“Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player that ever lived. I mean, people say he was less than a god, but more than a man. You know, like Hercules or something!”
– Benny Rodriguez, The Sandlot
In this game, Hercules goes by the name Michael Jordan. Except for those who are old enough to have seen Wilt or Russell or Oscar play in their primes, there is little argument that MJ is the greatest basketball player that ever lived. How little? Mike is the only player who you can refer to simply as “G.O.A.T.” and everybody knows exactly who you’re talking about. And yet, over time I’ve come to learn one almost unbelievable truth:
Michael Jordan is overrated.
(I paused for a minute after I wrote that sentence. No lightning bolt, no ghost of Michael rising from the fog to dunk on my foolish head. OK, cool. Moving on…)
How could we have possibly overrated the guy who sets the standard for ratings? By having grown-ass men do what the kids in The Sandlot did, and turn him into a character that is superhuman on the court and unflawed at his craft. I wrote about this last year, when Kobe Bryant‘s competitiveness was similarly becoming blown up to legendary proportions. In painting Kobe out to be a basketball killing machine who goes 100% every single second of every single game — even when we have clear evidence to the contrary — while the sentiment and appreciation for greatness were welcome in a time where almost everybody is a cynic, at the same time, we weren’t allowing Kobe room to be human.
Jordan is, as usual, the standard-bearer for this kind of treatment. Here is an actual, typical response (taken from this article) when somebody dares bring up the notion that Kobe, the MJ of the 21st century, might be somewhere near as good as Michael:
“The Lakers were up by 24 in a Finals game and lost. That’s nothing like Michael Jordan, he would have never let that happen. No comparison.”
These are often bolstered by claims that Prime Mike would drop 67 points on Kobe easily, that he’d lock him down on D and make him look like Willie Green, and then “Six Rings!” is dropped to end the argument, intended to hit with the force of a Scottish claymore.
But Jordan also missed the playoffs or got knocked out in the first round five times. At Mike’s peak, he lost games to Lottery teams, had some 8-for-27 shooting nights, got lit up on D occasionally, got dunked on, turned the ball over, missed dunks, missed game-winners, and passed up potential game-winners. Ask him as much, and he’ll tell you. He still stands as basketball’s ultimate winner, but he was not an unyielding, flawless winner.
This isn’t about comparing Michael to Kobe — that just happens to be the closest modern-day comparison. It’s about one man reaching mythical proportions in the game, when, unlike Paul Bunyan, we actually have tons of video evidence and first-hand accounts to bring us back to reality.
In the last week, I’ve been to the magazine rack and seen ESPN and Beckett have printed special All-Jordan issues commemorating MJ’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame next month. A pretty easy and understandable undertaking considering this is the most photographed and written-about athlete ever, but where was the All-Magic issue? The All-Bird issue? Michael is bigger than the rest, but have we decided that Michael is also bigger than the game, or that he’s just the only one worthy of such reverence?
I get it, though. Jordan wasn’t just our best player, he had — and still has — the greatest aura. His influence goes beyond anyone else’s and will endure longer than anyone else’s. My younger brother, an avid Air Jordan collector, was just shy of 10 years old when Mike hit The Last Shot against Utah. I have a cousin whose name is Jordan. I watch the “Look Me In the Eyes” commercial once every couple of weeks, just because. I’ve been in a packed Madison Square Garden that buzzed, then fell silent, then broke out into wild cheering when Mike appeared in the stands and took a seat. I get that what makes Jordan JORDAN goes beyond basketball.
(Story time: In three years as a full-time professional sportswriter, I’ve been rendered speechless in front of a celebrity exactly two times.
The first was at an NBA Live 07 promo event in New York. While casually chatting up T-Mac, Tony Parker and Nate Robinson like we were lifelong friends, I soon found out Toccara Jones — subject of the greatest magazine cover I’ve ever seen — was also working the event as an interviewer for BET. Over 20 minutes that felt like an hour, my feet got me within speaking range several times, my eyes earned me a couple flashes of attention, but my mouth just wouldn’t play along.
The second time was at All-Star Weekend ’08 in New Orleans, at a Boost Mobile party/pool tournament. There I was comfortably making the rounds with everybody from Gabrielle Union to Kevin Durant (weirdest moment of my life: Choppa from Da Band came up to me and Andrew Katz like, “What up, fam?” as if we knew each other), until Michael Jordan entered the picture. In a surreal scene where Mike was playing pool against Michael Bivens while BBD’s “Poison” was blasting on the speakers, fueled by vodka-cran, I decided to go over and say something. I slipped past his bodyguard, Charles Oakley, but once I got close to Mike, I forgot what I was gonna say. I settled for “accidentally” nudging his arm, exchanging a head-nod, then giggling back to my group like a girl at a Trey Songz concert.)
But somewhere along the way, we forgot that Jordan at his best wasn’t Jordan all the time. When people get on LeBron for not having a jumper (like Mike) or not having a championship (like Mike), they forget that Mike didn’t always have those things. Even if he made it close to perfection, there was always a process.
I’ve been tinkering with this column for about a week, trying to figure out a way to make my point without being called a “hater” or just plain crazy. And maybe I am #2, but definitely not #1. Growing up, I found myself in awe of Michael’s game as much as anybody — and perhaps even more so when he came back to the Wizards and showed it wasn’t all just about physical superiority — but I was also able to see the full picture.
He wasn’t a perfect player. He isn’t completely, indisputably, the greatest of all-time. He isn’t THAT much better than Magic or Bird or Oscar or Kobe or (save this space for LeBron once he wins some championships). He didn’t score 50 “at will”; he had to work for it.
And, thankfully, Michael has too much respect for the game, his teammates and his competitors to ever say things implying otherwise. He can, like the rest of us should, remember that Space Jam was just a movie.