What motivates LeBron James? Chasing ‘the ghost’ of Michael Jordan

Dan Devine
LeBron James celebrates during the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 NBA championship victory parade and rally. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
LeBron James celebrates during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA championship victory parade and rally. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

LeBron James is spending his summer sitting on top of the basketball world, celebrating the achievement of the goal he set for himself two summers back — returning home to win the first NBA championship in Cleveland Cavaliers history and give the fans of Northeast Ohio their first pro sports title in 52 years. After winning the third championship and third NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award of his career — and, on top of that, becoming the first player ever to lead all player on both Finals teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, all in the service of leading an unprecedented comeback from a 3-1 Finals deficit against the Golden State Warriors, who had won more regular-season games than any other team in NBA history — some began to wonder whether the time had finally come to seriously state King James’ case for the throne of the greatest basketball player of all time.

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“This is the stuff legends are made of, folks, and it’s time we ask: Is James the best we have ever seen?” asked Chris Mannix of The Vertical after the Cavaliers’ Game 7 victory. “He will forever be compared to Michael Jordan, will be clubbed by MJ’s perfect Finals record and shrugged at by aging players with a warped perception of just how good their day was. But this is six straight Finals for James, with three championships to show for it. He won in Miami, now in Cleveland, and there is a reasonable argument that he has been the best player in every series he suited up in.”

James has, at times, bristled at the idea of comparisons to Jordan, but in a characteristically fantastic cover story by Lee Jenkins in the next issue of Sports Illustrated, he makes it clear that his ongoing pursuit of greatness is driven by a desire to get on that level:

A prospect in the second row [at the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles] asks [James] what motivates him, now that he has delivered Cleveland’s elusive championship, the defining accomplishment for the era’s defining player. James fiddles with the rubber band on his wrist. The old one, which he wore in Game 7, read i promise. The new one, a gift from Michele Campbell, who runs his foundation, reads promise kept. […]

For the past decade, dramatic story lines have followed him, some of his own making, others contrived and distracting. Can he make the big shot? Can he win the big game? Can he win the big game in Cleveland? All that has melted away, into a puddle of Moët on the Oracle Arena hardwood, and finally he is left alone with the only subplot that ever really interested him. He has pondered it forever, but could not voice it, not with one title or even two. But now he has three, and the weight of this latest trophy tips scales the others did not. The guy in the second row waits for an honest answer.

“My motivation,” James says, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

James finishes a full-court run with the high schoolers, his first time on the floor since the Finals, and lies on a training table to stretch his legs. “Why do I feel like I’m about to go into therapy?” he asks. Because you started talking about ghosts, he is told. “My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” he says. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”

James has in the past both acknowledged and expressed some discomfort with the MJ comp.

LeBron James hugs Michael Jordan after the Miami Heat defeat the Charlotte Bobcats in Game 4 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
LeBron James hugs Michael Jordan after the Miami Heat defeat the Charlotte Bobcats in Game 4 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

We learned in 2012, after SI named James its Sportsman of the Year following his first championship victory with the Miami Heat, that the screensaver on his smartphone was “a Photoshop image of himself handling the ball while guarded by Michael Jordan in his prime,” because “as a competitor, who would not want to go against the best?”

Later that season, with James in the midst of a historically brilliant run of shooting and scoring during which he appeared to be at the peak of his powers, Jordan said that if allowed to choose only one player, he’d pick Kobe Bryant over James, because “five [championship rings] beats one every time I look at it.” James shrugged off Jordan’s pick, and later emphasized the importance of making his own way rather than trying to follow in another’s footsteps.

“You don’t want to be continued to be compared to someone,” James told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. “M.J. is one of the greatest that ever played. I don’t know if I’ll ever put in enough work to be mentioned with him, but I’m also at a point where I’m trying to make my own lane. I understand the comparisons. … Some of them are fair. Some of them are unfair to him. I know he’s looking at it like, ‘Guys shouldn’t be compared to me.'”

During All-Star Weekend 2013, though, James also made it very clear that his career’s goal is to not only earn the right to be part of that conversation, but to ultimately stand alone as everybody’s top pick.

“I want to be the greatest of all time,” he said, according to SI’s Ben Golliver. “As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”

Following Miami’s second straight championship, James reiterated that aim at the Heat’s 2013 training camp:

But while his internal motivation might stem from that desire to be the best, James also said this past season that he sometimes wishes fans, media members and observers would chill out with the brand of “who ya got?” barstool arguments that insist upon ranking everyone and everything:

“I think what we get caught up in, in our league too much is trying to compare greats to greats instead of just accepting and acknowledging and saying, ‘Wow, these are just great players,'” James said. “I think in the NFL when you talk about great quarterbacks, they don’t really compare great quarterbacks. They say, ‘Oh, Joe Montana is great.’ You know, ‘Tom Brady is great. Aaron Rodgers is great. Steve Young is great.’ (Terry) Bradshaw, all those great quarterbacks, they never compare them as much, but when it comes to our sport we’re so eager to say, ‘Who is better, Oscar or (Michael) Jordan?’ or, ‘Jordan or LeBron or Kobe (Bryant) or these guys?’ instead of just accepting greatness.”

As reasonable a position as that might be for LeBron to wish the rest of us took, it’d also be kind of odd if a competitor who has been the best player on virtually every court he has ever stepped at every stage of his development didn’t look at the ranks of the game’s legends and think, “Yeah, I should be up there.” While Mannix is right that there are plenty of people for whom Jordan’s 6-0 record in NBA Finals compared to James’ 3-4 mark renders the argument over, it seems fair to argue that LeBron — with three rings, three Finals MVP awards, four regular-season MVP trophies, and an all-around statistical profile through 13 seasons that’s closer to MJ’s production than you might realize — has at least earned himself a place in the conversation.

At age 31, with an apparent stranglehold on the Eastern Conference, James could get a few more cracks at filling out both his trophy case and his résumé to further bolster his case. He’ll have to vanquish a reloaded Warriors team that now features fellow former MVP Kevin Durant to do so — and while he “insists the Warriors are not the impetus,” according to Jenkins, LeBron’s been in the gym at 6 a.m. every day for weeks, training harder than usual at this stage of the offseason to prepare for next year’s fight — but that’s the cost of doing business. Another hurdle to leap. Another challenge to meet. Another obstacle to overcome in pursuit of putting that particular ghost to rest.

“I’ll have peace when I’m done,” James told Jenkins. And, just maybe, something even more rare than peace: an unassailable position atop the game to which he’s dedicated his life.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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