Air of hypocrisy: Jordan’s typical shots at LeBron ring hollow

Vintage

On an April night back in 2003 at the MCI Center, I sat courtside to watch a baton passed unwillingly from the former king to the future King.

An 18-year-old LeBron James used an array of circus shots and sensational dunks en route to 34 points at the Jordan Capital Classic.

And up in a skybox, wearing a garish jersey from his clothing line and flanked by Warren Sapp and Patrick Ewing, a shadowy figure glared down at the teenager set to inherit his crown.

Michael Jordan was mere weeks away from the end of his NBA career at the time, and also the termination of his association with the Wizards, who wanted no part of his diva tendencies and horrible personnel decisions. And as he aged less than gracefully, he grew steadily more bitter toward younger players, who would deign to take what he forever views as his.

I long admired Jordan for what he accomplished on the court, and for being able to take advantage of the stars aligning to allow him to dominate corporate America. But the more I learned, the more I continued to lose respect for a caustic man who for years hid his enormous character flaws behind a slew of marketing initiatives.

Jordan put on a wry smile and posed with James that night out of obligation after he was named co-MVP of the Classic, but he has always had utter disdain for anyone dubbed The Next Big Thing. It reminded me of Jordan’s appearance on the Oprah show last summer (clip at right), when in a flimsily veiled shot at LeBron James, he said the youth of the NBA get things they don’t deserve, including shoe contracts before they ever play a game.

Jordan never misses a chance to attempt to take the new generation down a peg, to inject himself into a story he has nothing to do with. This came to the forefront again this weekend with his comments about James’ move to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.

MJ doesn’t handle it how Jay-Z plays it with guys like Drake, embracing – at least publicly – the new jacks of the game, watching his success pave the way for a legacy carried forth through the emulations and admiration of younger talent.

On the contrary, Jordan despises the new generation of basketball players, mainly for the youth that he no longer has, but is constantly striving to find again.

Meanwhile, Jordan and LeBron actually have a lot in common. MJ’s deal with Nike for $500,000 was actually the mid-1980’s equivalent of LeBron’s $90 million deal, especially after equity in the company helped him make over $130 million off Air Jordans. It dwarfed what other stars had been able to achieve, with former college teammate James Worthy’s eight-year, $1.2 million deal being the previous benchmark.

Guys like Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson – in between bizarrely kissing each other – likely said the same sort of things about Jordan back in the day that he says about LeBron now. He hasn’t earned it. This manifested itself on the court with their infamous freeze-out of MJ at the 1985 All-Star Game, a grand-scale version of Jordan’s lack of acceptance toward James.

LeBron – who until his horribly received Decision show, was quite savvy public relations-wise – has historically taken every opportunity to pay his respects to Jordan. He has for many years worn Jordan’s No. 23, until this coming year, when in a preview of things to come, Pat Riley brainwashed him into abdicating it in an unnecessary and awkward tribute to Jordan.

The clip to the right is LeBron circa 2003, again on Oprah – which, uh, I only watch when basketball players are on. Right after the NBA Draft, he discusses what Jordan has meant to his life and career, and compares meeting him at the Capital Classic to “Black Jesus” coming toward him, probably genuine sentiments at the time.

But Jordan was not interested in reciprocating that level of respect. While sitting in a suit and watching his Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan still seethes at the notion that with every day that goes by, his playing legacy becomes a little more distant. In his mind, he could play forever, long after his knees failed to acquiesce. Golf, gambling and making terrible draft picks have simply never fully whetted his competitive appetite or desire to be loved.

Jordan has never found satisfaction in a life in which he’s no longer able to compete on the court, as other players naturally take attention he views as rightfully his. The real shame is that most would consider his post-playing career an enormous success. He’s the only former player to hold majority ownership in a team, and the sneaker line he still has equity in after all these years rakes in buckets of money.

And yet he’s still furious. Still longing for his youth. Tilting at windmills.

*****

In terms of his comments about LeBron, I agree that Jordan would not have left Chicago to join up with, say, Clyde Drexler and Barkley somewhere. Of course, I think that’s more a reflection of the fact that at a similar stage of his career, he knew he had the coach and supporting cast he needed to win championships. He could compete with the NBA’s elite as it was; he didn’t have to go anywhere. Besides, star players rarely switched teams back then.

And even with Pippen there with him, if, say, Barkley had wanted to come to the Bulls, I think Jordan probably would have found room for him in his legacy.

Whatever you think of LeBron James’ decision to go to Miami, considering you likely agree with Jordan’s assessment of it, bear in mind that his comments really weren’t about LeBron. They were about Jordan.

It’s always about Jordan.

And though nothing will ever take away from how amazing he was on the court, I’ve basically given up on the idea that he could become anything more than what he is:

A bitter man, who will never be satisfied with his own life after the flashbulbs no longer sought him, and who needs to try to drag others down to his own miserable level.

Esoteric

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