Stephen A. Smith said something revealing in one of the endless televised debates about LeBron James versus Michael Jordan:
As long as I’m living and breathing, and I’ve got breath in my body, and I got a voice, and I got vocal cords, you will hear me say LeBron James is no Michael Jordan.
To paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future of the NBA, imagine an Air Jordan stomping on the face of every great young player—forever. The present must always pay homage to the past. Michael Jordan is the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). The discussion is over. He dominated the toughest era in league history. The NBA isn’t what it was. It will never be that way again.
People like Smith talk about Jordan in the same way the apostle John talks about Jesus. Replace a few words and this could be on First Take:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4)
Someone who lived through Jordan’s prime knows that being greater than him is about much more than checking a few boxes. Smith has said he doesn’t care if LeBron wins six or even seven championships. It still wouldn’t be enough. He’s not invincible. Not like MJ.
The problem is that there are fewer and fewer people in a position, like Smith, to really understand that. The people who saw Jordan in the flesh are all getting older. They won’t always be around to tell us about him.
Jordan versus LeBron is basketball’s version of Jay Leno versus Conan O’Brien. People cared about which comedian was the better Tonight Show host because the two represented something more than themselves. Conan was a Generation Xer who waited his turn, while Baby Boomer Leno hung onto the job well past when he should’ve retired. Leno was the Baby Boomer getting rushed out the door for a fresher face, even though he was still on top of the game.
Smith (53) is four years younger than Jordan (57). When he’s talking about MJ, he’s really talking about himself. What happened in the ’90s matters. He matters. It’s the cry of a man screaming into a void and hoping to hear breath in his lungs.
The same thing is happening when Nick Wright (36) talks about LeBron (35). Wright was 6 when Jordan beat the Bad Boy Pistons. He missed that era of that NBA. But what happened in the 2010s matters too. Why are we so sure the game was better 30 years ago? Just because the people around back then say so?
LeBron, like so many other millennials, is being judged by historical standards that aren’t relevant to his life. The league is different from in Jordan’s day. The rules are different. The two barely even play the same sport. No one’s winning a title in 2020 running the Triangle Offense. Saying LeBron could never be as great as Jordan because he needed to team up with other stars is like saying a modern college student could never be as great as one from the 1960s because he needed to take out loans to pay his tuition. Times have changed.
‘Of All Time’ Problem
Jordan had his time. And that time is over and never coming back. LeBron has his time now. It will end too. For all people are like grass, and their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, and the flower fades (Isa. 40:6–8).
There’s a reason few people bring up Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell in GOAT conversations anymore. Russell won his first NBA title in 1957. A 12-year-old who watched that live would be 75 in 2020. A 12-year-old who watched Jordan win his first title in 1991 is now 41. He might still think Jordan is the GOAT when he’s 75, in 2054. But will people still listen? Will they care?
Calling anyone the GOAT at anything is fairly ridiculous. Who are any of us to say? No one has an “all time” perspective from which to accurately draw those conclusions. Smith is right in the sense that you can’t really judge something unless you saw it for yourself. Only a basketball fan who’d watched the game faithfully since the 1950s is really qualified to speak on it. There aren’t many of those folks left. I don’t see any of them on TV. The span of human history goes back thousands and thousands of years. No one was around for all of it. All we can really identify is the greatest in the tiny sliver of time in which we lived.
Calling anyone the GOAT at anything is fairly ridiculous. Who are any of us to say? No one has an ‘all time’ perspective from which to accurately draw those conclusions.
But we don’t want to be confined to a particular era when making these judgments, because we don’t want to think about lives being confined to a particular era. God has put a desire for eternity on the human heart. And yet we can never fulfill it (Eccles. 3:11).
Nothing Lasts Forever
Art (and sport is a subsection of art) is a grasping for eternity. People write songs and make movies for the same reason they drew animals on the walls of caves. It’s why Jay-Z made a song called “Young Forever.” It’s why Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made The Irishman—a movie about a bunch of old men reliving the 1960s one last time, using digital effects to pretend they’re younger than they are, and trying to make the cultural figures from their youth relevant to a modern audience. But Jimmy Hoffa doesn’t matter to anyone not in the AARP.
Soon enough, no one will care that this country ever existed. Americans have trouble grappling with the idea that our nation won’t be around forever. We’re raised to believe the United States is the culmination of history. The dream of the Founding Fathers must never die. But, of course, it will.
As usual during election years, there was a lot of talk in 2020 about how the future of our democracy was at stake. Maybe that’s true. But our democracy was always going to end one day. Life will go on. The world will keep spinning. People will still be born, fall in love, have kids, get old, and die. There is nothing new under the sun.
There’s only one name that will last forever, and it’s not Michael Jordan. There’s only one idea that will last forever, and it’s not the American Dream. There’s only one person to whom every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. That’s the hope all Christians can cling to. It doesn’t really matter which athlete gets glorified for a little while. We all know how this is going to end.
The Gospel Coalition