“Do I have to do anything else? Can I sit here for a few minutes?“ said Jordan after completing his first three-peat back in 1993. Jordan seemed worn out. He couldn’ handle the pressure anymore. And it wasn’t about the weight of playing basketball at the highest level. It was about all the things that came with it from which Jordan needed to take a break.
Going into that Finals series vs. Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, Jordan was facing the scrutiny caused by his gambling problem, and he was sick of it. He didn’t see it as one, describing his gambling as a hobby that he enjoyed. MJ’s gambling problems started long ago. In 1992, after going back-to-back, Jordan testified in the criminal trial of James Bouler, trying to explain why the defendant owned a Jordan-signed personal check for $57,000. Jordan admitted under oath that it was a payment for gambling losses. After that, in 1993, San Diego’s Richard Equinas published a book Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction, My Cry for Help, revealing he had won $900,000 from Jordan while playing golf and betting. Jordan was also spotted in an Atlantic City in the early hours of the morning of Eastern Conference Finals vs. Knicks.
This didn’t affect his endorsements nor his popularity. But the damage was to Jordan’s reputation. And the price to pay was how tedious this all became for Michael to have to answer these questions. It became exhausting for MJ to have to solve the same issues all over again and to have to defend himself. He became irate and refused to talk to the media. He wanted no part of it. All that drove Michael out of the game, forcing him months later to announce his first retirement. He had to move away from the spotlight.
“My fame is, it was good in the beginning. Anytime people are positively talking about you, yeah, it’s great to hear those comments. But you know, now that you’re on a pedestal, it’s not just the positive talking that you’re hearing. You hear some points and some people taking shots at you and that really changes the whole idea of being out there for people to see you. You want to get behind closed doors, so people don’t know you as much. So I’m at that stage in my career and my life that I’d rather get behind closed doors than to be out there in the spotlight to be taking shots from everyone that don’t know you as a person.”Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
Watching this whole Jordan situation made me think about today’s athletes that are dealing with even more scrutiny than Michael had to face. More specifically, it made me think about LeBron James, who many consider being near the same level as MJ in terms of basketball excellence. There hasn’t been a player in the NBA history who was in the spotlight at such a young age as James. He was a part of his first controversy at the age of 18, after driving a Hummer H2 as a senior at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, becoming the subject of the investigation by the Ohio High School Athletic Association who was trying to determine whether James violated the state’s amateur bylaws by accepting a reward for his athletic achievement valued at more than $100. Ultimately, it was determined that James had successfully skirted the rules.
He then got drafted by his home town team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron spent seven years there and reached the NBA Finals with one of the worst rosters in NBA history. He was dealing with a constant pressure of winning a title for his city but was never given the right personnel to do it. Then came the most controversial part of LeBron’s career; The Decision.
James announced he was joining forces with Wade and Bosh and taking his talent to South Beach. It was a move that many to this day won’t forget, diminishing all his future achievements. After their first playoff run ended with LeBron’s historically bad finals performance, losing the series to Mavericks, James was even under more pressure. He went on to win 2 NBA championships as a member of the Heat, but it seems that to this day, all people talk about is him joining two other All-Stars and choking in a finals series. LeBron joining the Heat marked the start of his historic run of reaching the NBA Finals for eight straight years. Other than winning two with the Heat, LeBron also brought the championship to his hometown after coming back there in 2014.
Other than being criticized for his on-court performances, LeBron has been a subject of many social controversies, about which Jordan wasn’t nearly as vocal. Most notably, there was an incident when journalist Laura Ingraham, after LeBron made comments about politics in the USA, responded by saying, “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” She finished the statement famously saying, “shut up and dribble.” LeBron has made a conscious decision to use his platform to talk about things other than basketball and was criticized for it.
Jordan also had the luxury of not having the pressure of being “the next someone.” He faced the burden of proving that 6’6” Shooting Guard can lead the team to a title in a league dominated by giants. However, his career was never in direct comparison with someone else’s. LeBron’s is and always will be. Ever since his first game, he was labeled as the next Michael Jordan and people have always judged him by that standard. Of course, part of the blame LeBron has to take upon himself, because he was never shying away from inserting himself in the MJ comparisons. However, constant media pressure and daily debate shows centered around LeBron’s comparisons to MJ have created more pressure on James.
Seeing the scrutiny, Jordan was under and how he responded to it made me more appreciative of LeBron’s career. Set basketball stuff aside, LeBron has been a perfect role model. He has done everything right. He is under even more significant pressure than Jordan, and he’s handling it almost perfectly, not ever running away from his responsibilities. The longevity of it is even more impressive. The fact that LeBron has kept the same energy in being the face of the league for over a decade is remarkable. Something hard for Jordan, LeBron is handling perfectly.
“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.”Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
It seemed so many times that LeBron couldn’t win. But he found the way. This isn’t about the discussion of who was the better player. It’s just about appreciating LeBron’s career more, considering how he is dealing with stuff Jordan couldn’t.