Column: Why the Michael Jordan-LeBron James GOAT debate is the most unwinnable of all time

People can’t let things go, even when there’s no clear right or wrong answer (except in Chicago).

Last weekend I joined friends to watch college football at a bar. After the game, two of them got into a pretty lengthy debate about whether the Big Ten or SEC was the superior conference. But it didn’t end there, morphing into a Michael Jordan-versus-LeBron James argument. It was such an intense discussion, two men we didn’t know overheard my friends and sat down to watch. It was Gen X against a young millennial in what has become the most unwinnable sports argument of all time. At least to me.

Then on Monday, I saw clips on social media of Rich Paul, LeBron’ close friend and agent, trying to make the case that it’s tougher on LeBron than Jordan because he has “to deal with a 24/7, 365 news cycle of sports and opinions” in an appearance on the Gil’s Arena podcast with Gilbert Arenas. Paul went on to say LeBron’s “antlers” are platinum and Jordan’s are gold. (Goats do not have antlers by the way. They have horns.) Of course, the takes in response were scorching hot from both sides. As his friend and agent, it should come as no surprise Paul would take the stance he took.

But what I really wonder is: How are we still having this debate? And is it even worth having anymore?

Jordan retired for the third and final time in April 2003 and LeBron was drafted in June that year. The two had no career overlap. It speaks volumes about their impact on the game and their legacies that there is even a discussion about their careers. They’ve had more accolades than I care to list, and both exist as single-name celebrities, a feat reached by only a few across sports. I often think where you land in the argument depends on when you were born, where you live and how much of a contrarian you want to be.

At this point, though, I don’t think it’s about Jordan or LeBron. It’s really just preference and an ability to keep an argument going for years. What exactly is the point? We as a sports nation fueled by debate. It’s on our TVs every weekday, on our social media, in our barbershops, in our bars. The argument has been going on for so long I fear we’ve lost the plot. No one is changing their mind.

Ten years ago, the debate was between Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Bryant once posted on social media, “We can enjoy one without tearing down one. I love what he’s doing. Don’t debate what can’t be definitively won by anyone” — and honestly, that might be the best way to look at it.

The constant goal-post moving is exhausting, and to try to compare them stat for stat or even by championships somewhat diminishes the dominance we’ve seen from both. Jordan and LeBron are from different eras, have different styles and play different positions. What is asked of LeBron is much different from that of Jordan, and vice versa, yet they both deliver in the eyes of those who look up to them.

As much as fans might not want to admit it, the debate over who is the greatest of all time is largely fueled by feelings, not facts.

The Jordan side has myths, a six-part “Last Dance” documentary and is often supported by his larger-than-life presence on many basketball fans’ sneakers — a generation who wanted to “Be like Mike.” For LeBron’s side, we literally watched him grow up from high school phenom to NBA legend. We’ve seen him bring a championship to a city whose dreams were crushed by the very man he idolized.

For much of his career, LeBron has been chasing Jordan’s ghost, and perhaps we’re all partially to blame. Ever since Jordan’s second retirement, fans have tried to find his successor. Fans have been looking for someone who can measure up to the basketball deity Jordan is in their minds and hearts. He has been imitated, but there will never be another. LeBron is on the cusp of entering the 21st season of his career and has spent all of it hearing how he does or doesn’t compete and compare. That’s the thing about sports — we love a historical comparison, no matter how unnecessary it might be.

Jordan and LeBron are branches of the same tree. They came into our lives and they battled. They’ve shown us what elite athletes can be and brought us closer to the games we enjoy. They’ve reached heights that might not be done again in our lifetimes.

Ultimately, it’s the magic of both that has kept this argument going so long.

Maybe it’s time we shut up and enjoy greatness while we can. It only seems to happen once a generation.