The Philadelphia Eagles watch tape and look at statistics. They check for tendencies, scout the advanced numbers, see how things change when the fourth quarter comes around. And they do it all in order to prepare for … near-daily locker-room arguments about LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
“Heated. Heated, every single time,” said wide receiver Torrey Smith. “We come with stats. This is not just barbershop talk—I have looked up statistics plenty of times. The numbers favor my argument—he’s better in every single category except points per game. LeBron makes his teammates better, he plays on worse teams, and obviously he’s made it to a lot of Finals, even if he doesn’t win them all.”
The question is simple. Who is better: James or Jordan? The answer is different depending on which member of the Eagles you ask. James has won three NBA championships and four MVP awards, and he’s on a run of seven straight NBA Finals appearances. Jordan won six rings in six tries and five NBA MVP awards.
The battle lines are well drawn throughout the locker room. As receiver Mack Hollins describes it: “Well, there are the guys on the team who are right and say ‘Jordan is the best ever,’ and there are guys who are wrong who say ‘LeBron is the best ever.’”
The arguments generally include Smith, Alshon Jeffery, tight end Trey Burton, and receiver Bryce Treggs (among many others) on LeBron’s side, and Hollins, running back Donnel Pumphrey, and Philadelphia media legend Howard Eskin promoting Jordan. Eskin, who is a noted TV and radio personality, said he often texts Charles Barkley for some extra ammo. “I’ll show them the texts,” Eskin said. “They do not believe Charles.”
“I’m fine being outnumbered,” Hollins said. “I do not need support from my teammates because I have facts: 6-0, that’s it. The rings are all that matter. When the stats are that even, the rings are what matters.”
When I visited the Eagles locker room during the regular season, I saw the arguments in action. I asked if the Eagles argued about hoops often, and I was told no—they just argue about Jordan vs. LeBron, nearly every day. As James continues to contend for MVPs and NBA titles well into his 30s, the debate has developed into an international hot topic. Prince Harry discussed it with Barack Obama—who is on Jordan’s side, though that may have something to do with his Chicago sports fandom. Pretty much every player in the NBA, past or present, has weighed in by now. NFL locker rooms are fairly boring places, but I have not seen a non-football argument as intense and involved as this one.
“It’s hilarious when it really gets under their skin,” Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick in 2017, said. “It’s obviously fun and games, but sometimes people get pissed about it.”
For Treggs, the argument is a time-consuming one. Most of the Eagles players weren’t old enough to see Jordan in his prime, of course, and Treggs said Eskin’s main argument is about the eye test. So Treggs, an “avid LeBron fan,” has spent some time viewing old game film to bolster his talking points.
“When I actually sat down and watched it, I saw that basketball is completely different now,” Treggs said. “People were not as crafty then as they are today—they didn’t have the layup packages, the dunk packages, the handle, the stepback moves. There are not a lot of people creating their own shots. When you see film of the ’80s, it’s guys just passing the ball then running around. No one is breaking people off, there are no stepback jumpers.”
For Treggs, the argument is simple: The game keeps getting better, and therefore the best player today is better than the best player 25 years ago. “I’m an avid LeBron fan and I don’t like how he has these haters,” he said. “LeBron is the prototypical basketball player.”
For Smith, who will play in his second Super Bowl on Sunday after winning a ring with the 2012 Ravens, anyone who favors Jordan has a clear agenda. “Mack is a North Carolina guy, so you have to consider the bias there. Pump can’t even touch the net,” he said with a laugh. “But we have some great debates.”
Players say they text constantly about LeBron’s performances. Wide receiver Shelton Gibson, a Cleveland native, said he gets the brunt of the punishment when LeBron has a bad game or, as is happening now, the Cavs go through a rough patch. “I hate when people use the argument that LeBron got to the Finals and lost—Michael Jordan made it to the playoffs and lost, he didn’t get to the Finals every year,” Gibson said.
Eskin’s presence in the locker room, Burton said, is all it takes for another Jordan vs. LeBron debate to break out on a given day. “They are all too young and look at numbers,” Eskin said. “Jordan is tougher than LeBron—if LeBron drove the lane against Rick Mahorn or Bill Laimbeer, he wouldn’t get a free ride.” He also likes to critique James’s late-game heroics or lack thereof. LeBron’s decision to pass the ball to Kyle Korver in Game 3 of the Finals last year with 55 seconds left and the Cavs up two points, for instance, is something he brings up often. “I like Kyle, I know Kyle, but if you’re the man, you drive the lane and at the very least get a foul,” he said. When the Cavs were blown out recently, Eskin texted a screengrab of the box score to some of the players as a joke.
“Howard is very stubborn,” Burton said with a smile. “I have been arguing with him about this for four years.”
When you talk to Eagles players, you see there’s no end in sight. Hollins said he thinks that players are “starting to get off the LeBron train” as the Cavs, ranked third in the East now, look more vulnerable than they have in the past. Not true, say Philly’s LeBron stans. “Cavs in six,” Treggs said. He’s also been floating his theory recently that James will join the Spurs in the offseason: “LeBron is a big Pop fan and Pop is what LeBron needs at this point in his career.”
Whether LeBron stays in Cleveland, goes to the Spurs, or signs somewhere else, the debate will continue. The Eagles are so good at arguing about this that it’s easy to forget they’re also the best football team in the NFC.