Michael Jordan pretty much ruined sports for me. I had other athlete-idols growing up (Reggie Jackson, Julius Erving, Lawrence Taylor, Dwight Gooden), but when MJ was drafted by the Bulls around the same time my family moved to Chicago, I had a new favorite team and a new favorite player. It was immediate idolization. And when Mike’s run with the Bulls was over, my life as a serious sports fan ended too. There was no one else to root for in any sport; he was simply that great.
I imagine last week, after LeBron James surpassed Michael’s career scoring total, there were some talking head types on ESPN and the like filling air time with faux debates over who’s better, LeBron or Michael. Whatever. There’s no debate. And while I may not have been a sports fan post-MJ, I did follow sports and know enough about LeBron to know he couldn’t, as Mars Blackman was fond of saying, “hold Mike’s jock.”
OK, that’s trash talk and a major exaggeration, and holding Mike’s “jock” aside, it’s not LeBron’s fault. You objectively compare all the matters of their respective greatness, which – I guess – could be done (Mike wins!), there’s still the overriding factor of the times in which they played. Find me a hoops authority who would argue that the NBA of the 80s-90s was not a more grueling, competitive, and talent-rich league than that of the 21st century…As Run-DMC rapped back in the day: “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.”
But the times are on LeBron’s side in a manner that allows him not only to best Mike but to be the GOAT in a category that exceeds in actual importance anything that happens on the court: Philanthropy and Social Influence.
Now, as much as I love me my Michael Jordan, he always seemed way more interested in making money off the court than making a difference in people’s lives. There’s the infamous yet unsubstantiated quote from him that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” in defense of his unwillingness to support a Democratic candidate in his home state of North Carolina for US Senate against racist demagogue Jesse Helms. Whether he said that or not, it was Michael’s way to stay out of such things (a 2016 donation of $2 million to two organizations that address police brutality and racial injustice notwithstanding).
LeBron’s different. He’s been active as a philanthropist from the start of his career, much of the giving generated by his business acumen. LeBron Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete (April 2019) by sports journalist Brian Windhorst focuses exclusively on the subject’s incredible business savvy. And with these riches comes an opportunity to build on an already impressive legacy of charitable work that includes the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron (where much of his charitable efforts are focused).
As another throwback legend, Nelson Mandela, said, “Education is the engine of advancement.” This speaks to the value of education towards remedying the ills of injustice and the fact that so many of our economically disadvantaged youth are left behind. Addressing challenges such as these – in times of yawning income equality with diminishing access to opportunity, and all the social/cultural ills informed by such – is something LeBron is uniquely positioned to do (Much like Mike had the chance in his time to dunk on Patrick Ewing).
And if LeBron can keep making that money and making education a beneficiary of it, he would not only best Mike (and all other athletes) in a way that transcends and usurps sports, he will have truly earned the moniker of King James.
Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons