Roughly 25 miles outside of the city of Chicago, there’s an Illinois suburb by the name of Glen Ellyn, population 27,450. I lived there from ages 4-6 and my memory of that time is fuzzy at best. I was too young to understand it then, but that whole Michael Jordan thing was happening around me in real time. My father told me stories of the hysteria—good luck walking the length of two city blocks without encountering his name, his jersey number or his image. There was but one topic of conversation around the proverbial and literal water coolers. The entire city revolved around his greatness. It was madness, he said.
The crying Jordan meme has become immortalized in the annals of internet history, and for the younger basketball fans, it honestly might be one of the first images conjured up when his name is dropped. But there was a time when you couldn’t get far without finding that same face—sans the tears, pre retirement, pre hall of fame speech, his legend still being written with each game played—plastered onto billboards, bus stops, even carved into a slice of cheese pizza. Although I think my dad may have gotten a little carried away with the myth. I’m calling bullshit on that last one.
In hindsight, all of these stories seem hyperbolical, and they probably were. But that’s half the fun with this MJ thing. He was so good, the stats and the limited footage just didn’t do it justice. He was so damn good, he transcended earnest evaluation. The myth may have grown larger than the man himself, but let’s be honest: Jordan earned the right to be mythologized. He was the platonic form of greatness, every basketball player that’s followed has been but a shadow of his perfection. Or so I’m told.
I never got to experience that. I was a child, many years away from discovering my love for this league, and my ability to make and store vivid memories was still in development. All I have are the stories.
Perhaps that’s the very reason why some of us younger fans appreciate LeBron James to the extent that we do. There’s an unrelenting and overwhelming gratitude to him for providing me with what is, if not the reincarnation of that very greatness, then the closest thing to the true form that any shadow could resemble.
A lot of us missed Jordan. But we’re lucky to say we were here for every second of this LeBron James experience. And so as we watched LeBron drop 46, 11 and 9 in an elimination game against the Boston Celtics on Friday night, I found myself wondering what I usually do when he drops 40 in a playoff game—a question that must be asked after seeing what he did to Detroit in 2007, at Boston in 2012, to Golden State in 2016, and how far he’s carried this Cleveland team:
If LeBron really isn’t MJ, at what point do we start asking if MJ himself was even that guy?
This isn’t a GOAT debate column. I understand that I am guilty of the same bias that drives those most passionate of MJ fans—my GOAT is the reason I fell in love with the league. My GOAT is the guy who played when I could watch and digest it properly. I was born during the Jordan era, but I grew up with LeBron James, and the latter has literally been putting all-time greatness on display for most of my life.
I wonder though if those who watched Jordan play are convinced he is the true king, simply because he was their king, and they’ve fallen under the same spell of undying loyalty that some of us have sworn to LeBron. Whenever LeBron’s successor is crowned, or they attempt to crown him, we’ll probably find ourselves in a similar position—rejecting the notion that anyone could be in his league on principle. Out of loyalty.
I wonder too, if when LeBron finally does retire, that much like those who watched MJ, we’ll find ourselves at a loss for words when our kids reach the curious stage of young sports fandom. Despite happening in the Twitter, YouTube, and League Pass era, it’s probable that the recorded history of LeBron James’ career will fail to capture some element of this experience. The numbers that he puts up, the highlights that he produces, they’re the bones of the story, but LeBron’s greatness is an emergent property. It can’t be pieced back together limb by limb. You just had to be there to soak it all in.
The LeBron experience isn’t about the stats or the top plays. It’s not about the endless accolades, or awards, or his winning percentage in the NBA finals. It’s about what it’s like, what it feels like, to watch him play.
As LeBron buried the second of his two dagger three pointers into the hearts of the Celtics, Mike Breen, the best in the game, almost lost control. He had already busted out his signature “BANG!” for the first three. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself the second time around. In that moment, we were all Mike Breen. I’ve been watching Bron do this for as long as I can remember.
This shit never gets old.
That raw experience may very well be lost between the cracks one day, and we’ll be left to our own devices to properly convey his greatness to those younger fans who weren’t as lucky as we were. When that time comes, it’s to be expected that much like Jordan, the myth will eventually get away from us and eclipse the man himself. But in this case, the man himself is just so impossibly large, and he’s growing larger each day. How do we mythologize this? What’s left for hyperbole to claim?
I do not know. Nor am I eager to find out.
As a hoops fan, LeBron is the only king I’ve ever known. Long may he live. Long may he reign.