Holy Grail of basketball discussions, Michael Jordan.
Part of that is ESPN’s never-ending mission to reduce sports to the lowest common denominator. Goodness knows, we can’t appreciate greatness for greatness’ sake. We need to minimize it to a debate between mindless talking heads.
Which, of course, means that I am falling right into their trap by feeling the necessity to discuss this. I’ll hate myself in the morning, but here goes . . . any comparison between James and Jordan is absurd.
It’s not a matter of physical skills or statistics. It’s not a matter of saying that James is a better passer — for some reason the basketball cognoscenti these days insist on saying that he’s a “facilitator” — or that Jordan was a more unstoppable scorer.
These are two of the best basketball players ever to set foot on the planet. Any statistical difference between them is going to be negligible.
No, the difference resides in something more esoteric, something that goes to the heart of basketball.
The fact is that Jordan would rather rip James’ heart out of his chest and hold it up in some sort of primordial ritual than lose to him. As Bill Simmons of ESPN.com has written, Jordan was “homicidally competitive.” It doesn’t make him the best person, but it does make him the best basketball player.
Look at it this way: If Jordan in his prime were playing against James in his prime and the rest of their teams were relatively equal, do you think there’s any way Jordan would lose? Jordan would talk trash and play mind games and use the perceived slight of comparison between the two to motivate himself to previously inconceivable heights.
Remember the 1992 NBA Finals? If you lived in these parts, of course you do. Going into the series, the narrative was that Clyde Drexler could maybe play Jordan to a standstill and the series would come down the rest of the players.
Well, Jordan scored 33 points in the first half of Game 1 and the Bulls beat the Blazers in six games. But it didn’t end there. Apparently, Jordan verbally abused Drexler throughout that summer on the Dream Team until Drexler was a shell of his former self.
Maybe that’s apocryphal, but Drexler was never the same player after that. You can look it up.
Such is the pathology of Michael Jordan. Such is the fate that would befall James if some time machine put them on the court when both were in their prime.
You see, the ultimate measurement in basketball can’t be found in statistics. It can’t be quantified by points or rebounds or championships or MVP awards. It’s simply the answer to the question: “Who do you want on your team if the fate of the world came down to a basketball game?”
James is the guy who quit on his team in his penultimate game in Cleveland and then cowardly decided to go play with other All-Stars because winning in Cleveland was just too hard. Think Jordan would let him forget that?
Physically, a matchup between the two would be the most sublime basketball ever witnessed. Mentally, it would be a mismatch.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne