Lebron James and basketball’s problem with nostalgia

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Lebron James, a 34 year old small forward for the La Lakers, is viewed as one of the best ever basketball players,  however he is still considered to be far from top place. The typical basketball fan will tell you that Michael Jordan was the greatest to ever play the sport, and after retiring in 2003, no one has come close to surpassing him. 2003 was also the same year Lebron James came to the NBA. Coming straight from high school, he was instantly successful as he received the rookie of the year award for his efforts. He has then gone on to average 27.2 points over his career so far, after coming off an above average year with a new team. I think after 17 years of consistent domination, the question of who is the best needs to be raised. What makes this an even more interesting debate for me is when you consider the words of Damian Lillard, a current NBA All-star, who said that no one will be able to admit when Michael Jordan has been surpassed. He said this back in 2017, but I think now is as good as any time to discuss this point.

Firstly, I believe basketball fans put too much emphasis on championships. With the NBA being the biggest basketball league by a long mile, and the basketball world cup struggling for popularity, winning a championship is the greatest achievement; therefore, it is understandable for fans to argue the importance of success in championships when ranking the best players. The problem is that the quantity of championships won is all that matters for the majority of fans, and as Michael Jordan has six of these titles, he is clearly above Lebron James, who has only won three. My issue with this way of ranking players is that it doesn’t take into account the rest of the team that won the championship with them.  Michael Jordan has only won the championship with the star-studded Chicago Bulls. Lebron James, on the other hand, has won the title with Miami Heat as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had never before won the title. Lebron James, alongside Kyrie Irving, carried a mediocre team to victory with a comeback against one of the greatest sides of all time, this team being Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors. Lebron has only won a third of the championship series he has been a part of, however, the fact that he has got the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals five times is a feat in itself. I fear that people remember the end results of Michael Jordan’s successes but forget the performances of him and his team mates. Conversely, Lebron James’ failures in finals are more recent so they are more scrutinised by the public.

Secondly, I believe Michael Jordan’s massive shoe success has added to people’s fondness of Jordan, and, although your footwear should not affect whether you are considered the best or not, I fear it has subconsciously affected people’s decision. Funnily enough, Jordan and Lebron are the only basketball players to get a signature shoe in their rookie year, however the ‘Jordan 1’ is a lot more successful than the ‘Air Zoom Generation 1′. Jordan is now a company in its own right, thriving off the success of their original models that they bring back every few years, capitalising on fans’ nostalgia. These days, children will know about the brand before they know about the player, and, considering the whole brand markets itself as the brand of the best ever player, a lot of people will have already assumed that Jordan is the greatest of all time before they know his first name.

Lastly, and most importantly, the average NBA fan has grown up with Michael Jordan and remembers him fondly. Therefore, in the seventeen years since he has stopped playing, their opinion on him has slowly improved as they reminisce about watching him on their TV. Because of this, they forget about his last few years with Orlando Magic. He missed his second season because of a broken leg, and he had a failed attempt at professional baseball. Despite this, fans criticise Lebron for his championship finals record. This problem has not been the case in other sports, with a very open debate on who is the best football player ever; however this is because there are many football leagues, and until recently you would only watch the league in your  country, meaning everyone would have this sense of nostalgia about someone different. In the NFL, however, many think the current quarterback for the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, is the best to have ever played but there is no clear favourite, even though there is only one big American football league. This shows that, above all, it boils down to Michael Jordan’s star power. He wore his ‘Jordan’s’ and a gold chain in the dunk contest, and he was the one to dunk from the free throw line. A contemporary comparison would be Neymar Jr, who became popular in the world of football when he was still playing in Brazil; although he had undeniable talent, he was going viral because of his arrogant tricks and playful style. Neymar Jr has even gone on to make shoes with Jordan in recent years. I believe this is why players such as Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird are not nearly as well known, and no matter how impressive an appearance Michael Jordan has cut out for himself, it shouldn’t affect whether he is the greatest of all time.

Lebron James may be 34, but he still has plenty of time to grab another ring, break another record, or make another historic shot. Lebron James is playing in the age of social media, where thousands of people scrutinize him after every game. Unlike Jordan, every game he plays is uploaded to the internet, making him an easy target. Nonetheless, I think it is still clear that he has exceeded all those who have come before him. In the future, however, it will be interesting to see whether he ends up getting the recognition I believe he deserves. Likewise, it will be interesting whether, in another twenty years, someone new will make the same point about nostalgia to prove why Lebron James is no longer the best.