Michael Jordan turns 50; why NBA fans have to finally move on

“He’s good—but he’ll never be Michael Jordan…”

“It’s amazing what he’s doing—but is he Michael Jordan?”

Those two lines were uttered on two separate occasions about two separate NBA stars; the first about Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and the other about the Miami Heat’s Lebron James. Arguably the two biggest NBA icons of the post-Jordan era, these two men have had to bear the brunt of being “not Michael Jordan” for the entirety of their careers—no doubt a heavy (and frustrating) burden to bear.

Jordan, the NBA’s greatest player, turns 50 today. And his shadow still looms large over the league that he helped turn into a global phenomenon. And it’s understandable—there was no player more charismatic, seemingly-unstoppable and more hell-bent on winning than Michael Jeffrey Jordan in his prime. He came into the league determined to outshine his contemporaries—whether it was Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who were winning championships before his teams got to the elite level; or Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley, who he routinely kept from ever ascending to the top of the mountain. His jaw-dropping moves and game winning shots are forever etched in the memories of anyone old enough to have witnessed them. And honestly, maybe even many who aren’t old enough to have seen them firsthand.

It can’t be ignored that he’s also the most mass-marketed athlete ever. People who didn’t know much about the NBA knew Michael Jordan. He became a pop culture figure in a way that, say, Magic Johnson never did. Magic won five championships—but he never hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

But all of the love and admiration the basketball world still has for No. 23 has gradually turned into an unhealthy obsession–one that is robbing fans of their ability to appreciate the greatness of the players that have emerged in the aftermath of his career.

Since Jordan’s first “retirement” in 1993, basketball fans have pined for the “Next Jordan.” From Penny Hardaway and Harold Miner, to Grant Hill, Bryant, Vince Carter and James—a bevy of superstars have come and gone having to bear the mark of being the “Air Apparent.” But, in the case of Bryant and James, in particular—two surefire Hall of Famers and all-time greats—its insulting to what they’ve been able to do during their careers.

Bryant is one of the most focused players in the game, an offensive whiz who’s added a variety of weapons to his repertoire over the years. After a staggering 17 years in the league, he has five championships to his credit. He’s gone on record-breaking scoring binges, is the all-time leading All-Star Game scorer and has posted the most points in an NBA game since Wilt Chamberlain. James is a physical rarity—a basketball player with the build of a power forward, the court vision of a point guard, and athleticism like we’ve never seen. He’s won a championship with the Miami Heat and has just gone on an unprecedented run where he scored at least 30 points while shooting at least 60 percent from the field for six straight games.

Bryant has played 17 straight years and is still a top-five scorer in the league. Jordan played 13 with the Bulls—and took a year and a half off to play baseball in the mid-90s. James fills up the stat sheet like no one before him—including MJ. Yet both men have to routinely contend with “He ain’t better than Jordan?” chatter.

Kobe and Lebron both teamed with superstars to win their championships. Kobe played second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal on his first three championship teams, then  teamed with Pau Gasol for his next two. Lebron has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Because Michael Jordan only played with one teammate for all six championships that was HOF-caliber (Scottie Pippen), fans dismiss Bryant and James’ greatness because of the talent they’ve had around them.

“They aren’t MJ.”

But virtually every great player not named “Michael Jordan” had uber-talented teams around them. Jerry West played with guys like Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Elgin Baylor. Dr. J had Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks. Bill Russell’s teams were stocked with Hall of Famers. Magic Johnson played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo. Bird played with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson.

Everyone can’t be judged by “The Jordan Standard.” And we don’t use that standard to dismiss those who played before Jordan’s Bulls took over the NBA. Its unfair to constantly use it to discredit those who have won after. Because the marketing machine made him such an omnipresent figure, we cling to his legacy irrationally. Do we constantly compare Tom Brady or Peyton Manning to the Joe Montanas and Dan Marinos of the world with the same level of fanaticism? Does every running back have to contend with “he isn’t Barry Sanders” scrutiny?

Michael Jordan is an icon. The fact that he’s still held in such high regard a generation after winning his last championship speaks volumes. For people of a certain age, the image of him in that red and black uniform largely defines the NBA; and along with Bird and Johnson, he epitomizes the league’s greatest era.

But it’s time to let go; time to judge the greats of today on their own merits. Whether it be a 17-year veteran in Los Angeles still playing great in the twilight of his career or a physical marvel in Miami that’s doing things on a basketball court the world has never seen. Let the specter of Michael Jordan’s career finally rest in peace.

And embrace the greatness we see before us everyday.

–          stereo williams

Stereo Williams
Stereo Williams

Todd "Stereo" Williams, entertainment writer based in New York City. He co-founded Thirty 2 Oh 1 Productions, an indie film company.



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