LeBron closing the gap on MJ
By Doug Koztoski
The intense search began following the 2002-03 NBA season when Michael Jordan decided to step away from the hardwood for good. Hundreds of candidates applied, some chosen, some self-appointed. But in the end, it seemed none could ever live up to the lofty standards established by their predecessor.
Like a temp hired with the understanding he could one day become a permanent staffer, LeBron James has spent the last several years displaying his freakish skills, fine-tuning his basketball IQ and building a resume others could only dream about.
Now, six years into his “audition,” James is ready to drop the temporary status from his title and officially take over as the league’s CEO and few are questioning he’s the right man for the job. James, the NBA’s No. 1 pick in 2003 – out of high school no less – has been hearing the comparisons with Jordan since he was a teenager, and unlike others who were anointed the kingdom before proving their worthiness, “King James” has been up to the challenge.
According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, James stacks up well against the highest of expectations. “Of course LeBron, like Michael (Jordan) after year six, has even been better than the outrageous hype,” said the award-winning sportswriter.
Wayne Larrivee with the Big Ten Network, who did play-by-play announcing with the Chicago Bulls for several years and witnessed Jordan in hundreds of games, said the James and Jordan comparisons are valid.
“He’s right up there with him,” said Larrivee. “LeBron has a chance to be the best of all-time,” he said, and many consider Jordan the top player in NBA history. Several statistical categories indicate that after six seasons LeBron is piloting a jet to that remote destination.
The veteran broadcaster said James has some extra fuel to help him on his superstar journey. “He is such a huge man, but he plays like a small man with his agility, speed and ball handling. He can win a game in so many ways. Jordan was kind of skinny, sleek, with lift,” he said.
Larrivee said James and Jordan also match up well in other ways. ”They both have the same flair for the dramatic. LeBron has a lot of MJ type of play, in terms of his approach,” said the seasoned sportscaster. “But MJ had more of a tendency to take the game into his own hands while LeBron is more willing to be a facilitator. Jordan was more cutthroat.”
The veteran announcer added James made the transition to the pros with style. “Both LeBron and Kevin Garnett came straight out of high school to the NBA and handled it beautifully.” he said. “The game was not bigger than either of them. Even Kobe took a couple of years to come into his own. The expectations for LeBron were big. They were not nearly as huge for MJ.”
“Jordan came into the league from college with a chip on his shoulder. Maybe he was just kidding,” said Larrivee, “but he would grouse about Sam Bowie going ahead of him in the draft (1984 First Round Pick #2 as opposed to #3),” He also recalled that about a month after Jordan joined the Bulls “they realized what they had.”
What the Bulls had in Jordan, as destiny played out, was a player who electrified the game on many levels while racking up six NBA Championships. LeBron, however, still clamors for his first NBA trophy.
But with the recent trade of Shaquille O’Neal to Cleveland many think LeBron and Company’s fortune may soon change. Larrivee said Shaq is no longer near his prime but will still contribute significantly. “He and LeBron should gel well with each other. Shaq is still strong enough and good enough to be a very good #2 option,” he said.
Pluto summed up the Shaq trade like a successful no-look pass: “A good deal for the Cavs? Nope, it’s a great one.”
Terry Melia of Upper Deck possesses similar sentiments about LeBron and his championship chances. “Remember, he’s just 24 years old. Michael was 28 when he won his first NBA title, so LeBron has plenty of time to make his own mark in NBA history,” said Upper Deck’s Public Relations Manager.
Melia added that Jordan and James will both play key roles in Upper Deck’s hoop card plans this season. “With Michael’s Hall of Fame induction in September, interest in MJ’s cards has started to gain momentum once again.” To celebrate Jordan’s upcoming induction, Upper Deck produced an insert set commemorating each of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls games.
“And to tip off the 2009-10 product year, LeBron will be rocking out in his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School uniform in Draft Edition Basketball’s ‘Alma Mater’ subset, which will include an autograph parallel,” said Melia. LeBron will also appear in several other Upper Deck issues, Melia emphasized.
Hobbyists have embraced Jordan cards for decades, with his rookie cards at the pinnacle of the hobby for post-1980 issues and among the most-sought-after basketball cards ever. James’ pasteboards are following a somewhat similar path.
Collecting LeBron cards since his rookie season in 2003-04, Matt Warner has amassed the top ranking in the PSA Set Registry for the Cleveland hoopster. “LeBron has the complete game,” said Warner, “and his cards can only go up.”
Warner’s picks for the top mainstream LeBron cards include the 2002-03 Finest redemption (LJ’s first rookie) and the 2003-04 Topps Chrome and Upper Deck Black Diamond cards.
For underrated LeBron cards Warner points to 2004 issues. “For some people his rookies are too expensive and this is the next best thing to his rookie year. The other cards that are underrated are the UD Black redemption cards (2006-07 and 2007-08),” he said. B-ball collector Jon Darby added the 2003-04 Topps Pristine card to the underrated James group, as well.
“The big difference is that with Jordan there was a very limited amount of cards, just Star during his rookie year and a few years after and then Fleer. There weren’t refractors and serial numbered cards then,” said Warner. “With LeBron there are so many brands and companies out there and the biggest thing of all–eBay, where you can find any LeBron or Jordan card.”
And it’s a safe guess that you will likely find LeBron and Jordan appearing a lot together in many media stories and sparking conversation and debate for years to come. That’s to be expected as greatness has its privileges. SCM