Early on in “The Last Dance,” former Washington Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon says the only apt comparison to Michael Jordan is Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali. “That’s it. That’s the list. There’s nobody else on it.”
That is to say, Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time, he’s on a very short list of the greatest athletes in any sport, in any era—including the present day.
Watching ESPN’s ten-part documentary series on the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Through extensive interviews with Jordan, previously unseen footage of the Bulls during their final championship season of 1997-98, and a sweeping historical narrative that covers Jordan’s early life through most of his professional career, a portrait emerges of an athlete with an almost pathological drive to dominate his sport, perform at the very highest level, and achieve greatness.
This Jordan did, without question. His championships, awards, and career stats speak for themselves: Jordan is the greatest.
Don’t Tell Me LeBron Is the Greatest
Yet in a world of armchair analysts and professional cranks, a parlor game has persisted for years that posits this or that new player is actually better than Jordan. For a time, it was comparison to the late Kobe Bryant, who modeled his entire game on Jordan’s and said so in an interview for the docuseries, dismissing the comparison by saying that without Jordan there would be no Kobe.
Lately, the popular contrarian take is that LeBron James is the greatest of all time. The claim usually comes with a jumble of half-baked arguments—breakdowns of comparative stats, analyses of hypothetical one-on-one matchups, speculation about how Jordan would fare in today’s NBA, and so on.
None of it is worth much, but since “The Last Dance” has revived this little game, let’s play.
My colleague David Marcus makes a quixotic argument that James is the greatest, not Jordan, because Jordan took a lot of mid-range jumpers, which are less common in today’s NBA. His claim is rooted in philosophical presentism that relies on the bare assertion that the current style of play in the league is somehow a Platonic ideal of basketball, superior to the style that prevailed in Jordan’s era.
But anyone who closely followed the NBA in the ‘80s and ‘90s knows this is debatable, if not flat-out wrong. Yes, the dominant style of play is different now than it was then. But is it better? Marcus seems to think that the small ball currently in vogue thanks to teams like the Golden State Warriors is somehow more evolved than the more traditional lineups of Jordan’s era. He offers no evidence for this other than to note, correctly, that players shoot more three pointers now than they did in the ‘90s.
But so what? Styles of play have shifted, but nothing of consequence has changed about the game itself from Jordan’s time to today. Small ball might be ascendant right now, and if Jordan were playing in today’s league he might adapt to it. But it’s more likely that he would so dominate that the league would adapt to him.
And of course the shift to small ball hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. The NBA is far less physical now than it was in the ‘90s. Anyone trying to make the case that James is greater than Jordan must take into account how James would have fared against, say, the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, whose infamous “Jordan rules” singled out the Bulls superstar for systematic physical punishment of a kind we don’t see in the NBA today. Through sheer grit and competitive drive, Jordan overcame the Pistons and went on to win three championships in a row.
Could James have done the same? Could he have handled the punishment thrown at him by the likes of Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, and John Salley?
We’ll never know, but any honest appraisal of James must admit that although he’s certainly one of the greatest NBA players ever, he’s nowhere near as mentally tough as Jordan. The catalogue of James’ high-profile meltdowns is uncomfortably long—game six of the 2011 finals, game five of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals, game five of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, just to name a few. If James melted down against the 2018 Washington Wizards, how would he have fared against, say, the 1992 New York Knicks?
Jordan Lifted His Team In Ways James Never Has
Unlike James, Jordan never lost an NBA finals series and boasts twice as many championship rings as James. That matters because it’s difficult to compare individual players without considering them in context, as part of a team and a league. Basketball is a team sport after all, and one big thing Jordan has going for him over James is the way he made his team better over the course of years.
James infamously bailed on his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers after the 2009-10 season to join a carefully constructed Miami Heat superteam that, no surprise, went on to win back-to-back championships in 2011-13. (To his credit, James eventually returned to Cleveland and led the Cavs to a championship in 2016).
By contrast, Jordan stuck with the Bulls, sharpening and toughening them for seven seasons before Jordan won his first championship in 1991.
Yes, Scottie Pippen was an excellent player and would have done great things on any NBA team. But no one doubts—not even Pippen himself—that playing alongside Jordan hardened Pippen, turning him into a seven-time NBA All-Star and one of the best players of his time. Same for Horace Grant, and Steve Kerr, and Tony Kukoc, and all the rest.
When the Bulls arrived at a stadium for an away-game, every player who got off that bus was an emissary of Jordan, every one a foot soldier under his command. It wasn’t just Jordan coming for you, it was all of them.
Jordan Understands the Price of Greatness
That brings us to the real difference, not merely between Jordan and James, but between Jordan and everyone else: his will to win. Watching “The Last Dance,” you begin to realize that very few people, not just in professional sports but in any human endeavor, have been as fiercely competitive as Jordan was. His competitive drive was almost pathological, and it cost him.
In an otherwise sympathetic documentary, you see how Jordan’s will to win takes its toll. Jordan was not beloved by his teammates. He isn’t remembered as a “nice guy.” As B.J. Armstrong says, “He couldn’t have been.” To achieve what he achieved, you can’t be a nice guy.
“Winning has a price, and leadership has a price,” Jordan says at the end of episode seven. “So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me, they didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you join the team you live at a certain standard that I play the game, and I wasn’t going to take anything less.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 11, 2020
In the end, it’s not Jordan’s mid-range jumper or his scoring titles or even his championships that make him the greatest of all time. It’s his insistence on performing at the very highest level, his determination to break his opponent’s will, his obsessive drive to win and win again. In his world, there are no participation trophies. No one gets an “A” for effort. There is greatness or there is nothing.
“When people see this, they’re going to say ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant.'” Well that’s you, because you never won anything,” Jordan says. “I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.”
“I don’t have to do this, and I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”