Michael Jordan's mystique clouds our memories: LeBron is the GOAT

Credit: Leah Klafczynski

Credit: Leah Klafczynski

LeBron James is headed to his eighth straight NBA Finals on Thursday night in Oakland, Calif. His Cavaliers aren't likely to beat the Golden State Warriors.

In fact, if James orchestrates the upset, it will go down as one of shockers in the sport's championship history. Which makes the upcoming Finals feel like a foregone conclusion.

Maybe they are.

Maybe that's why the conversation surrounding the league right now has little to do with who wins the title. And everything to do with James' place among NBA greats.

Which always come back to Michael Jordan.

Everywhere you turn you hear the question: "Who is better, Jordan or LeBron?" Arguing it is almost as fun as watching the actual league, as it's turned into the best barstool debate in team sports.

As with any argument, where you stand — and why you stand there — says something about how you view the world. But, beyond that, our collective obsession with this question reveals something about us, too.

Because, really, this shouldn't be a debate at all. James is the most talented basketball player we've ever seen. That part is easy.

For those of you under 40, it's hard to imagine what it was like when Jordan rocketed onto the NBA scene as a rookie in the fall of 1984. I was living in Austin, Texas, a freshman in college, and within a few weeks of Jordan's debut, the local news networks began showing highlights of his outrageous athletic feats.

We looked forward to them. Couldn't wait, actually. ESPN wasn't as entrenched then. And for a local news show to give up part of its airtime to an athlete in a market on the other side of the country, well, it was radical.

Because Jordan was new. The way he loped on the court and then pounced. The way he suspended himself midair. A combination of explosiveness and grace that felt impossible.

This began his story, and by the time he began winning championships seven years later, the narrative supporting him had a tidy backstory (cut from his high school team!) and he'd outlasted the iconic franchises of that era — the Lakers, the Celtics, yes, even the Pistons.

Despite his gravity-defying talent, he still was seen as an overachiever, a grinder, a mythic figure who combined the culture's fetish for sunrise-to-sundown work ethic with his own heavenly gifts. He would also stomp on his grandmother to win.

His perfect record in NBA Finals — 6-0 — is often cited among those who argue that Jordan is the superior player. He is, in that way, untainted.

And who doesn't like perfection?

That perfection, along with his above-the-rim dancing, his style in the culture at large, and his world-wide celebrity, fused an impenetrable wall around his greatness for a generation — or more — of basketball fans.

Which means that on some level this argument isn't so much about basketball or statistics as it's about our collective memory. About how we remember things. About the power of emotion in how we catalog experiences.

In other words, we don't recall Jordan's prime in a vacuum. We've attached certain feelings to it. Those feelings can change how we remember. It's akin to an eye-witness who sits on the stand, who can get facts wrong even though they watched an event unfold first-hand.

Scientists refer to this as reconstructing. When we dig into our stored memory bank, we aren't looking at an unfiltered, unaltered tape. We're looking at a tape in which we've edited, onto which we've spliced our own life perspectives.

And so it is with Jordan.

I watched him play in person at least a dozen times. But when I've looked at clips of some of those games, I'm always struck by how much slower the players are on video. Not him, necessarily, but many of those around him.

This makes sense and is partly why he always stood out.

James, meanwhile, doesn't benefit from the romanticism of our memory. He is still before us now. Flaws and all.

Yet the argument isn't simply swayed by a time-warp. It's more primal.

Where Jordan felt new, James felt like the distillation of everything we'd seen. As if he'd been conceived in a lab based on parts of past greats.

The vision of Magic Johnson. The strength of Karl Malone. The explosiveness and power of Shawn Kemp. The micro processing of John Stockton. The shot making of Larry Bird — no, not the 3-point shooting, but the shotmaking, like the floater he kissed off the glass to beat Toronto a couple weeks back.

The ballhandling of Isiah Thomas.

Yes, Isiah Thomas. Of all the elements to James' varied skill set, his handle may be the most underrated.

If Jordan was free of gravity, James was free of this earth. Think of the adjectives used to describe him: freak of nature, alien, monster, lab creation.

We marvel. And yet, we subconsciously hold his gifts against him. Where Jordan got credit for willing himself into a complete player, James gets credit for ... getting beamed down from outer space?

It's as if James just showed up at the doorstep of the NBA one day as a fully formed, otherworldly creation. Even his nickname — "The Chosen One" — plays into the narrative. Suggesting that he was gifted, that he hasn't earned what he's attained.

No wonder James is fond of revealing his workout videos. He wants to remind us he is human. Even if his play has been anything but.

As James closes in on the prime of his career, the debate over who is the greatest ever picks up velocity. And urgency, because one day soon he will be nothing but memory.

Until then, he will continue to remake what we think is possible on a basketball court, as he keeps returning to the Finals and keeps hitting game-winners and keeps astounding us with a staggering level of play, a level we've never seen.

Yet James is still chasing the sweet-spot between his ideal of team basketball and the superstar demands of the individual. Jordan never had to navigate that chasm. He was comfortable playing the on-court sociopath from the start.

That tension is central to this debate. Jordan's perfect Finals record represents, to many, a triumph of the individual quest, of sacrifice, of an uncompromising and relentless need to conquest.

Whereas James' record can be taken as a reflection of his eternal search for playing the purest form of a team game.

They are two players, and two ideals, colliding within American culture. A repository for our dreams. A challenge to our memories.

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