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.
So this Michael Jordan guy was pretty good. YouTube is crammed with all sorts of footage, most of which features MJ suspended in air for a superhuman amount of time. But which plays of his would you say are the very best? Our staff settled on some of their favorites from Mike’s 15-season run:
John Gonzalez: My mind has mercifully blocked out much of Jordan’s brief two-year comeback campaign in Washington. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t much worth remembering from Jordan’s time as a Wizard. Or maybe it’s because, from a narrative perspective, Jordan had previously penned the greatest possible climax to his epic story: down one to the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the ball in his hands, the clock all but exhausted, with a shot to win the game, secure his sixth championship, and cement his legacy.
You can say Jordan pushed off, and perhaps he did. Doesn’t matter. It is still an incredible, indelible moment in a 15-year career that was full of remarkable feats. (I don’t think poor Bryon Russell has been seen or heard from since.) That’s still where my mind goes when I think about how and when Jordan’s career actually ended. I see him standing there, his arm and hand frozen in excellent “Fuck you” form as the ball swishes through the net, and damn if that wasn’t the perfect finale.
A Flawlessly Executed Leg Drop
Danny Chau: Here is a YouTube video titled “Michael Jordan Kills Chris Mullin.”
I am a fan of the “Michael Jordan Kills [blank]” search on YouTube. Most of the results are actually extremely nonviolent and typically involve a poor defender biting hard on one of Jordan’s patented fakes. “Michael Jordan Kills Chris Mullin” comes the closest to living up to its name.
Maybe greater than the fact that Jordan created the granddaddy to Bruce Bowen’s legendary kick on Wally Szczerbiak is the fact that Jordan does not even pretend to acknowledge the physical presence of his teammate, Horace Grant, who is already defending Mullin’s shot attempt! Kobe Bryant, one of the history’s great stylistic imitators, may have froze out his fellow Lakers on the court, but that feels like a half-measure compared to this shit. Jordan straight-up denied the existence of his teammates.
Watch as Jordan jumps almost immediately upon seeing Mullin. Watch as he climbs Grant and fells both players with his right leg. And watch as HE SWINGS AT THE FUCKING BALL ON THE WAY DOWN.
Let it never be said that Michael Jordan wasn’t one of the most bloodthirsty competitors to have ever lived. Yes, he was clutch. Yes, he had dunks for days. But one thing that must be said about the GOAT is that he never gave up on plays, no matter how fraught.
Iverson Crossing Jordan
By the time I got into the NBA in a big way, Jordan was primarily a fast food pitchman and Bill Murray’s comedy partner, so I’ll admit I didn’t catch him at his best. But whenever someone from Gen X tries to explain him to me, it always turns into a discussion about how mean a person he is, rather than how good a basketball player he was. So, let’s go to the tape. Here’s Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot for a national championship as a freshman in college. Wow that’s really impressive — wait … where’s the 3-point line? Where’s the shot clock? Is he shooting over … is that Tom Gola? Prime Jordan looks like the best player on the floor, but he also looks like Rudy Gay with cooler shoes, or someone who couldn’t get past Kawhi Leonard if he came up the court at the head of the 82nd Airborne. So while you think you’re saying “Jordan was better than LeBron,” what you’re actually saying is, “Can you show me how to attach a file to my email?”
Maybe Jordan was revolutionary when he debuted in 1984, but so was the Plymouth Voyager. Can you smell that, Lee Iacocca? That’s the smell of progress. In the name of progress, my favorite Jordan play is His Airness getting juked all the way back to perestroika by a rookie Allen Iverson. I can think of no better symbol for the merciless churn of human evolution. And make no mistake — that’s a good thing. It means we’re evolving as a species. And while that means you might one day have to stop signing your text messages, it also means that every moment that passes brings us better basketball.
Switching Hands Midair
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Full disclosure: This happened before I was born. But it delighted me each time it popped up on ESPN or in documentaries, or was pulled up on YouTube during a LeBron vs. MJ argument.
First of all, Jordan jumped a foot in front of the free throw line. And when he started to descend and realized he was short, he had the awareness and strength to switch hands midair. That it came in the 1991 Finals, which would produce Jordan’s first championship, only makes this move sweeter.
Swatting Ron Artest
I was too young to watch prime MJ. I vaguely remember his Finals runs with the Bulls. He was playing for the Wizards by the time I fell in love with the game, and this is his one play from that period that has stuck with me. MJ couldn’t consistently run and jump with young guys like Artest at that point, but he could still ramp it up when he felt challenged. He was always a player who fueled himself with negative energy, and this play kind of summed up his approach to the game and to life more broadly. If Artest thought he could just punk MJ and get away with it, he was wrong.
The Triple-Clutch Layup
Paolo Uggetti: I’ll never forget when Jordan purposely switched hands midair to make a layup, because it was the first Jordan highlight I saw as a kid. But this layup is more impressive. B.J. Armstrong is running this Bulls fast break and does not pass it to the wide-open cutter toward the rim because he’d rather give it to Jordan on the wing. MJ blows by the first defender, and is immediately met by three other Nets defenders. But he simply jumps from nearly outside the paint. At one point, he’s barely visible in the frame.
Jordan leads with the ball, then he cocks it back almost behind his own shoulder while still in the air. He splits the two vertical defenders like he’s Messi streaking through a back line of center backs, and manages to contort his body into a slanted angle that allows him to stay in the air one extra millisecond in order to scoop the ball up into the rim. It’s gravity-defying — a move that looks like it’s CGI’d. It’s actually breathtaking.
The Fist Pump Lives On
Justin Verrier: In hindsight, Jordan’s Wizards era was less a triumphant, John Williams–scored send-off and more the beginning of the end of the Jordan facade — when the drive and indomitable spirit that fueled his rise warped into something a little uglier, a little more honest. Indeed, while Jordan’s return was a cash boon for the league and the Wizards franchise, which wouldn’t welcome him back to the front office or the owner’s box once his two-year experiment ended, the same cutthroat, swaggering approach that led to six rings and GOAT status effectively torpedoed his new team. But there were still moments when the chalk outline of his greatness was enough to generate those nostalgic twinges.
The jerseys are all wrong. He stumbles into the shot instead of glides, like he did in Utah. No one even guards him. But damn if I can’t help but smile every time I see an early-20s Richard Hamilton sidle up to Jordan and mimic his trademark fist pump. I’m not sure Jordan even enjoys the ensuing celebration; he basically mean-mugs his way through the mosh pit that forms around him. But watching him touch the sky one last time, while his younger teammates indulge in a childhood fantasy, is special.