LeBron: Escaping The Shadow of a Basketball Icon
Since the year 1991, the Chicago Bulls have won more championships than any other franchise in the NBA – winning a total of six (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998). The next closest teams are the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, at 4 apiece. The Bulls won these titles in dominant fashion. The NBA never saw such dominance since the 1960’s Boston Celtics, of Cousy and Russell, who won 10 of 11 during a stretch of time. But regardless, the 90’s Bulls undoubtedly featured the most dominant team in the history of the NBA. Bill Russell’s Celtics dominated in an era of fewer teams, prior to the ABA-NBA convergence, and before salary cap restrictions were placed on team owners. The Chicago Bulls run of 6 championships in 8 seasons separates them their stiff competition in the 1990’s. It separates them from the modern era teams, and the teams of the pre-shot-clock era. The Chicago Bulls’ dominance separates them, in a timeless fashion, from the rest of the NBA pack – as well as other professional sports franchises of any league (MLB, NFL, or NBA) of any single generation in American sports history.
There is obviously a key factor, or two, when detailing how the Bulls of 1991-98 were so successful. Chicago basketball featured two athletic horses, so to speak, in the form of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The 6’7” Small-Forward, drafted from Central Arkansas in 1987, evolved into the game’s most versatile weapon, as well as its most selfless superstar. There is a very potent argument to be made about Pippen being the greatest perimeter defender in NBA history. He could also be a huge stopper in the low-block, post-up, shoot from inside 22-feet consistently, and was maybe the second most athletic scorer of his time. And there is no secret about who was the most athletic finisher.
Michael Jordan could get so far up, so gracefully, it almost seemed as though he could just hang there – suspended in air. Some people called it flying. More scientific explanations was that Jordan, himself, was simply designed to play the game of basketball. He was a specimen – the perfect combination of strength, size, and speed to be the “perfect” basketball player. Just versatile enough to the point where he could create for himself and his teammates, and explosive enough to be an unstoppable scoring juggernaut.
And then there was James.
Since LeBron James entered the NBA, he has had to deal with hype that Jordan, himself, never had the burden of overcoming. The expectations served to James were seemingly insurmountable. He was supposed to be “Jordan after Jordan.” And he had more than his fair share of doubters as he first put on a Cleveland uniform in 2003. Quite frankly, LeBron James not only silenced his critics, but he surpassed the hype. James has done things on a basketball court that Jordan, dare I say, has never been able to physically do. James may be the highest leaper to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers. Not only his “ups” are unsurpassed. He is a 6’8” 255-lb bull. He has a “get out of my way” approach to the game itself. The NBA has never seen a player at LeBron’s size to run as fast as he does. There has never been a player at LeBron’s foot-speed to be as strong as he is. Even those who thought of Michael Jordan’s physic as the pinnacle, and those who said it was God’s gift to basketball, were left biting their tongues when LeBron James showed what he could do… physically.
Now, with all of that said, Michael Jordan was still great. He’s still the best player the world has ever seen? Why? – Because of the psychological edge he had on a nightly basis with those he played against. Jordan not only dominated you physically; he beat you mentally. His competitive nature and his thirst to be the best could never be quenched. He only got hungrier and hungrier. This was even to a fault – Michael Jordan, the man, is not Santa Claus. He’s not the nicest guy in the room. He’s not the most polite guy either. His competitive streak burned in him in his playing days, and that fire rages on inside him to this day – as made visually evident in his Hall-Of-Fame Acceptance Speech one year ago. LeBron James is the better of the two physically, but not mechanically. Nor mentally. Nor is James as tough or resilient (again, mentally or physically) than Jordan… at least yet.
Those current Bulls’ fans who think that LeBron James won’t come to Chicago because they biasedly believe that ‘no man can live up to Jordan’s shadow’ are fooling themselves. The things that Michael did for the city of Chicago are undeniable; but those memories are just that – memories. They are sentimental in nature and we all need to let go. Lakers’ fans have let go. They don’t think about how much better Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were than Shaquille O’Neal while Shaq was in the midst of winning 3 consecutive Finals’ MVP awards. They aren’t talking about how much better Magic Johnson was than Kobe Bryant is now. Kobe Bryant just led the Lakers to an NBA title; does anyone in Los Angeles really care about what happened in the 1980’s right now? Does any Boston Celtic fan care about what happened in the 60’s-80’s right now? We all know the answer.
LeBron James’ mental toughness and approach needs to change if he is going to be the best player. He needs to take the game itself more seriously. There is a reason why Garnett’s Celtics and Howard’s Magic are beating his teams down each season – LeBron is not being taken seriously enough by his teammates nor opponents to be a real title contender. James needs to stop dancing and start getting into the head of his opponents. If he did, there would be no debate between him and Kobe Bryant, in terms of “who’s the best.”
As Bulls’ fans we want James, despite the flaws he has, because he is the best player in the world today. If LeBron doesn’t want us because he is afraid of living up to a deemed “impossible” standard set by Jordan, then we don’t want him either. It is as simple as that. Most people who follow the NBA believe that Chicago would be the best fit for James because (A) he is best suited to win a Championship here and (B) because Chicago has a great market. This city the Bulls play in is, in this writer’s opinion, the mecca of basketball because of the people’s team loyalty and passion for the game. This is evident from the Bulls’ league-leading ticket sales (even through dark periods of time) and just by walking the streets of Chicago, Illinois, alone. The Bulls fans love the Bulls. They love basketball. They love Michael Jordan. And we also would sure love LeBron James too… if he wants us. And why shouldn’t he?
Right now, this is Derrick Rose’s team. But we know Rose wants LeBron. We can envision a 1995-like scenario when Pippen handed the Bulls’ back over to the returning Jordan. If James comes to town, this will still be our hometown boy’s team until James seizes control of it. But the question remains – does LeBron James want us?
If LeBron wants to stay in Cleveland to win a championship for his first team (and home state), that is a noble enough reason for him to stay. LeBron James would prove a lot about his perseverance by doing that and it would be a noble thing. Chicagoans are waiting with open arms. But being the best player, in itself, does not make James worthy in itself of the Bulls. He needs to want more.
He needs to prove that he has what it takes to be the best ever.