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.
Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t even have to think about it. The two rookies stood at center court of the Los Angeles Convention Center last Friday morning in the middle of practice for that night’s Rising Stars Game, answering parlor-game questions from an in-arena host.
“Who is the best dunker, Michael or Vince?”
“Vince,” they responded, one after another, without hesitation.
Both Mitchell and Smith Jr., 21 and 20 years old, respectively, can remember watching Vince Carter in his heyday. Mitchell would even go on to honor him one night later, busting out an early-era no. 15 Raptors jersey and throwing down a patented Carter 360 windmill in the slam dunk contest.
Michael Jordan, meanwhile, has become more myth than half-man. Asked later where he first heard of MJ’s exploits, Smith, a North Carolina native, said “My pops. He didn’t want hear no comparisons.” After learning of Jordan, Smith went on YouTube and tuned into NBATV in search of Jordan’s greatest hits. “It was all the things the old heads will tell you about him,” Smith said.
The NBA’s next generation was on full display at this year’s All-Star Weekend. But as the game turns to young players like Mitchell and Smith, it’s simultaneously distancing itself from a past ruled by Jordan. Some of the future stars were barely toddlers during Jordan’s final hurrah in Washington.
To the league’s next hopeful superstars, the greatest figure in the game’s history has become a research topic, not an experience they lived through. The young guys all know about Jordan’s greatness. But, these days, that knowledge usually comes from video, posters, or stories from friends and family.
“Movies, Space Jam, things like that. He’s got his own shoe that sells everywhere and everybody wears it,” Ben Simmons, 21, said. “You just knew who Michael is.”
Jordan is the foundation of John Collins’s basketball career. From the time he was 3 years old, Collins said his mother would play the Jordan documentary Come Fly With Me for him every morning.
“I used to literally wake up and she had that playing for me,” he said. “On repeat.”
After Come Fly With Me came Space Jam. Collins soon became obsessed with Jordan movies. He learned about Jordan’s high school career, his national title victory at North Carolina, and his NBA influence—all from films.
“I would do research on Jordan. I knew his stats,” said Collins, 20. “It was kind of tough for me to really let it sink in how great he was, and how much impact he had on the game because I wasn’t around then. But from what I just watched and learned and saw about what he did … I could just see he was no. 1, and it hasn’t been replicated since.”
Kemba Walker is old enough to remember his father’s loud scream when Jordan rose up and hit the game-winning shot during Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. “I’ll never forget that,” he said. Walker, 28, now plays for Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets, and he was first introduced to the player via a library of VHS tapes at his home in the Bronx.
Jamal Murray, who grew up in Ontario, Canada, had a similar experience. “The old technology,” the 20-year-old said of his own Jordan VHS tapes. “I didn’t have cable or internet growing up, so I had to do what I had to do.” Grizzlies rookie Dillon Brooks’s Jordan education came from a literal book. His mother and his aunt would flood him with Jordan research material, including a history of the top-50 NBA players. “I’m a student of the game. I always try to watch the greats, and I got educated on [the book],” said Brooks, who was born in 1996, the year Jordan won his fourth championship. “I know that Michael Jordan is a straight killer.”
For most players, YouTube became the window into Jordan’s feats.
“I go on YouTube and just type his name in, watch the Flu Game, and all the other games he played in,” Kris Dunn, 23, said. Dunn, in his first season with the Bulls, is seeing a lot more of Jordan these days. Growing up, he heard about him from his older brother. “He was a dominant force, no one could stop him,” Dunn said Friday before asking some of the older assembled media for some help. “Didn’t he dunk on every center in the league?”
Joel Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon, has to take people at their word when it comes to Jordan’s legend. “For me, it was a little more complicated because I got into basketball when I was about 15,” he said. “When I came to the States, I really didn’t have any knowledge about the history of basketball. But everybody said he’s the best player.”
Embiid has since dabbled in Jordan video clips, too. The verdict? “He was kinda good,” Embiid said, before pausing for effect. “Nah, he was really good.”
Buddy Hield, who grew up in the Bahamas, has also seen the clips. But the Kings guard acknowledged a bit of distance from the subject as a result.
“I’m not gonna lie, when people say Michael Jordan is the greatest, I don’t know if he’s the greatest,” Hield said. “I only watched highlights, and I go off what people said. You gotta trust people because you know if you watch stuff live, it’s different.”
In March 2017, after passing Jordan for most postseason points ever, LeBron James talked about Jordan’s impact on his career.
“I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike,” he told reporters after the game in Boston. “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike. So I started to focus myself on other players and other people around my neighborhood because I never thought you could get to a point where Mike was. So I think that helped shape my game.”
The next generation of NBA players shared similar sentiments. Only now, they’re crediting more recent superstars, including LeBron himself.
“We watched Kobe Bryant and we watched LeBron,” Hield said. “Even the Tracy McGradys and the Allen Iversons.”
“I don’t know much about [Jordan], but I am a Kobe fan,” Bogdan Bogdanovic, a 25-year-old rookie from Belgrade, said. “So Kobe I know, not Jordan.”
Jayson Tatum is quick to talk about his affinity for Kobe Bryant. For Taurean Prince, whose childhood room in Texas was filled with posters of Jordan and other NBA stars, his muse is Allen Iverson.
“He was the most influential player in my era,” Prince said. “I was actually able to watch him play.”
But even though they may not have been around to see his greatness when it happened, Jordan’s name still rings out. Domantas Sabonis’s father, Arvydas, was a legend of the international game before playing seven seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers. Arvydas was “a god” to Domantas, but growing up, the younger Sabonis was drawn to Jordan through YouTube clips.
“If you truly liked basketball, you didn’t have to watch TV to know Michael Jordan,” Sabonis said.
They know about the big shots, the dunks, the rings. They may not have seen Jordan at his peak, but they can see his imprint everywhere around today’s NBA. Jordan might not officially be the Logo, like Jerry West, but his silhouette adorned every jersey in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
“Everybody wants to be Michael Jordan,” Prince said. “It’s just that staple of the game.”
“He’s the best player that ever played,” Tatum said. “I think.”