Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?
Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.
Not counting that weird timeout to play minor league baseball and the three years Michael Jordan sat out around the turn of the century, his career lasted 15 seasons. Between the playoffs and the regular season, he played 1,109 games for the Chicago Bulls. He tacked on another 142 games with the Washington Wizards before calling it quits for good in 2003.
Meanwhile, LeBron James, who entered the league just months after Jordan exited for the last time, is in his 15th season. Including the postseason, he has already appeared in 1,334 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, and it doesn’t look like the 33-year-old plans on stopping anytime soon.
Both have had countless teammates, but only four men in NBA history have played with Jordan and LeBron. Brendan Haywood, now an analyst for NBA TV, is one of those lucky, rare few. Haywood’s career was bookended by greatness; he played his first two seasons in the league with Jordan in Washington and later wrapped up his time in the NBA with a stretch in Cleveland. The Ringer talked to Haywood about the differences between the two superstars, what they were like as teammates and people, and where he falls on the great GOAT debate. This interview has been edited and condensed.
I think they told you, but we’re doing stories about Jordan and LeBron, and you are one of four people who have played with both guys. That’s pretty —
Let me see if I can get the four. Me, Larry Hughes. … It’s got to be me, Larry Hughes … Jerry Stackhouse?
Yeah. One more. This last one is …
[Writer’s note: Scott Williams, if you’re reading this, the guy who has your old phone number told me that CVS keeps calling and wants you to pick up your prescriptions. I’m serious.]
You got it. That’s really good. Do people ask you about playing with both guys?
Nah. People don’t really ask me about it because I think most people don’t really think about it because the time frame was so different. Playing with LeBron was my last year. Playing with Jordan was my first two years. So, people, most of the time, don’t make the connection that I played with both of them.
That’s crazy, though. Not only were you an NBA player, but you played with two of the greats. I guess, let’s start with Jordan, since that was your first two years [in the league]. What was that like?
It was a learning experience. Playing with Mike, you got a chance to see what the greatest player in the game did to prepare. So you understood the work ethic. Watching film. You know, taking things serious. Taking the game and your scouting reports serious. Mike took everything serious. He was always, before the game, reading the scouting report. So if a guy couldn’t go left, he was gonna make you go left all game. And he expected you to do the same. Don’t let guys beat you with their strength. Force them to beat you with their weaknesses. Pay attention. Do the little things.
It was great for me, as a young guy, to see a guy who was, at that point, 40 years old, but who was still doing every little thing that it took to be successful.
There are legendary stories about how intense he was in practice. Was he still intense at that age?
He was incredibly intense. He still wanted to win everything. He was still super competitive. He was still in practice talking junk to everybody.
In scrimmages, if I got short-side on him, Mike wasn’t known for shooting the 3. One day, he was dribbling, he was talking to me, and I was like, “Man, you don’t shoot 3s.” He just pulled up from 3 right as the scrimmage ended, and it went right through the net. And he was like, “You know better. You grew up watching me. You know better.” It was one of those things where he was always competitive. He was always pushing the envelope. He didn’t care who you were. He didn’t care that I went to UNC as well. It was just one of those things where Mike, he always want to cut your heart out.
That’s a great story. Do you have any others from those first two years that you retell?
We came back from a really long road trip, West Coast trip. We had a day off. The veterans didn’t even have to be in. The younger guys had to come in, of course. I think I got in at like 10 [a.m.]. And I got there and I heard a ball bouncing. Mike was on the court, already sweated out. He was finishing his workout. I got there at 10, everyone had an off day, some of the other young guys were getting there. He was finishing his workout. And I was like, “Mike, what are you doing here, man? It’s your day off.” And he was like, “You’re asking the wrong questions. The question is not ‘You’re asking what am I doing here?’ The question is, ‘Why’d I beat you?’” It was little things like that that you always take with you. At 40 years old, he was still the guy who was showing up at 8 o’clock to get his work done and do what he needed to do even though, at that point, he was already known as the most successful player of all time.
So then, toward the end of your career, you previously had played with Jordan, and now you get to play with LeBron. What was he like then?
LeBron is totally different than Mike from a personality standpoint. LeBron is a great people person. He loves to interact with his teammates. He’s a hard worker as well. But they’re different people as far as their approach. Mike’s approach is, everything is competition. If there’s shooting on the side, he wants to hit the most shots. If we’re playing a scrimmage, he wants to win that scrimmage. LeBron goes out there and just plays excellent, great basketball. The difference is Mike wants to win at every little thing. That would be the biggest difference between the two. Both of them are great guys. Both of them work hard. Both of them are extraordinary leaders.
You mentioned LeBron and how he loves to interact with teammates —
LeBron is a great teammate. He gave the best gifts. Of all the superstars I played with, he gave the best gifts. Anything that he was sponsored by, he would give to his teammates. So if he was sponsored by Samsung, everybody got free Samsung phones. Beats by Dre. I had so many extra Beats by Dre headphones I was giving them away to people as gifts. That’s how many he made sure we had. Just taking everyone out. Making it a family atmosphere. That was his best thing — how he communicated and interacted with teammates.
For people who follow the NBA, cover the NBA, I’m at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis right now, and the Eagles locker room even had a big debate about LeBron and Jordan. Do you think about it? Do you have a side on who’s the greatest?
Everyone talks about it. Me and Mike Miller, my last year on the [Cavs], we were talking about it. Of course, he played with LeBron in Miami and won championships. I’m a Carolina guy. I grew up on Jordan. I was like, listen. Look at what Jordan did in the NBA Finals before you make these comparisons. He went out there and he was averaging, like, 40 in the NBA Finals [against the Suns in 1993]. He had a year where he was averaging like 36 points and 11 assists [in the Finals]. It was crazy. [Note: He averaged 31.2 points and 11.4 assists against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals.] And he shot great percentages. And he was a great defensive player.
For me, nobody touches Mike. If somebody can touch Mike, he’s not in the NBA right now. I can’t say what’s going to come down the pike 10 or 15 years from now. But like right now, I don’t see anyone that touches Mike. LeBron is in the top five. Mike is obviously number one, because he combines the great stats with all the individual accolades as far as MVPs, Finals MVPs, All-Star appearances, All-NBA appearances, and he’s 6-for-6, never went to a Game 7 in the NBA Finals. That tells you how dominant he was on his run. No one else really comes close to that. Maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but besides that it’s Mike. The guy was MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same year. A lot of people forgot that. You’re probably not going to see that again. That’s why Mike is the greatest of all time. LeBron is in the top five, but Mike is the greatest.