But if we're going to be rational adults in the most important hypothetical basketball debate of our time, neither man would rate as the greatest player in the sport's history.
As if the Miami Heat needed anything more to assure their position as postseason favorites to go all the way—the San Antonio Spurs have a better won/lost record, but few are taking them as a threat to Miami—LeBron & Co.'s defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers last night ought to convince. No one is taking anything for granted, certainly not the Heat, but in basketball more than any other professional sports, what is supposed to happen does happen. The team that looks like the best in later winter is usually the team that comes out on top in June.
Assuming that Miami will make the championships gives everyone plenty of fodder for the favorite debate topic of this NBA season: Who's better, LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Actually, it's probably the best basketball debate in nearly half a century, when it was Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain. And Jordan vs. James is more fun because they have more varied skills than those great centers of the '60s and can do more on a basketball court.
There are those in the last few weeks who have insisted that you can't compare players from different generations, especially when the statistics are so influenced by their teammates and opposition. I acknowledge this point but am going to disregard it. It's too much fun to argue the merits of such all-time greats, and anyway, there's not much else to do in what has been an otherwise uninteresting NBA season.
The real problem is settling on the terms of the debate. The first topic generally tossed out is the respective number of championship rings: Jordan had six, James has one. But we won't know how valid that comparison is for several years. Jordan didn't win his second ring till age 28, and James, who turned 28 at the end of December, will be right on par with Jordan if the Heat win their second straight championship this year.
Let me pause for a moment. Only in basketball is the number of championships regarded by so many as the ultimate test of greatness. Few would argue that Bart Starr was a greater quarterback then Johnny Unitas even though, from 1958-1967, Starr's Green Bay Packers won five championships to the two won by Johnny U's Baltimore Colts. (I would give the nod to Starr, but that's an argument for another day.) Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, two ballplayers nearly the same age who plays the same position and who had virtually the same skills, have been the subject of endless comparisons. but I don't know anyone who thinks that Mantle's seven World Series rings automatically makes him superior to Mays, who had just one.
Yet in basketball, probably because there are only five starting positions and a great player is thought to have more impact on the outcome of a game than players in other sports, rings begin and end the argument for some analysts and fans. Okay, in that case we'll just have to wait and see how things pan out for LeBron.
Meanwhile, I think it's perfectly fair to compare the two across nearly three decades. Yes, Jordan, who played from 1984-2003, competed in an NBA that had more big men, and James—who began his career in the 2003-2004 season, a year after Jordan retired—has on the whole played against smaller, faster, more athletic men.