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.
What if Michael Jordan had Twitter? On the face of it, this seems like a question in search of an asker. The real heads would probably answer “Who cares? MJ did his talking on the court.” And indeed he did: six titles, five MVP awards, a perennial All-Star, set all kinds of scoring records, dunked on man and beast, so competitive he’d cheat your granny at cards while talking so much trash she’d have to take her hearing aid out.
But that’s only part of the answer. Jordan’s body of work, still visceral after all this time, leaves us wanting for nothing. But Jordan’s hunger — his defining characteristic — was bottomless; it wanted for everything. MJ would never cede a battlefield to an opponent unbloodied. And Twitter is, if nothing else, a roiling, shit-stained, trash-talk battlefield. Jordan loved talking trash. After all, he won so often that his barbs transcended mere trash talk to become trash prophecy.
“Shoot it, you fucking midget,” Jordan reportedly said to Muggsy Bogues in crunch time in a 1995 playoff game between the Bulls and the up-and-coming Charlotte Hornets. Bogues bricked and, according to legend, credited that moment with ruining his career. When Jeff Van Gundy accused MJ of being a con man for pretending to be friends with opposing players in order to weaken them, Jordan responded with several staredowns, various epithets aimed at the new Knicks coach, a vitriolic 51 points, and, of course, the win.
Sharing a uniform with Jordan didn’t spare teammates from his merciless barbs. He badgered Steve Kerr into fisticuffs and trash-talked poor Rodney McCray out of the league. He retired in 1999, only to resume his reign of terror, three years later, with the Washington Wizards, where he infamously broke rookie Kwame Brown’s spirit forever. And while Kwame denies MJ ever made him cry, the other, frankly deplorable parts of that story remain unresolved.
These hardwood folk tales have been passed down from generation to generation, growing with each telling. The defenestration of Bogues, the destruction of McCray, the Con Man game, and many others now tower over the game of basketball like myths. Yes, Jordan did his talking on the court. Occasionally via fax machine, but mostly on the court. Let’s be real, though — he did so because he had no other choice.
So, what if Michael Jordan had Twitter?
February 1985: All-Star Game Freeze-out and the Freeze-out Fallout
Michael Jordan hit the league like an asteroid, altering it on an atomic level. A hyperathletic backcourt killer with a so-so jumper, he was averaging nearly 28 points per game when he was named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter just three months into his rookie season. Jordan was a sensation. Which, naturally, fostered jealousy among his contemporaries. A Detroit beat writer assessed the situation thusly: “The attitude of the players was Michael Jordan will get star treatment when he learns how to act like a gentleman.” So his All-Star teammates endeavored to teach him. Jordan, despite flashing open into the lane several times throughout the game, was ignored, particularly by Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas.
@IsiahThomasOfficial: There was no freeze-out! That never happened! I became very upset when I read that. It could affect a potential friendship between me and Michael.
@IceGervin: They call my Iceman for a reason but not for that reason LOL
Jordan is a rookie tho … ❄
As fate would have it, the Bulls’ first game back after the break was against Isiah’s Pistons, affording Young Mike the perfect opportunity for revenge. And, in our timeline, for getting those fire tweets off.
@MJ23: @IsiahThomasOfficial Get ready …
@MJ23: Freezer’s broken.
November 1985: The Broken Foot
On November 5, Jordan, the reigning Rookie of the Year, broke his foot during the second quarter of the Bulls’ third game against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. MJ was ruled out for at least six weeks.
@MJ23: Devastated, but …
March 1986: 63 Points vs. Celtics
Jordan wound up missing 64 games due to his broken foot. The Bulls roster was a weird collection of mid-’80s NBA Pokemons — including Orlando Woolridge, Dave Corzine, a young Charles Oakley, and 33-year-old George Gervin, washed in his own ice melt. Only John Paxson would still be around when Mike won his first title in 1991. The Bulls staggered to the eighth seed in the East with a 30–52 record, the worst of any playoff team. Jordan returned to the lineup on the Ides of March. Awaiting Air Mike and Co. was the Celtics. The fabled roster, which had five future Hall of Famers, was one of the greatest squads ever assembled and won 67 games. The Bulls got swept, but not before Jordan hung a single-game playoff record, 63-point “KICK ME” sign around the Celtics’ collective necks.
@MJ23: God would’ve got the W … RT @FrenchLickHick golly i think i just saw god disguised as michael jordan
May 1989: The Shot
MJ’s Bulls made the playoffs in each of His Airness’s first three seasons, but each trip ended with a first-round defeat. In 1988, the Bulls won 50 games for the first time since 1973–74, but were turned back in the second round by the Detroit Pistons. It was the first of three consecutive playoff defeats at the hands of Isiah Thomas’s crew. The next season, Chicago took a step back. Head coach Doug Collins was just 37, the second-youngest coach in the league, and emotional in a way that his players found wearying. Jordan grew frustrated with his role. The team won 47 games, three less than the previous season, and finished sixth in the East.
Their first-round playoff opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were winners of 57 games and had swept the season series against Chicago 6–0. The series came down to the final moments of the deciding fifth game. MJ, with 41 points and Craig Ehlo hanging off of him like a piece of lint, got the ball with less than three seconds left. Jordan, famously, let Ehlo know exactly what he was about to do and from where. What followed is the first of many “and the rest is history” moments in MJ’s career.
@MJ23: I told dude — I’m gonna catch it on the left elbow, and then I’m gonna drive to the left to the baseline, and then I’m gonna pull up and shoot my fadeaway
The Migraine Hangover and Stacey King
In the spring of 1990, the Bulls faced their arch nemesis, the Pistons, in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bad Boys were employing the Jordan Rules strategy, which combined early Thibodeau-style strongside overload and the simple but effective idea “foul Jordan really hard all the time.” This forced MJ’s supporting cast, namely Scottie Pippen, into a starring role.
The Bulls won Game 6 by 18 points and Detroit looked finished. The series headed to Auburn Hills for Game 7. Then, Scottie Pippen fell victim to the now-infamous migraine. “I thought maybe I’d eaten something and gotten poisoned,” he said later. Pippen played 42 minutes that game, but shot only 1-for-10 and the Bulls fell 93–74. The next season, the Pistons beat the Bulls on December 19. Pippen went 2–16.
Stacey King showed up to training camp of the 1990–91 season out of shape. Jordan, ever the bully, delighted in roasting King throughout the season.
@MJ23: @Stacy21King What do you call a fat, 6-foot-11 guy, maybe 260 pounds, who can only get one rebound in three games? Know what they call that? A powerless forward.
@Stacy21King: @MJ23 Fuck you all you care about is scoring
@MJ23: @Stacy21King big guy and fat like that and only gets one rebound. can’t even stick his into people.
@Stacy21King: @MJ23 Maybe if you pass the ball and instead of worrying about the scoring title someone else could do something
MJ23: @Stacy21King Maybe if you passed up breakfast once in a while you could get your ass up for a rebound
November 1991: Eyes Closed Free Throw
Dikembe Mutombo was a heralded young rookie and defensive beast out of Georgetown. Michael Jordan was a 28-year-old airbender coming off of his first title. Burnished by a championship, MJ’s basketball prowess seemed otherworldly. Then he decided to talk smack to Deke and shoot a free throw with his eyes closed.
To be fair, MJ had done this before, at Magic Johnson’s summer charity games in 1988 and 1990, respectively. But this was, as far as we can tell, the first time he attempted the feat in an actual game.
@MJ23 Hey @OfficialMutombo this one’s for you
@OfficialMutombo: @MJ23 [Extremely voice that sounds like a cement mixer gargling nails]
June 3, 1992: The Shrug
Michael Jordan shot 27 percent from beyond the arc, on 1.3 attempts, in 1991–92. So it was a surprise to everyone, including himself, when he decided to huck 10 3s and connect on six in the first half of Game 1 of the Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
MJ ruled by cruelty and fear. But he could be benevolent and supportive as well … especially when his subjects practiced his methods. Toni Kukoc was the best player in Europe, a versatile 6-foot-11 forward with a game built for today’s NBA, when Bulls GM Jerry Krause snatched him up in the second round of the 1990 draft. Meanwhile, Pippen was taking the leap. Pip wanted to renegotiate his contract. But Krause demurred, because he was saving salary space for Kukoc. Pip was angry. And MJ almost certainly stoked the flames. Pippen held Kukoc to four points on a migraine-like 2-of-11 shooting when the Dream Team met Croatia that summer. Scottie and Mike traded Kukoc like two pit bulls pulling on a rag doll.
@ScottiePippen: @JerryKrauseOfficial Hey, Jerry, you see this? You watching? Still saving money? LMAO? RT @ScottiePippen @JerryKrauseOfficial
With the Pistons out of the picture, the closest thing the Bulls had to a rival was the New York Knicks with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks. The Knicks took the Bulls to a surprise seventh game the previous postseason. New York brought on point guards Doc Rivers and small forward Charles Smith, adding versatility to a brute force attack. The Knicks seemed poised to unseat the Bulls and took a 1–0 lead in the series. Jordan was so concerned that he posted up at Bally’s Hotel and Casino playing blackjack until 2:30 a.m. before Game 2. Jordan lost a reported $5,000, a sum which now seems comically quaint. The Bulls would lose Game 2, despite His Airness’s 36 points (“But with more rest, might he have scored 46 points?” The New York Times wondered, in one of the great concern trolls of all time), but went on to win the series in six.
@MJ23: Studying for tomorrow’s game. Success = 80% Perspiration, 10% preparation, and 10% card counting.
The 1993–1994 Season
Wearied and beaten down by the recent death of his father and the near-constant basketball schedule, Jordan, then a three-time champion with nothing left to prove in the NBA, shocked the sports world when he retired in October 1993. In 1992, a convicted money launderer, James Bouler, was found to be in possession of a check from Jordan for the sum of $57,000. MJ first claimed it was a business loan, but later admitted, under oath, that it was for a single weekend’s worth of gambling losses. Then, in 1993, Richard Equinas, a San Diego businessman, published Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry for Help, in which he claimed had taken His Airness for some $900,000 at golf. During Jordan’s retirement press conference, he was asked if he would ever return to basketball. “Five years down the road, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back,” Jordan said. Why would David Stern need to let the greatest player ever back in the league?
Whatever the case, this remains among the most fascinating stretches in sports history.
@MJ23: As I have always said, I am a lifelong baseball fan. I love the baseball. The smell of the bat and the sound of the base and the popcorn and stuff or whatever. Huge baseball fan.
@SternCommish: @MJ23 I have often heard you say that.
@MJ23: @SternCommish Yes I love the baseball, as we all know. It’s also much easier to gamble on.
@MJ23: @SternCommish LOL jk jk jk jk