Michael Jordan, most of all, should keep his mouth shut, at least when the topic is LeBron James, free agency, friendship, rings and right versus wrong.
Not another word. Not another syllable. Jordan has accomplished too much, on and off the basketball court, to become one of those finger-wagging graybeards who lecture the next generation on how things were done -- on how things were better -- back in the day. The saddest stories in sports all begin the same way: When I played….
The first to criticize James for signing with the Miami Heat was Charles Barkley, who said no two-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player should leave his team to join anyone anywhere. Period. End of story. That bit of wisdom, of course, doesn’t apply to Kevin Garnett, a one-time MVP who, looking back, advised James to take control of his career, to do what makes him happy.
“Mike and I are in 100 percent agreement. You don’t leave anywhere. They come to you,” Barkley told the Arizona Republic, suggesting that James had surrendered alpha-male status (is there anything worse in sports) by going elsewhere. Before that Barkley, who got close but never won a championship -- which Jordan never lets him forget, by the way -- told a Miami radio station that James, now, could never be the heir to Air.
Let’s cut Barkley some slack, though, as his job as an NBA analyst for TNT requires that he make public pronouncements. It’s his shtick, for which he’s well compensated.
Not Like Mike
James never wanted to be the next Jordan. Yes, James idolized Jordan. Show me the sports-loving kid born in 1984 that didn’t. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, James probably heard countless stories about how traveling with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls was akin to hanging with a certain mop-haired quartet from Liverpool. And here stands James, ripped by his predecessors and idols for having the gall to form his own superstar trio, the Heatles.
James isn’t Jordan. Never was. His game was patterned not after dunks, but dishes and dimes, as they’re called on the playground. James saw himself more as Magic Johnson, a 6-foot-9-inch guard who saved his widest grins for crowd-pleasing passes.
Speaking of Johnson, he, like Jordan, weighed in on James, saying he never would have considered joining forces with the best players because he was too busy figuring out how to beat them.
“We didn’t think about it ‘cause that’s not what we were about,” Johnson said.
James, 25, chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, who any basketball analyst worth his clipboard would have to admit, don’t exactly have a stellar supporting cast. Jordan, beginning in his fourth season, had seven-time All-Star Scottie Pippen. Johnson, meantime, had hall-of-fame running mates like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.
James had, uh, let’s see, Daniel Gibson, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, who have combined to produce one All-Star appearance.
James chose to play in Miami, alongside his All-Star pals, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They’ve been friends for years and played together on the triumphant Olympic team in Beijing. They even conspired to become free agents at the same time, joking about joining forces while knowing that salary restrictions made it almost impossible.
But impossible became possible and possible became doable. So James, and surely Jordan should understand this, Just Did It.
Look, there’s reason to criticize James, which I have. You can trash him for how he went about finding a new home, but not why. His motivation, first and foremost, was winning. Not money. Not ego. That’s laudable, especially today, when too many athletes value pay over play.
And yet there was Jordan, telling NBC that he never would have called Larry Bird or Johnson with the hope of forming a miniature dream team.
“But things are different. I can’t say that’s a bad thing,” Jordan said, right before he would insinuate that it’s a bad thing. “I mean, in all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys. I don’t know if they would have been on my team.”
Jordan, now majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, is right about one thing. Things are different.
It would’ve been something to see Johnson, Jordan or Barkley exist as a professional athlete in a Twitterati world where TMZ covers sports and employs gotcha paparazzi with contacts at every hot club in town.
Back in the day, when Heat President Pat Riley coached the Knicks, he barred Charles Oakley from dining with former Bulls teammate Jordan because he abhorred fraternization. And here’s Riley, architect of the three amigos.
James, for the most part, has represented himself, his team and the NBA in fine fashion.
Saying It Best
Jordan’s former teammate, Steve Kerr, said it best three years ago when James was criticized for, get this, passing the basketball rather than forcing what could’ve been a game-winning shot in a playoff game.
Jordan, let’s remember, was in a similar situation during Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan, like LeBron, didn’t force the shot. He passed to Kerr, who, well, you know the rest.
Kerr made it. Donyell Marshall missed, and the Cavaliers lost.
All James wants is a teammate that he can count on with the clock ticking down and legacies on the line.
“The moral of the story,” Kerr said, “is it’s not easy being LeBron.”
Jordan, Barkley and Johnson would be wise to remember that before piling on with not-in-our-time proclamations from the past.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)