Written by Jeremy Sheppard
If basketball fans celebrated a National Hyperbole Month, it would have to be in June. More reputations have been irreparably marred, more legacies have been overly lauded in a handful of Junes than a lifetime of NBA regular seasons. Every year we force our superstars to endure too-early comparisons, and, like we so often do in sports, we compare only in extremes, leaving no middle ground. Suddenly, a player or team that should have a few years left to write its legacy has been cemented as a failure.
Before the Finals began, I wondered how some of the headlines would read once the NBA Champion was crowned, knowing just how much they could be exaggerated. I wrote down a few possibilities just before Game One:
“Dirk solidifies himself among history’s elite.” (Why did we wait so long to admit this? A seven-footer with otherworldly coordination, an MVP, a member of the 50-40-90 Club and career averages of over 23 points and eight rebounds must be one of the best players ever, right? Did he need a title and Finals MVP to make people feel comfortable saying this? Oh, I remember why we didn’t recognize Dirk — despite his accomplishments, he came up short in June ‘06.)
The opposite side of a Mavericks’ victory: “James, Wade and the Heat: The Evil Empire Falls.” (Are they really evil? Maybe they are just three good friends who want to play basketball together.)
Or, we could be force-fed the most egregious violation of our basketball sensibilities: “LeBron secures title, embraces role as Jordan’s ‘Air Apparent’.”
Remember all the way back to two weeks ago when that last one seemed like a real possibility? After LeBron’s Game Five block of Derrick Rose to secure the Eastern Conference title, I could almost see the words printed on the page. Scottie Pippen was ready to concede MJ’s time as the GOAT might soon be over. Despite a large backlash over Pippen’s comments, there were some people who attempted to argue in favor of James.
At the time, James (smartly) flat-out denied this comparison, saying, “I am not better than Michael Jordan.” Maybe he understands that any claim–by anyone–anointing a player as the ‘Air Apparent’ is unfair.
They are unfair to Michael Jordan because the legacy that he left was so vast, and any attempt at comparing him to a player who has yet to completely finish his carer will only disrespect what Jordan did on the court.
They are unfair to LeBron James for the same reasons that they are unfair to anyone else who has been been given the Air Apparent mantle: It’s not so much of a gift, as it is a curse. Being compared to MJ adds a Manute Bol-sized load of pressure to a player.
We’ve been down this road before.
During 1996 pre-draft workouts, Jerry West deemed Kobe Bryant was “destined for greatness.” Twenty months later, the focus of NBC’s All-Star Game coverage centered on the Kobe-Michael matchup. Jordan won the MVP, and Kobe led the West with 18 points. The changing of the guard had begun. Air Apparent talk abounded then as it did during the Eastern Conference Playoffs for James.
That’s too much responsibility for a 19-year-old. It almost feels as if by crowning Kobe as the Next Jordan, we, in a bizarre real-world example of Inception, made Kobe believe that to be the Next Jordan, he had to BE Jordan. His actions, his mannerisms, his (lack of) hair–everything he did began to emulate Michael. Except everything he did, no matter how closely it resembled His Airness, was still lacking in one way or another. Could you blame him? Kobe could no better be an exact copy of Jordan than you could be an exact copy of your mother or father. It is simply impossible.
Next: The Next Who?