On April 19, 1985, the 22-year-old Michael Jordan played his first playoff game. The Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 109-100. Jordan didn't score a field goal in the second half and left the court complaining of a toothache. "I don't want to use it as an excuse, but the wisdom tooth started weakening me in the second half," Jordan told the Chicago Tribune. Chicago lost the series in four games.
By all measures, LeBron James is ahead of Michael Jordan's growth chart. He was the youngest Rookie of the Year, youngest All-Star Game MVP, and made the playoffs this year at the age of 21. (He's also on pace to be the youngest player to turn 22.) And when LeBron suffered his first playoff defeat last week, committing 10 turnovers in an 89-84 loss to the Wizards, he didn't even blame it on a toothache. Even though he didn't make excuses, columnists questioned LeBron's maturity. ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan listed his many mistakes, including the fact that he lacked the gumption to take a potential game-winning shot. Tom Knott of the Washington Times noted that, after a couple of hard fouls, "James let his inner wimp show."
This might have made sense if LeBron had a history of choking in the playoffs, or if he had a playoff history at all. Instead, he'd played only one playoff game—and that was a game that led the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon to call him the Golden Child. After he hit the winning shot in Game 3, LeBron was deified again. The Washington Times remarked that the former wimp had "return[ed] to [the] elite level."
LeBron James, we remind you, is 21 years old. His mother is younger than Clifford Robinson. Still, every shot he makes, misses, and doesn't take gets balanced against what Jordan did. Even if he's playing in his first playoff series, with teammates that make the Jordanaires look like the Globetrotters.
The 24-hour sports news cycle is partially to blame for making these daily evaluations compulsory. Jay Mariotti needs something to talk about on Around the Horn, and ESPNEWS has 24 hours a day to fill. LeBron's glories and failures fit into a convenient narrative that's easy to shift around for the next news cycle. Cavs won last night? LeBron's the savior! Cavs lost? What's wrong with LeBron, and why does he always bite his fingernails like a nervous Nellie?
The main reason we scrutinize LeBron's every move, though, is because we need an excuse to watch meaningless games. Comparisons fool us into thinking that what we are watching is historical and important, rather than merely an entertaining diversion. If LeBron James is the greatest thing since Michael Jordan, then we're watching the birth of a legend. If he's just some guy leading his team to a first-round loss, then we're sitting at home watching TNT, killing time between Law & Order reruns.
LeBron James will never be like Michael Jordan. All great players are unique. Heck, Gilbert Arenas is more comparable to Jordan, the player, than LeBron will ever be. But the search for the "next Jordan" has less to do with how someone looks on the court than how he looks on a billboard. Post-MJ, greatness isn't about winning a title. It's about winning a title (or six) all by yourself, while selling all the appropriate footwear.
LeBron's hagiographers at Nike have built a campaign around the fact that "We Are All Witnesses" to his greatness. Greatness doesn't happen when your teammates are Ira Newble and Flip Murray, though. Nobody remembers Michael Jordan's toothache, and nobody's going to remember LeBron's 10 turnovers in Game 2—or his Game 3 victory, for that matter. When and if he does win a title, that Cavaliers (or Knicks) team will probably include a couple of teammates who can hit an open jump shot. In the meantime, maybe LeBron will thrill us with a 63-point game. But don't fool yourself into thinking you're watching history. In a year you'll forget this series ever happened. So will LeBron.