LeBron James, Jordan and Derrick Rose Reflections and Illusions of NBA Destiny

Brendan Millhouser@@ChiBdmContributor IIMay 28, 2011

Finally, It seems as if Miami's LeBron James is on the path to Jordan-like status.  But there is already one thing he cannot accomplish.  And that's the perfection of MJ's achievements.  

He never really had his ups and downs, the way LeBron has to start his career.  But that sort of progression is natural.  Jordan had a lot of help in his journey.  And frankly, just a little bit of luck in order for the narrative to come out so sublime.  That's why it's nearly impossible to compare anyone with him.  

Others may eclipse him in championships, but never in the crystallized perfection department.  He made the NBA seem like pro-wrestling, with the certainty by which he earned his rings.  And once he got started, no one would stand in the way. 

This is not a blog from a bitter Bulls fan to tear down LeBron with comparisons to His Airness.  In fact, I think it has actually become a close call as to who is, or will be better when it's all over.

This is really just a way to remember the good times as a dejected Bulls fan.  I won't be down and out forever.  But the new season is a LONG, long way in the future. But clearly the overdone debate over who rules is back at the forefront, due in large part to Scottie Pippen's recent comments.

Here's a little insight into the legacy of Jordan, the nature of grading an athlete, overboard expectations and how stars like King James and Derrick Rose fit into a league that still remembers those six championships.  

Let's revisit the squad that changed expectations for everyone.

How predictable it all became. The Chicago Bulls.  The Jordan years and the man's uncanny ability to succeed.  He was mentally strong, extremely self-motivated and possessed outstanding athletic abilities. It all translated into glory.  He could do nothing but win.  Beating the odds became automatic. And each new challenge he encountered would read like a chapter in a bedtime story—ending happily ever after.

Other teams—other players—they all had their disqualifying flaws.  Patrick Ewing was labeled a loser from his Georgetown years—ironically losing the NCAA Title to Jordan on a game-winning shot during his freshman year.  The mighty Hoyas taken down by a freshman.  

Ewing's heavily favored teams never did win that title he desperately needed. We all know what happens to the teams that should win, and don't.  Labels can very easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  

Karl Malone and John Stockton represented boring basketball, at least in an Xs and Os sense. They may have mastered the pick-and-roll, along with a million other life-affirming team traits. In their league, however, superstar heroics are what brings home the hardware. And the fundamentally sound Jazz were not worthy of providing those moments.

How dare these pretenders try and take the trophy from its rightful throne.  If they were "winners," then why hadn't they won.  Must be destiny.  Even Scottie Pippen was aware that "the Mailman didn't deliver on Sunday." And he didn't. 

Real stars would never miss free throws in a close game, right?

It was just that simple.  

That brings us to His Airness, Michael Jordan.  The man, the myth, the legend.  The action figure with the million-dollar smile.  The phenom who could transcend the basketball court, wall street, pop culture and even other dimensions, at least in Space Jam

He was a winner.  And if someone was a winner, they never lost. 

At least when it came to him.

That's how it was for a generation raised on the NBA in the 90s.

We were drinking the spiked Gatorade. 

This won't be the first time that MJ's legacy will be mentioned in terms of its lasting effects on the league.  It's pretty obvious that it will take many, many years until he is remembered more as a Bill Russell type.  A hero from the past, whose achievements are no longer comparable due to the gradual evolution of the league.

I would venture to guess that Bill Russell's 11 championships are held in less esteem, to recent generations, than the six championships of those 90s-era Bulls. 

We only remember what we are actually around to see. 

Championships from eras long gone can never be remembered in their proper context.  There is always the question of whether the competition was as consistent.  Or whether in the early years, the big men simply dominated because no one else was as tall.

No one would argue that it was due to an unfair break in genetics that made MJ unstoppable.  He was 6'6" and blessed with talent, but not physically overwhelming.

What a disservice it then becomes, since Jordan's teams were virtually PERFECT in their quest for multiple titles. Not only to the other contenders in the sport of basketball, but for every popular athlete in any sport.

There suddenly emerged a set of Jordan rules. Or at least subconscious guidelines that we created to judge the cream of the crop in the athletic world. They were never carved into stone, but I guarantee we have all used them as a barometer for judging the legacies of athletes. 

1. Champions never lose to underdogs.  

If that does occur, they risk losing way more than that season's title ring.  In every series that the Bulls were deemed "Goliath" to some other team's David, the giant prevailed.  Every single one. No longshots.  No odds-beaters.  Only trampled foes.

2.  Great players must always take the last shots.

Jordan not only hit more game-winning shots than almost anyone in history, but in doing so, probably missed more game-winning shots in history as well.  But that is inconsequential.  If the greatest champion of all time (at least to some) made it a habit of taking nearly every clutch shot, then everyone else afterwards had to follow suit.  That is, if they wanted to continue to possess their alpha-dog street cred. 

3.  One Championship will never be enough.  

In order to be truly great, two-peats, three-peats and double three-peats were the key to notoriety. I think we all remember LeBron's halfway-kidding introductory speech to the Miami fans, where he counted all the way up to seven championships as his stated goal. It's no accident that he stopped at one more than Jordan. But once again, he was more than likely joking.  Seven championships seem like a tall order at this point in his career. He may someday regret even mentioning that in jest.

Take a look at Jordan's body of work.  It reads like a movie script that would be too syrupy to be released.  

Remember how little Michael was left off the high school basketball team?

And remember how he used that negative event to inspire himself to practice harder and used all of his willpower to show his coach that he made a terrible mistake?

Yes, exactly.

Who writes this swill?

No one. This really happened.  These inspirational anecdotes would define his career.

He accomplished EVERYTHING. It was virtually athletic perfection.  

But many, many things had to come together for this triumph of a career.  

He had to be drafted by a good organization, willing to put the parts around him to succeed. Maybe the Bulls didn't have to be spectacular in that regard, but he would not have been set up properly on the majority of the other teams in the league. 

This executive support was on full display when he began his quest for a second three-peat. Significant contributors such as Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and, of course, Dennis Rodman were all brought together to help win.  It was a success.  They played their roles seamlessly.  

And let's not forgot that the team was headed up by one of the most highly regarded coaches ever to man the sidelines in Phil Jackson.  Some would argue that his titles were somehow diminished because of his All-Star personnel. But it would be foolish to dismiss his accomplishments completely.  You don't win as many championships as he has by happenstance. 

No way. 

By that logic, Kobe and Shaq should have ensured that Del Harris was wearing championship rings on his fingers and toes.

But there was more to be merry about.  The Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas. That worked out just fine.  A Top-50 player of all time and closer to one than 50. A solid-gold find that was certainly not an inevitability.  

What if that never happened?

For the most part, Jordan did not suffer with constant injuries.  He did lose virtually an entire season early on. Afterwards he was able to avoid similar mishaps almost entirely. In professional sports, remaining healthy can not be taken for granted.  Ask Bill Walton, Greg Oden, Shaquille O'neal, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and plenty of others.  

Even the mighty Tiger Woods may have to bow down to the reality of advanced wear and tear. It will most likely cost him his historic shot at breaking Jack Nicklaus' majors record. It's a shame. It truly does take a stroke of luck just to be healthy over the course of a career.  

I'm certainly not saying that Michael was just the recipient of good fortune.  He made his own luck.  I have never seen an athlete dominate the game the way he did.  Almost on command.  It was a sight to see.  

However, it's not realistic to expect that sort of dominance again in the modern era.  Even if MJ was drafted tomorrow, too many question marks would have to become exclamation points for him to go on a similar run.

It took a lot of outside factors all coming together beautifully.

Maybe in a parallel universe he only wins four titles.  Maybe he loses a couple of them as well.

Maybe he slips in Kerry Wood's hot tub. 

Just ask Kobe, who has been a part of more finals than Michael.  

You can't win them all.   

But you shouldn't have to, either.  Not if you're attending them in economy-sized Sam's club numbers like Jordan and Bryant.

After that team finally broke apart, it slowly became obvious that no athlete of any skill set in any sport could be held to such ridiculous standards.

Let's take the grid iron for instance.

League mascot and golden boy, Tom Brady, not too long ago, took a team riding the momentum of an undefeated season all the way to the Superbowl.

But then promptly lost.  

That's right.  After three NFL titles, his team was perfect throughout the regular season and all the way up to the big game. And the only thing standing between the Patriots and perfection was a win against a team they had already beaten that year.  A team that was one of the lowlier underdogs of the decade, in the form of the New York Giants. He was set up to be Jordan-esque. 

Right there for the taking with a another strong performance.  

But guess what? They lost.

Didn't you wonder what the deeper meaning of a mind-boggling loss like this would carry?

Perhaps there is no answer.

It didn't signal the end of the Patriots dominance.  It didn't mean that Brady was no longer a superstar quarterback or that he wasn't clutch. Gisele didn't decide to leave him for Tony Romo.

It also didn't mean that Bill Belichek won't be remembered as a historically great coach. Of course he will.  That's, at least, one more Superbowl appearance to put on the resume.

The Giants just won the game.  

The Pats most likely would have won big if there was a rematch.

But there won't be. Stuff happens.  

Except to His Airness it seemed.  

He always came out on top. His record-breaking 72-10 team sure didn't wilt when it came down to crunch time.

The Jordan years created this false sense of destiny in the world of sports, to a generation that grew up with the certainty of the Un-Forgetta-Bulls.  

Wayne Gretzky's presence was felt as well.  The first part of his career was spent, much like Mike's, gaining individual accolades, while his team grew stronger and more successful.  Enough time passed, and the Edmonton Oilers finally brought home the cup. And it wouldn't be the first time.  Once he became the champ, he was crowned three more times.  

But looking closely, even the great one suffered a bout of disappointing failure.  And in the midst of a colossal string of success.  

The Oilers weren't quite able to win five in row. They had to settle for merely a double two-peat. Edmonton was shown the exit by a hungry Calgary Flames team right in the middle of all that success.

Jordan would not have stood for that? Right?

See where I'm going.  Gretzky is on Jordan's level.  Maybe pound-for-pound in his sport, even better.  He certainly demolished the record books faster and by larger margins than Jordan did, in comparison with his peers.   

But he lost, and it didn't mean a thing.  

The Cup was returned to its previous owners the next year. 

But I will also admit that when I first heard of this failure at the apex of Gretzky's powers, I was a bit disappointed.

Jordan never lost in his prime.


But he could have. Great athletes lose all the time.

90 percent of his success was due to his incredible will to win and inspirational athleticism.  But 10 percent was from factors beyond his control.  

But he did have me going for a while. I grew up thinking that every great athlete should experience similar levels of unobstructed success.  They should all make sensational plays in every pressure situation, year after year in order to beat the "unworthy" stars from the other teams.  

The Ewings or the Barkleys who, in my estimation, must not have wanted it enough or didn't try  hard enough or weren't as heroic or clutch.  That had to be the source of their failure.  At least it was sold to the public that way. 

Michael Jordan's reign made a generation of fans buy into sports as a fairy tale. Something reliable and expected. Not scripted, but without much doubt involved in regards to the outcome.

It created that little voice in the back of your head before a Superbowl that says, "Ok, I know the teams look relatively equal, but Peyton Manning will definitely play above his means today, because he is a superstar." 

Mythology doesn't grind out wins, though, or recover on-side kicks. 

And when Drew Brees led his team to victory over the shell-shocked Colts, I can at least speak for myself in, once again, feeling puzzled over where this event fits.  

The best quarterback in the league, one of those guys that even your mother could pick out of a lineup due to his global stardom, had lost.  And not even in a particularly memorable way. It's not as if he fell on his own sword.

It's too confusing.

What do you make of a player who is arguably the best in the league, who has won a Superbowl and also lost one? 

In reality, those types of conundrums have always existed in sports.  It's life, and it never has been black and white. But those Bulls teams made it feel like it could have been.

That's the Jordan effect.  It took a combination of factors, hinging upon his otherworldly talents, to finish his NBA novella. Don't expect that sort of certainty ever again. 

The stars may not have been aligned, but they were pretty close in the night sky when Michael Jordan arrived on the planet.

And even now, in a league made up of players, who mostly remember those days from highlight reels, those sort of off-the-chart expectations have not completely subsided.

And at least for some, there may be a dark side to living in the shadows of the impossible.

LeBron James took maybe the worst supporting cast of players to ever play for a title into the finals against San Antonio early in his career.  Go back and look at the roster.  It's much worse than you think.  Not only that, but he absolutely willed his team to that perch by scoring damn near every single clutch point in defeating the heavily favored Detroit Pistons.

Most people have already forgotten about that.  The Spurs were a monster and The Cavs didn't win. 

Instead of remembering that season fondly, it has been cast aside as a season that "LeBron failed." He didn't ask to be the next Jordan, and no one should expect it.  He's still a young man. These years should be the exciting prime years. He could be leading the downtrodden city of Cleveland to the promised land. 

What a story that would be, right?  

No chance anymore.  People apparently told him one too many times that if he didn't want to be a failure, he would have to start piling up rings.  

Look how easy it was for Jordan.

Can't LeBron even get one (I would say it's looking great, right now)?

People forget the difficulty of a championship.  It's a grueling journey.  A journey that, for most, will end before reaching the hollowed grounds of victory.

And as we all know, nothing is ever guaranteed.  

Too many times those Bulls teams made us forget that.

Now in the eyes of the average NBA fan, LeBron has signed a deal with the devil. His team is now ridiculously loaded with superstar talent. Many lesser players could win with the help of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, least of all, King James.

It all seemed a bit desperate and over the top. But it did shed light into the dynamics of the pressure that was being exerted on him to win.  He would rather take on the role of a hated villain than to gamble with the uncertainty of possibly never winning a title. 

He will be booed at every visitor's arena until his last dunk as a player. And at times, it seems that he is becoming, and understandably, a bit unhinged—with angry, mildly threatening tweets early on and somewhat emotional press conferences and out-of-character overcelebrations on the court just recently.

It's not psychotic behavior, but it's not consistent with his mannerisms in the past. This was once the NBA's version of the "Say Hey Kid" before The Decision loomed on the horizon.  A care-free, fun-loving basketball prodigy with an infectious smile. It's easy to tell that all the negativity has taken its toll.

It's only natural. 

And can you really say that the otherworldly Jordan-esque expectations thrust upon him since middle school did not play at least some role in his dramatic decision?

Recently, the newly anointed MJ-like player, Derrick Rose, took a speedboat full of young and talented Bulls up the river toward the island of oppressive expectations that is the Miami Heat's season. The newly anointed savior may someday finish the job.

But not this year.  Not quite.  

LBJ is still playing the role of Colonel Kurtz on his island of stars.   

And maybe he will find himself in the unbelievable position of winning a title, but still being generally maligned.  

"Jordan didn't have to team up with Magic for his titles."  

There is some validity to that statement. 

And give Derrick Rose a few unfulfilling seasons and see if he starts feeling the strain.

Maybe he will flee to his own island of misfit superstars to cope.

Of course it's only basketball.  But the ante has been cranked up for the time being.  It may be our entertainment, but it's also one man from Akron's entire legacy on the line. 

But that's what happens when you win six championships.  And furthermore, when you do it with nary a misstep along the way.

It's certainly not for everyone. Though the bar isn't being lowered anytime soon.

We will continue to watch and see how the pressure manifests itself on the younger generations.


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