LeBron James and the Miami Heat just completed an epic seven game series with the San Antonio Spurs to win back-to-back titles. James has dealt with a lot of praise and criticism since being on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old. Comparisons of James are always made with other great players, especially Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. LeBron’s career will leave its own stamp on the game. Comparisons to other players are not fair to him because his story is very unique. There are many reasons why.
LeBron received criticism with his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in 2010. As a fan I was very critical of how he handled his decision more than the actual one. I do not believe he had bad intentions. He just received poor advice from his management that happened to be his friends, who were also approximately 25 years old with similar life experiences handling a delicate and unprecedented situation. From a pure basketball standpoint there have been very few NBA Championship teams without at least two legitimate Hall of Famers. The exceptions being the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, 1994 Houston Rockets, 2004 Detroit Pistons, and 2009-2010 L.A. Lakers. James did not have Hall of Fame caliber teammates in Cleveland. Going to Miami especially with Dwayne Wade would provide him with the level of teammate necessary to win a championship.
Let’s look at history the last 35 years. Larry Bird had three Hall of Famers as teammates with Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson. Magic Johnson had James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Dr. J’s lone NBA Championship came with Moses Malone. After expansion in the late 1980’s two Hall of Famers seem to be enough. Chicago’s Jordan/Pippen for most of the 1990’s, San Antonio’s Duncan/Robinson and the Lakers Kobe/Shaq as examples.
Another reason comparisons should not be used for LeBron is social and environmental. James came straight out of high school. He did not benefit from having the experiences of playing in college and in a structured environment for at least two years. Even though Kobe Bryant came out of high school his story is very different from LeBron’s. He is the son of a former professional basketball player. Was able to see the world from his father playing in Europe. And even coming out of high school he entered a situation that provided covering. His first coach was Del Harris who coached his father when he played for the Houston Rockets and then Phil Jackson who had six rings when the Lakers hired him. Jerry West was the team’s General Manager and one of the best basketball minds in the history of the game. He was on a veteran laden team that included Shaquille O’Neal who was the most dominant force in the NBA and in his prime. He had other veteran teammates such as Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Horace Grant, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox who could provide leadership. For the first eight years of his career all Kobe had to focus on was just playing. Kobe was often compared to Jordan. Phil Jackson who coached both them pointed out the difference between the two of them in his book Eleven Rings, "One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader," Jackson writes. "Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones."
Michael Jordan’s story is unique in his own way. Close relationship with his father. Played for Dean Smith at North Carolina for three years. Bobby Knight in the 1984 Olympics and had coaches such as Doug Collins, a former Olympian and first overall pick in the NBA Draft and then Phil Jackson who won two championships as a player and a head coach in the CBA before coaching Jordan. Bryant and Jordan were fortunate to be in environment that better prepared them for success. I do not feel LeBron has been the beneficiary of those kinds of environments until he came to Miami where Pat Riley is running the organization. He has benefited from having a teammate such as Shane Battier who has helped him study opponents even better than he already was.
LeBron James now has two championships with many years remaining in his career. He has represented the United States well participating in the Olympics three times. Takes excellent care of his body and never had a major injury. Serves his community in his hometown of Akron, OH and Miami, FL especially with children. Constantly building a business empire including partnerships with American Signature furniture and Beats by Dr. Dre, plus an ownership stake in Cannondale bikes and many endorsers such as Nike, Samsung, and McDonald’s. Respected by his teammates and coaches. When he finally decides to hang it up let his career speak for itself. It doesn’t have to be compared to anyone’s. He is as unique package of athlete we have never seen. Let’s just appreciate him for being who he is.