“The Play’s the Thing, wherein I’ll catch the consciouse of the King.” —William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” —Frank Lloyd Wright (Autobiography)
The argument over who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in professional basketball is a philosophical one. From a material perspective, LeBron James is clearly vastly superior to who most talking heads see as the GOAT (Michael Jordan). LeBron has always been better at every conceivable skill, and has maintained his greatness for a much longer time.
Many people prefer Jordan (who by my calculations is no higher than 4th best ever behind Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabber, but at least 50 spots ahead of Kobe). The argument for Jordan is one akin to the argument for a higher being. While LeBron is nicknamed King, a man amongst boys, Jordan is hailed as invincible. The case for Jordan is that he accesses a sort of American spirit we can’t exactly see. LeBron is good at basketball. Jordan, the argument goes, is a winner.
Winning is important for Americans. Our decaying President likes to claim he’s a winner. So was the legend with Jordan. He apparently won everything he played. This is the argument used to enhance his GOAT status. He refused to lose. This refusal to lose is more important to the American psyche than the ability to win. After all how many of us are really winning in late stage capitalism? It’s the drive and fight that’s relatable. The win is supposed to be improbable.
LeBron is a more obvious case. He’s a genius, a skilled player, a physical athlete unlike any other we’ve seen, and that’s why he wins. Whatever drive he has is boring because unlike Jordan he’s much better than his peers. When LeBron wins it is self-evident.
So is it as simple as higher expectations for LeBron? Because the interesting thing about the GOAT debate is not who the GOAT is (a case that’s not even close) but more so why Jordan ever even is held in the same league as LeBron, let alone almost universally put ahead of him.
Part of the argument has to do with the number of championships, with LeBron now at 4, and Jordan higher at 6. But anyone who is realistic knows LeBron always makes his bad teammates look good, routinely creating wide-open shots. This year LeBron had one other great player and the rest below average. For most of his years in Cleveland he didn’t have another all star by his side. Jordan always had Scottie Pippin. Without a historically great Warriors team getting in his way, LeBron likely has another championship or two. LeBron is punished for bringing a mediocre team to contention while Jordan could never come close to a championship when he didn’t have help so we let him off the hook.
Success in sports is usually measured in championships. But in the 24/7 news cycle it doesn’t take a day after someone wins a championship for the media to start predicting who the next title winner will be. This brings me to believe that the championship really doesn’t matter. It’s another day and another game. In life we do something similar by attaching a lot of meaning to our final moments. We are often told that we shouldn’t want any regrets at the end of life. To have a life without regrets sounds like you didn’t live life very fully. Furthermore, it attaches all of life’s meaning to the end when you God willing are old and sick anyways. Rather why not ask if you enjoyed the mundane days as those are most of our days. LeBron has been the best player in the league for almost two decades and unlike many of his peers he shows up for the fans every game. Everyone watches the championship games. The story for that game writes itself. But what about a frigid night in February? I’ll take the guy who has done it for longer.
Yet it’s mostly something else going on here. LeBron has been the best passer in the league. He rebounds like a center when he wants to. He shoots a much higher percentage than Jordan even though he takes more outside shots which he makes more of too. Both are great defenders but the difference is LeBron protects the rim and the perimeter while Jordan needed bigger players on his team to guard the rim. Take any specific skill and Lebron is better.
Jordan wins on charisma. Jordan’s character is a jerk, he doesn’t seem to care about society, he is a brand. He does it on his own. He’s a man for that. So the tired story of American neoliberalism goes. Work hard. Be cutthroat. Do it on your own. Market yourself. With Jordan it always felt you were at work. And just like work, it didn’t really matter who actually did the best job. It was always more about who had what it took to be a hard core capitalist.
LeBron has been a harder character for the mainstream media to accept. Following Jordan we had a pathetic copy impression named Kobe Bryant who like the latest Star Wars movie, satisfied people with being worse as long as he was the same. No one could quite figure out LeBron. He wanted to pass the ball. He said what was on his mind. He seemed to be less interested in his ego than he was in his art.
For the media this meant that he was soft. He didn’t have that “it” factor. He wasn’t the killer capitalist who would do whatever it took. He would play hard, he would delight the crowd, but this didn’t matter for the pundits. American sports media is always asking the same question: are you a man who can conquer? Sport can get a bad reputation because of this but that too is unfortunate. Turn the talking heads off and sport is an art.
LeBron is this artist. Each year he gets older and loses a step physically he makes up for it with gaining two steps mentally. Basketball is like chess in that its a game of spacing where different pieces have different powers and winning involves seeing steps ahead. LeBron controls every game mentally but he also is the strongest, fastest and most durable player on the court.
As LeBron becomes increasingly outspoken on politics his case against Jordan will get even more buried. It’s not an explicitly political dimension here that will kill his chances but more so to do with a question of what an artist should function as. As soon as the artist ceases to be a charlatan he makes a society examine itself. LeBron brings beauty to the game, and soon the game becomes a game. It’s put in its perspective, forcing a deeper question, but it also for the first time gains value outside of capitalism and becomes queer.
American media wants something completely related to the dimensions of capital. Working as a team becomes an extension of a union so it’s weak. But it’s more than this lonely heroism seen in the vigilante police and tech boy geniuses of today. It’s also about ignoring all material realities. Hard work is not rewarded, it’s something to be taken advantage of. If someone really is foolish enough to work honestly they are a sucker. If someone has a unique skill they must be neutralized because they will draw people in and make them remember there is more than work. That there is some greater freedom to the human condition.
America doesn’t want results. It wants people with the right attitude. This is why Donald Trump is the swamp. He doesn’t have to do anything productive as long as he remains a dick. The meritocracy in America is not even based on merit. It is based on business. Who knows who and who will do what it takes to maintain hierarchy. LeBron may catch to Jordan in championships but he doesn’t need to. Winning, if you do it alone, is not what life is about.
LeBron will be judged not by his awards but by how many teammates he elevated and inspired, how many athletes he turned into activists, how many opponents pushed to dance their finest dance against him as Jimmy Butler just did. LeBron set off a new era of “player empowerment” where black players get political, choose which team to play for, and put love of the game over legacy defined by the white media. The basketball case for him as the greatest ever is a case that is closed.
LeBron is dealing with something bigger. Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t become the GOAT by fulfilling the expectations of function but by capturing the imagination of humanity. The rise in the stock market doesn’t determine the plight of poor and working peoples. What the capitalist class doesn’t get is that success is measured outside of the primitive alienation it spouts as doctrine. When success happens it is when we have enough talent and creative spirit to exist outside of this reductive space of market servitude and risk it all to play.