July 19, 2010
"There's no way, with hindsight," he said on Sunday, "I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.'"
This is as honest and forthright, without getting into the usual Jordan brand of bitterness and anger, as M.J. gets. He's actually being sincere and upfront, without any sort of agenda or legacy-shielding bluster, about the three heading to the same team. It's kind of odd, especially when you consider that he's an NBA owner and ostensible personnel head, but that's just something that we're going to have to get used to.
And to the larger point, especially considering LeBron? Is he copping out? Is he taking the easy way out? Running as a Mark II (or, as the kids say, version 2.0) Scottie Pippen when he could have turned into this amazing Jordan/Pippen hybrid on his own?
Sure. There's no doubt. James is taking an easier way out. And he is, with a scorer like Wade working as the focus (if not the best player) of the Heat, shuttling some responsibility off to someone else.
And I can't blame him.
Listen, I think I've been as vitriolic as I can possibly be regarding James' jump to Miami. It would be truthful to point out that his handlers made an ass out of LeBron when it came to his disturbingly tactless ESPN special (and all that led up to it), but at some point (and with your 26th birthday just five months away), you have to take the ass-making blame personally.
Sick of your friends making bad decisions that reflect poorly on you? Get new friends. Just because they're not shooting up nightclubs and setting up dog-fighting rings as opposed to tearing franchises apart and pretending to be big-boy businessmen, it doesn't mean they're not sycophants gone wild.
But going to Miami, to play with what might be the second-best player in the game, a talented big man and what is shaping up to be an impressive supporting cast? I'm sorry, but I'm not going to kill LeBron for this.
Unless James houses some sort of enmity between him and his greatest individual rivals, there's no sell-out here. And, as Jordan pointed out, with the preponderance of off-court interaction — NBA-sanctioned interaction — between stars like this these days, you can't blame the generational shift that leads to this.
Have you ever heard the story about the first time Larry Bird and Michael Jordan met? It seems apocryphal, but it also speaks to the divide in eras that we're dealing with.
Jordan, a few weeks after being drafted by the Chicago Bulls, was working out with his potential Team USA teammates in preparation for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The kids are on one court, and on another practice court runs a group of NBA All-Stars. It might even be a half-court/half-court situation, but I'm having a hard time finding quotable documentation inside my living room while on deadline, so you'll have to bear with me.
A loose ball, whatever the source, bounces from the Olympic team's court (featuring Jordan) to the veteran's side. Jordan goes to chase, Bird sort of runs into it. Jordan — not fawning, but not impolite — asks for it back. Bird chucks it over his head and back toward his team's court, then turns to run back to his own practice.
Jerk move, awesome move. Sort of what you'd expect in 1984. Not exactly what you'd expect if, say, Dwyane Wade(notes) and John Wall(notes) were in the same sort of situation at some point this summer. In fact, there's no way that goes down. For better or worse — probably better, when it comes to people not fake-hating each other — things are more civil these days.
That's how these players sign off on playing with each other. That's the second step. But why do they want to do so to begin with?
Because it's fun to play with great basketball players.
If you've played, at whatever level, you know the difference. Every player, no matter how good or bad they are, has been the best player on a basketball team at some point. And that's fun, living or dying with your own play. Having a team of two to 15 players fail or succeed based mostly on how well you perform. Feeling the pressure, owning the ball. Controlling your own destiny, win or lose.
And every player, no matter the stakes, has been a contributing player on a great team. You don't have to be a role player, an extra or a towel-waver. Every player, if they've played, has been on a team of similarly talented players that works together to take down all comers. Even if it's just for one Monday morning.
And, I'm sorry, that's ... fun.
So, instead of asking Michael Jordan — that noted misanthrope — perhaps we should be asking Magic Johnson who he'd rather play with. Did he want the lowly Chicago Bulls to win the coin flip in 1980 to secure his draft rights, or the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-featuring Los Angeles Lakers? Did he want the Lakers to draft James Worthy first overall in 1982, or some scrub in order to even the competition and make it all about Magic?
That's what Magic knew. That's how he came into this league, knowing nothing but a top-notch supporting cast.
And, as far as Bird goes? Go back 31 years and ask him which supporting cast he'd prefer for the 1979 NCAA final. His plucky Indiana State squad or Magic's Michigan State supporters, featuring another lottery pick in Greg Kelser?
Or, really, ask Michael. Did he really mind playing on that 1982 North Carolina team, featuring quite possibly three of the best five NCAA players in the country at the time? Couldn't he have just gone to Chaminade, and done it all himself? Wasn't that, in the year that led up to him agreeing to play with an established North Carolina team featuring Sam Perkins and James Worthy (and with M.J.'s own loyalties, in his words, running N.C. State red?) the same as what LeBron has done here?
Was Jordan averse to the Bulls trading Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman in the late summer of 1995, giving Chicago the best player in the NBA (someone like Wade could be this season), the best all-around player (hard to argue against LeBron, in that capacity) and, at times, the best power forward (what Dennis is to defense, Chris Bosh often is to offense)?
There is nothing about this entire process that LeBron has handled delicately, appropriately, tastefully. And his run in Miami, as he gets more insecure and more embarrassed about what happened leading up to the Florida jump, could even get nastier the more and more he tries to explain it away. It's LeBron James, and you'd be safe in betting your money on him putting his foot in his mouth again and again. In more egregious ways, I'm sure.
But to rip on the guy for wanting a chance at, I'm sorry, being part of the greatest basketball team ever put together? For wanting to play basketball at a level that few players, of any caliber, have ever experienced? I'm sorry, but this is a basketball high nonpareil, and I see nothing wrong with LeBron — or Dwyane or Chris — chasing this dragon. The point, in this league, is to work and move and dominate in a setting with four other men. Not to be a man amongst boys.
There's little to appreciate in the way that James has handled this. But I can understand why he's gone this route.