After Lebron James and the Miami Heat defeated the Chicago Bulls in the National Basketball Association Eastern Conference Finals, former Bulls star Scottie Pippen made a comment that he thought James may be the best player of all time. Even better than his former teammate Michael Jordan. And he has been taking a lot of heat for it since.
Without question, Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. One of the greatest of all time. And without question the best player of the 1990’s. Whether he is the greatest of all time is up for debate, but the list of those in his class is very, very short. This article does not deal with that.
What this article deals with is the perception of how we saw Jordan during and after his career and how it compares to the way we see the career of Lebron James at present. We will begin precisely 20 years ago, 1991.
Scottie Pippen’s recent comments were no different than the one’s made by many about Micheal Jordan back in 1991. At that time, Jordan was in his sixth year in the league and had yet to win a title just as James after seven years has not. By 1991 Ervin “Magic” Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers had won five titles. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, who was coming to the end of his career, had won three. And Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons was coming off of back to back titles. Johnson, Bird and Thomas had all met in the post season at least once and won and lost to each other. Even with ten titles between them Johnson, Bird and Thomas were not considered to be the best players in the game at that time nor greater than Jordan. And all Jordan had won was some scoring and a couple of slam dunk titles.
There is no player who has ever played who was anointed anymore than Jordan was when he came into the league. He was the first basketball player that Nike named a shoe after as Air Jordan’s came out his rookie year. He was a VHS video dream with his dunks and high flying drives to the basket. He was simply known as M.J. And he lived up to the hype. Just as James has since he came into the NBA in 2003-04.
In 1991 there were many who thought that Jordan would never win a championship. Their reasoning was that he was more of a scorer than team player. The same things that Pippen said last week. Many felt that he cared more about winning the scoring title than a championship. I have a “Sport” magazine from around that time with a picture of Jordan on the cover and a headline asking if he would be the greatest player of all time to never win a championship. Despite the fact that there was no reason to believe he didn’t want to win.
I saw his will to win up close on a night in 1990 when the Bulls lost to the Washington Bullets of all teams. Not only did they lose, they got killed. And all the Bullets did was put guard Jeff Malone on Jordan, deny him the ball and let the other Bulls take the shots. I was sitting a few rows behind the Bulls bench and late in the game saw the expression on Jordan’s face when he came over during a timeout. He was steaming. Right then and there I said to myself, “I have no idea where this notion of Jordan not wanting to win comes from. This guy wants it bad. And he’s going to get it. Soon. And when he does, look out.” It didn’t take a genius to see that.
For those who supported Jordan their argument was that he did not have enough help around him in Chicago. Though it would later be proven that he did it just hadn’t jelled. This is the same argument that people made for James when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In today’s NBA with free agency Jordan may have very well left and gone to, say, New York and joined Patrick Ewing and his buddy Charles Oakley with the Knicks. Just as James left Cleveland for Miami last year to play with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. But Jordan really had no choice and stayed with the Bulls.
Of course the rest is history. In 1991, Jordan silenced his critics by leading the Bulls to their first world’s championship. They would go on to win three in a row from 1991 to 1993 with a great team led by Jordan, Pippen, Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright.
Jordan abruptly retired after the 1993 season to play baseball. He came back at the end of the 1994-95 season. The Bulls went on to win three consecutive titles again in 1996, ’97 and ’98, but this team and Jordan were not as good as the first threepeat champions. The 1998 team started the season 12-9 while Pippen was on injured reserve with a foot injury. After he returned they went 50 and 11 to finish 62-20. One could make a case that if Pippen did not come back than the Bulls would not have won in 1998.
This threepeat was more the product of a league in transition with young players who were more worried about style over substance. They were more worried about being the man on their own team than being a part of a championship team. And they were not as skilled fundamentally as those who played before them.
Looking back at the young men who were supposed to challenge Jordan and the Bulls one will find the likes of Jimmy Jackson, Chris Webber, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Jerry Stackhouse, Jalen Rose, Larry Johnson, Sean Kemp, Shaquille O’neal and Ray Allen. Of this group only O’neal and Allen won titles and they won them long after Jordan had left the Bulls.
Because these players were too busy working on being stars and not basketball players, Jordan and the Bulls were able to win their titles. Instead of challenging Jordan as he had Magic, Bird and Isaiah and the latter three had challenged each other the rest of the league gave in to the apha male that was “His Airness”. They quit.
All of them used the same excuse. “It’s Michaels’ league,” they said. “We’ll never win anything as long as he’s playing.” They were all still starry eyed with hero worship from watching Jordan play when they were kids and bowed down to the legend. Magic, Bird, Isaiah and Jordan himself would have never done that. Each of them would have fought tooth and nail to beat the others and they did. So much to the point where there was some bad blood from time to time.
The players of the late 1990’s did not despite the fact that Jordan was not the same player that he was before his first retirement. Even though he still got the calls, just as Kobe Bryant did later during the Lakers championship years. Including a blatant push that Jordan got away with against Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell before hitting his famous game and championship winning shot in 1998.
There is no question that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest players of all time and the list of those in his class is very short. But the truth may be that his legacy was built just as much on the rest of the league and the NBA as a whole raising him to a higher level and not challenging him.
I do not know if he is the greatest basketball player of all time. But I give him an infinite amount of credit for this reason.
By his sheer will he made an entire league quit.
He made them give in to the alpha male.
I can not think of another athlete in a team sport who has ever done this.