LeBron’s M.J. tribute is all about business

LeBron James(notes) isn’t honoring the greatness of No. 23, but manipulating Michael Jordan’s marketing savvy. The changing of his jersey number as a nod to M.J.’s basketball career is a purely fictional cover story. It’s a tribute to Jordan all right, but more like a cynical ode to his business sense. James wants to grow his global brand and push product; flooding the market with a fresh jersey number does the job.

LeBron James' No. 23 jersey has trailed Kobe Bryant's No. 24 in sales the past two seasons.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Between now and then, James ought to spare us the fantasy that moving from No. 23 to No. 6 is about anyone or anything else.

All about Michael?

This is all about LeBron.

When LeBron James should be most concerned with taking Kobe Bryant’s(notes) NBA title, he’s making a bid for his standing as the No. 1 seller of NBA jerseys. James watched Bryant make the switch from No. 8 to No. 24 and how it moved him to the top of the list. For the past two seasons, James has finished second to Bryant. No more, James decided. Kobe gave him the blueprint for selling out stock, and now LeBron’s embraced it.

Looking back, Bryant never tried to turn his jersey change into some magnanimous gesture. He switched numbers, and that was that. He wanted to sell jerseys, and he did. He never pretended it was a genuflection to anything but commerce.

Somehow, James has boxed himself with this ridiculous story about how no one should ever wear No. 23, and he’s the first to give it up and maybe everyone else should follow him. This was met with a roll of the eyes, with everyone asking: Wait, you’re giving up No. 23 to take … No. 6?

What about Bill Russell and his 11 NBA championships? Jordan, the greatest ever, cleared a path for the worldly basketball star. But Russell was a black star in turbulent Boston in the 1960s. He anchored the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history, and they’ll remember him as the most dominant defensive player to ever live. In the end, James and everyone else understand this has nothing to do with Jordan or Russell, with No. 23 or No. 6. This is business, and he’s insulting everyone’s intelligence suggesting it’s something else.

The idea that James is honoring Jordan is, well, pure mythology. In a lot of ways, LeBron’s working to distance himself from him. Truth be told, they are rivals far more than confidants. With different lines of shoes, they are competing for power within Nike. They’ll be competing in the Eastern Conference, where the Charlotte Bobcats have beaten the Cavaliers two of three times this season and could be an opening-round opponent. They’ll be competing in collective bargaining talks, owner versus player.

They’ve never been close, although Jordan has never been overly generous with the next generation of NBA icons. He’ll show those players within the Jordan Brand some attention, but his interaction with LeBron and Kobe mostly stems from professional courtesy. Jordan is still protective of his legacy as the greatest player ever, and he’s never been terribly motivated to lend a hand in the overtaking of that.

Around the time James started with his bit about retiring Jordan’s number, Jordan sat with Pat Riley in Miami for a Cavs-Heat game in November. It didn’t go unnoticed to those sitting around them how often James would peer over, searching for some kind of approval from Jordan. He’d make a play and glance over – and it was probably no accident that Jordan offered little to no response. After all, Jordan was there to promote Dwyane Wade(notes) as an endorser to his line of shoes, so James was treated as afterthought.

“He’s always looked for that approval from Michael,” one Jordan associate says, “and I don’t know that he’s ever really gotten it – or ever will.”

So James filed paperwork with the NBA prior to the Wednesday deadline, and should he stay with the Cavaliers he’ll wear his Olympic team No. 6 next season. Should he leave, he can wear whatever he wants. Between now and then, no one else will care much about how many jerseys he sells, about how far he surpasses Bryant on the NBA’s list in 2011.

For all his fascination with global branding, with empire building, peddling jerseys doesn’t move LeBron closer to Jordan and Bryant and Russell. Only championships do.

This time, the Cavs have delivered James the supporting cast to do it. No more excuses. James comes armed for the Lakers now. He comes with his legacy on the line, measured in one indisputable and defining way: Before he beats him in the NBA Store, LeBron James needs to beat Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010