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Here's why LeBron James, not Michael Jordan, is the GOAT

LeBron James Ethan Miller/Getty Images
LeBron James Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The effects and limits of time have no meaning to the vampire. In Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula describes how “only a few days” make up a century.

If he were not such a charitable man, it would seem appropriate to investigate whether LeBron James is a vampire. At 39 years old, in his 21st NBA season, he shows few signs of mortality. This season he averaged 25.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game after playing 71 games in the 2024 season.

Decades for LeBron, like centuries for Dracula, pass in mere days. It doesn’t feel like too long ago that LeBron James was 18 years old, straight out of high school in his rookie season, and dominating on the court against players 10 to 15 years older. As Edward R. Ward, the author of “Life in the Valley of Death: Some Aspects of Race in Men’s Basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference, 1959-60 – 1963-64,” recently said when assessing James’ unprecedented run of uninterrupted achievement: “He’s been the best the longest.”

Over his 21 years in the NBA, he has become the all-time scoring leader, breaking Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s record, which NBA analysts long considered unbreakable, has entered the Top 5 in all time assists, is in the Top 30 for all-time rebounds, and has led three different teams to four championship titles, appearing in 10 finals throughout his career. At 6 foot 9, 250 pounds, he is one of the strongest players to hit the hardwood, but also, astonishingly, one of the fastest. In a game-saving block during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – one of the most famous and celebrated moments of his basketball life – he ran 20.1 miles per hour to prevent a member of the opposing team from making a layup.

James is statistically superior to any other player to ever wear an NBA uniform, with unprecedented achievements, and yet most of the sports commentariat, along with millions of fans on social media, are hostile to the notion that he is the greatest of all time (GOAT).

The most prevalent position against LeBron James as GOAT is that he’s led his teams to only four titles. Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and other sports pundits trot out this number in the service of the most popular candidate for greatest NBA player of all time: Michael Jordan. According to conventional wisdom, Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls to six finals, and winning all six, closes the case.

Smith, Bayless and the chorus of Jordan worshipers act as if Jordan played only six seasons as a professional. Never do they mention the nine seasons that Jordan did not lead his respective teams to making the finals. His last two seasons, with the Washington Wizards, ended without even qualifying for the playoffs, and his teammates despised him so much that they refused to buy him a retirement gift.

The illogic of the Jordan partisans acts as a blacklight, making clear that what actually underlies the negation of LeBron James is not related to sports, rather it is a cultural stain.

Shelby Steele, the preeminent Black conservative intellectual, argues in his book about Barack Obama, "A Bound Man," that for most of American history Black public figures, whether in politics or pop culture, performed one of two roles: bargainer or challenger. Citing Louis Armstrong as an example, Steele defines the bargainer as one who tells white America, “If you allow me to have a career, and amass wealth, I will not remind you of the shame of American racism.” Challengers, such as Miles Davis, proceed according to the presumption that American institutions are racist, and therefore, must meet an obligation to prove that they are acting according to egalitarian principles.

Michael Jordan, at his global peak of popularity in the 1990s, was the ultimate bargainer. No matter how egregious the injustice in the headlines – the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, the rise of racial profiling against Black commuters, the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric of key Republicans figures, like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan – “Air” Jordan maintained an air of silence, rejecting the tradition of Black athletes, most notably Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron, of parlaying their sports stardom into effective activism. He never lent his instantly recognizable name or likeness to campaigns for social justice, and infamously refused to endorse any candidates for political office.

In 1990, the Democratic Party in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina had an opportunity to defeat one of the most vicious racists of the U.S. Senate, Jesse Helms. Harvey Gannt, Helms’ opponent, was a local civil rights leader and beloved mayor of Charlotte. If he defeated Helms, he would have become the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate in North Carolina. The Gannt campaign, and even Michael Jordan’s mother, begged Jordan to make a public endorsement, believing that any boost to the candidacy could prove crucial in a close race. Jordan refused, uttering to his disappointed teammates what has now become one of sports’ most notorious expressions of greed and narcissism: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Jordan’s self-serving desire to maintain neutrality calls to mind the Howard Zinn quip, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The MVP’s silence offered protection for the delusions of the 1990s, namely that racism was a trauma of the past, and that consumer culture was a ticket to shared prosperity, even a substitute for investment in the public interest.

The only arena that Jordan dominated with equal force as the basketball court was the world of the television commercial.

Throughout the 1990s, it was impossible to avoid Jordan’s charismatic smile alongside product placement. As social critic Michael Eric Dyson wrote in a 1993 essay for “Cultura Studies,” “Jordan eats Wheaties, drives Chevrolet, wears Hanes, drinks Coca-Cola, consumes McDonald’s, guzzles Gatorade, and of course, wears Nikes. He successfully produced, packaged, marketed, and distributed his image and commodified his symbolic worth, transforming cultural capital into cash, influence, prestige, status, and wealth.” Dyson correctly observes that for a period of several years, “Jordan was the quintessential pitchman of American society.”

By eschewing the sociopolitical advocacy of sports legends like Jim Brown and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan followed the map of O.J. Simpson’s design. Long before Simpson became known as a wifebeater and accused of murder, he became a pioneer at the intersection of athletics and business. He was the first Black athlete to land a gig as corporate spokesperson when he appeared in television ads for Hertz Car Rental. Many additional endorsement opportunities soon followed, and O.J. rose to unprecedented heights by adopting the omerta on any and all issues related to race, politics and inequality.

“Jordan lacks any sense of historical perspective about the struggles that made it possible for him to enjoy his incredible wealth and enormous opportunities,” Michael Eric Dyson concluded. It is unclear whether Jordan lacked perspective or merely feigned ignorance, striking a pose of impartiality that is as easy to sketch as his patented triangular, one-handed dunk – an image that now adorns the Air Jordan basketball shoe.

Just as the Air Jordan still sells out in every shopping center of America, the American public, most especially the captains of corporate culture, has an insatiable appetite for the bargain that trades political passivity for personal glory. The hunger was especially powerful in the 1990s when Americans wanted to believe that racial division, arguments over democracy and questions regarding social justice relics of previous eras. Francis Fukuyama, one of the world’s most influential intellectuals, announced “the end of history” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the election of Bill Clinton promised the triumph of “third way” politics that put an end to partisan rancor.

The crass commercialism of “Republicans buy sneakers too” coupled with Jordan’s squeaky-clean image made him the perfect pitchman for a pre-WTO protest, pre-9/11, pre-Trump age of American optimism – the last days of faith that America could escape the clutches of history. Jordan lacked a historical perspective, just as Americans lacked historical interest.

LeBron James signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike at the age of 18, partially due to Jordan’s company man counsel, and currently endorses Taco Bell, Pepsi and Louis Vuitton. Even if his corporate connections are similar to his adversary in the GOAT debate, his persona is markedly different.

In his gripping and thoughtful biography, “LeBron,” veteran sports journalist Jeff Benedict chronicles how James ascended to NBA greatness, while also discovering an authentic sense of self, eventually amplifying an individual voice even while under corporate and cultural pressure. It was a transformation that, unlike his instant dominance on the court, took years to transpire.

During the 2006-07 season, one of James’ teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers wrote a letter for publication in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer condemning the Chinese government for complicity in the genocide of Darfur. Nike has a close relationship with China. Unlike other players on the Cavaliers, LeBron James refused to cosign the letter, claiming that he did not have “enough information” on the subject.

Benedict writes that James was troubled with regret, and not only because the press, and former NBA legends who became social justice advocates, like former Senator and presidential candidate, Bill Bradley, ridiculed James’ cowardly apathy. James himself knew that his inaction was wrong.

Since then, LeBron James has acted as a consistent force for racial equality and Democratic politics. He appeared alongside Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and supported Joe Biden in 2020.

In 2014, he organized the Cavaliers to wear “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts following the death of Eric Garner, and his repeated calls for police reform, have given him close association with Black Lives Matter. Calling participation in the sociopolitical commitment, “a walk of life,” he explained that “when you wake up, and you’re black . . . it shouldn’t be a movement. It should be a lifestyle.”

James is also one of the principal funders of More Than a Vote, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression laws and registering young Black Americans to cast a ballot. He has referred to Donald Trump as a “bum,” and invited the scorn of Fox News’ Anita Bryant-impersonator, Laura Ingraham, who instructed James to “shut up and dribble.” James replied by remarking how her dismissive attitude, and racial double standard – she often celebrates white athletes who take political positions – is exactly why he feels the need to enter political debate.

Meanwhile, James is the founder of the Lebron James Family Foundation, which pays for four years of tuition at the University of Akron, in James’ hometown, for more than 2,000 students. Although recent test scores are discouraging, the elementary school that the foundation started, the I Promise School, specializes in serving at-risk children.

Contrary to Jordan’s genuine or pretend historical illiteracy, James articulates an ethos of acknowledgement, gratitude and appreciation of lineage. During the first episode of the podcast that he cohosts with JJ Redick, James asserted the following as one of the three criteria for determining who are the greatest players in any sport: “Knowing the history of the game, knowing the ones who paved the way and knowing the reason why you’re actually having the ability to live out your dream – it doesn’t happen without the ones who came before you. It doesn’t happen without Bill Russell going through what he went through during the Civil Rights Movement. It doesn’t happen without Oscar Robertson going through what he had to deal with during those times. It doesn’t happen without them being pure, who they are and working to allow us to do what we do without care.”

The conflict of ideology between Jordan and James manifests in their divergent of styles of gameplay and leadership. Business and leadership coaches use James as a model of an effective innovator of team-centric success. Because he focuses, first and foremost, on integrating his teammates into each play, he often faces criticism for passing too much. Many of current and former teammates have credited him as a mentor. Michael Jordan, displaying the opposite mentality, told a story during his NBA Hall of Fame induction speech of responding to a coach’s admonishment, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” by saying, “But there is in ‘win.” It is a challenge to find a teammate of Jordan’s who voluntarily admits to liking him.

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As the “quintessential pitchman” without “historical perspective,” Jordan exemplified American individualism. LeBron James, while an individual of profound achievement, demonstrates a commitment to communal solidarity, on and off the court, that helps him sharpen an acuity of societal involvement.

Michael Jordan belongs on the Mount Rushmore of NBA legends, but LeBron James has performed at a higher level for a longer period of time. Every statistical indicator, along with James’ 10 final appearances, confirms that James’ resume of achievement is untouchable, clearly qualifying him as GOAT.

The refusal to fully appreciate James, and the insistence on Jordan as superior, is a choice not of rational calculation, but nostalgia – nostalgia for an America independent of history; an America when the fantasy of political detachment was in full reverie, and an America when individualistic obsession with consumer culture came without consequence.

The reality is that not only is LeBron James a better basketball player than Michael Jordan, but that to “Be Like Mike,” as the Gatorade advertisement slogan of the ‘90s stated, inflicts damage.

Jordan is fond of saying that he is not a “role model.” LeBron James provides a model for citizenship in an America without illusion. While Jordan lives in the air, head in the clouds of the past, James has his feet on the ground, marching into the future.