Close your eyes and we can all picture it: Michael Jordan in Utah with his Chicago Bulls trailing by one in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Calm, collected and cool as hell, the all-time master of the moment sizes up Bryon Russell during the dying seconds at The Delta Center. The ball in the hands of the ultimate predator, with he and his celebrated tongue just one victory away from yet another NBA title.
MJ catches the 230-pound Russell leaning ever so slightly and pounces on the opportunity with a deft push, encouraging the Long Beach State product’s mistaken momentum — freeing up Michael Jeffrey Jordan for the most famous shot of his entire career.
The perfection of Jordan’s follow-through is seared into our collective consciousness and sealed in the amber of the 1998 NBA Finals. The Salt Lake crowd in a state of perpetual prayer seeking divine intervention, or comfort from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, only to find their pleas falling on MJ’s deaf ears as he rides off into the sunset with a cigar in his mouth, a forever flawless piece of Americana captured in celluloid at his zenith, Air Jordan the wax museum masterpiece – a la James Dean & Marilyn Monroe.
Jordan was voted Finals MVP in all six of his NBA Finals appearances, with Chicago winning the title in each of them, and Michael never once set foot on a basketball court facing elimination in the Finals. It was beneath him, and it was beneath his billion-dollar brand.
If the Heat beat the Spurs on Thursday, LeBron James will be voted Finals MVP while claiming his second NBA title at 28 years old, when Jordan won his first, and he’ll have done so after facing back-to-back elimination games and winning a Game 7.
But the significance runs much deeper than ticking off a couple boxes Jordan never did, and goes beyond LeBron’s legacy on the court. James is subject to forces much more powerful than Gregg Popovich’s clipboard, or the three sure-fire Hall of Famers who benefit from its brilliance.
LeBron must conquer the scariest opponent many of us will ever know –- self-doubt.
After gene-splicing Serena Williams, Usain Bolt and Karl Malone, we arrive at an approximation of the physical gifts bestowed upon a boy born in Akron, Ohio on the 30th of December in 1984, but the baby named Bron Bron wasn’t blessed with ice water in his veins.
At 22, James carried a (talent-deficient) Cavalier team to the 2007 NBA Finals, and got schooled by Pop’s Spurs. He angered all of America in 2010 by leaving Cleveland via an obnoxious publicity stunt on ESPN, and karma punished his hubris to the tune of 18 points and four turnovers as the “chosen one” shrank beneath the bright lights of the 2011 Finals while losing to an inferior Mavericks team.
Winning the 2012 NBA Finals MVP and his first NBA title should’ve set this would-be hero free, but James has looked tentative in several games during this year’s Finals, tossing up LeBricks while shying away from the world’s desire for him to toss even more.
Through it all, the four-time MVP is now just one win away from his second NBA title, and after six games of this year’s Finals LeBron leads all players in points, assists and steals, while only Tim Duncan has more rebounds (we’ll get to LBJ’s awful shooting in just a second).
Eight different players in the 1998 NBA Finals averaged more assists than Michael Jordan, and seven different players averaged more rebounds. In fact, Jordan led the 1998 Finals in just one category, the one people remember: Mike dropped buckets.
Here are LeBron’s 2013 NBA Finals averages and those of Michael Jordan in 1998, when he had yet to become a Wizard, or one of the worst GM’s in American sports history.
LeBron 2013: 23.3 pts, 43.3 percent, 10.7 rebs, 7.5 ast, 2.3 stl, 1.0 blk, 2.7 tov.
Michael 1998: 33.5 pts, 42.7 percent, 4.0 rebs, 2.3 ast, 1.8 stl, .7 blk, 1.7 tov
The only Finals MVP to average 20 pts, 10 rebs and seven assists since the 1969 inception of the award, as James is poised to do, was LeBron himself a year ago. (And I told you we’d get back to the awful shooting; bet you can’t remember the media calling MJ a bricklayer?)
Fifteen years later, the best basketball player on the planet is averaging 10 fewer points than Jordan did while shooting slightly better, but most remarkably, LeBron’s 10.7 rebounds trump Jordan’s rebounds, assists, steals and blocks combined, as Jordan’s lack of assists scream “ballhog” even before laying eyes on LeBron’s propensity to share. James’ 2013 Finals numbers aren’t just better than Jordan’s in 1998; they’re significantly better.
MJ was one of the greatest athletes ever to walk the earth, and the plain truth is, watching Michael Jordan play basketball made us all feel like spectators witnessing a virtuoso perform a task as it had always been intended, although James has caught quite a bit of flak for putting up historical digits that make the 1998 version of MJ seem awfully one-dimensional.
But this MJ vs. LBJ comparison is small potatoes as far as LeBron is concerned, he knows better than anyone the only verdict that truly matters is that of his own likeness in the locker room mirror deep in the bowels of the American Airlines Arena after Game 7. And the same reflection that may very well hold salvation for King James could also find him the target of his own derisive gaze, one condemning him to a perpetual state of pain and disenchantment.
I mean, how does one put a price on redemption?
And just how much would the fourth-highest earning athlete on the globe be willing to pay for the peace of mind found by staring down failure in front of millions of people, and somehow finding self-belief in the process?
The fact of the matter is few athletes in human history were ever blessed with LeBron’s gifts, but he suffers from many of the same insecurities as all of us. Nerves, doubt, and a past reminding him he hasn’t always been at his best when it mattered. And the more we covet something only increases the agony of it eluding our grasp, though most all of us will chase that which we hold most dear without the world peering over our shoulder — and judging each step of our journey.
Jordan will live the rest of his life never having failed in the NBA Finals, or having been ridiculed mercilessly for doing so, and Mike never needed to summon the will to succeed when the entire world knew he was experiencing a crisis in confidence (the “flu game” was about his body, not belief). His Airness knew no such mortal defects, and we deified him for his perceived perfection, but failure is at the very core of being human, and overcoming those scars its left on our psyche is a testament to an altogether different kind of greatness, one that requires us to vanquish adversaries of our own making, while offering a reward that’s far more personal.
Cloaked in a shell of tattooed muscle, and carrying passengers to the rim for monster dunks on the regular, LeBron appears chiseled out of granite, but we all know he’s fragile and prone to doubting himself, and yet he’s somehow still proud, determined, and to me at least, all the more appealing for his imperfections.
And know this. If King James ever silences those inner demons forever furrowing his balding brow, god help the rest of the NBA.