Feinstein: LeBron, MJ Belong In Same Sentence

Whichever way you lean, John Feinstein won't argue with you

John Feinstein
May 02, 2018 - 2:06 pm

USA Today Images


I’ve been very fortunate in my life to get to see—and get to know—many great athletes and coaches during 40 years of writing about sports for a living.
I like to tell people that I saw both Michael Jordan and LeBron James play when they were in high school—albeit under very different circumstances.
I was the Maryland beat writer for The Washington Post in 1981 when Jordan was a senior at Laney High School. I had to be in Durham for a Saturday afternoon Maryland-Duke game. A week earlier, when North Carolina had played Maryland in College Park, I was talking to Eddie Fogler, who was then a North Carolina assistant coach.
“I presume you’ll be down next week when Maryland plays your alma mater,” he said.
When I said I would, he smiled and said, “I’m going to give you a tip. Don’t just come down and get together with your buddies for dinner Friday night. Take a drive to Wilmington. I promise you’ll thank me.”
I’d heard the name Michael Jordan the previous summer when he had been the find of the Five-Star camp. Howard Garfinkel, who ran the camp forever always insisted that HE discovered Jordan that summer.
“Is he that good?” I said to Fogler.
“Better,” Fogler said. “But don’t tell Coach Smith I said that. He’ll kill me.”
Dean Smith never wanted his incoming freshmen touted as superstars. He preferred they be looked at as the guys who carried the equipment bags and waited their turn for water during practice behind the upperclassman.
I trusted Fogler. So, I bypassed dinner and made the drive to Wilmington, finding Laney High School after about five wrong turns. It was worth it. Jordan had five STEALS in the first quarter. I honestly don’t remember his numbers, but he dominated the game in a way that left me gaping on more than one occasion. I had no idea that night that he would end up being MICHAEL JORDAN, but I knew I’d seen something special.
I called Fogler the next morning and said, “If you guys don’t win the national championship with this kid on the team, then Dean CAN’T coach.”
This was before Smith had won a national title and there were people who wondered if he would win one.
Fogler laughed and said, “I told you didn’t I?”
He had. I’ll be forever grateful.
No one tipped me off to James. I’m honestly not sure if I had ever heard of him before I showed up at a basketball camp in New Jersey in the summer of 2001. I used to go to the camps for two reasons: they were great places to talk to college coaches in a relatively relaxed summer atmosphere and because I liked to have a sense of who the best up-and-coming players might be.
On a hot summer afternoon in the gym at Fairleigh Dickinson, virtually everyone in the building surrounded one of the three courts to watch a game between a team led by James and a team led by Lenny Cooke.
James had just finished his sophomore year in high school. At that moment, Cooke, a year older, was rated ahead of him by most of the so-called recruiting experts.
It was a very good game—as summer league games go—and it came down to one possession, score tied, James with the ball, Cooke guarding him.
James was 16—built like a tank even then. He did what we have all now seen him do a thousand times: he dribbled the clock down, cleared some space between himself and Cooke and drained a shot as the buzzer sounded.
The gym went crazy because everyone knew they had seen greatness. Years later, someone did a documentary on Cooke, the classic story of a high school star who thought he was going to be an NBA star and never played a minute in the NBA. He turned pro after high school in 2002 and wasn’t drafted. He got looks in a couple of NBA camps but never made a team.
In the doc, Cooke talks about that summer camp game, that moment with James and how it changed the arc of his basketball career—and his life.
We all know where James went from that gym. Seventeen years later, he remains a jaw-dropping phenomenon.
I have always been a Jordan guy. I fell in love with him that night in Wilmington; watched him hit the winning shot to finally give Smith a national title a year later and first met him one-on-one when I did a story on him for The Post his sophomore year.
When we shook hands, he gave me a sly grin and said, “Coach Smith says you’re a good guy—even though you went to Duke.”
I had no doubt that Dean had said that. I liked him instantly and we became friendly. In the summer of 1984, after he had led the Bob Knight-coached U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Los Angeles, I was out to dinner with a group that included Pat Riley, then riding high as the coach of the Showtime Lakers. We were in a Mexican restaurant in New York and everyone had a few margaritas.
After my second—or third—I said this: “The Portland Trail Blazers will go down in history not only as the team that took LaRue Martin with the first pick but as the team that took Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan.”
Jordan had gone third in the draft that June; Bowie second and Hakeem Olajuwon first. I would have taken Jordan first but understood that Olajuwon was looked at as a big man with no ceiling since he still didn’t know how to play.
Olajuwon was a Hall-of-Famer. It was Bowie I made the statement about.
Riley looked at me with disdain. “You know, this is the problem with you media people,” he said. “You don’t understand what’s important. Jordan was listed at 6-6, because Dean always lets his players round up to appear taller (he had that part right). He’s no more than 6-4 and ½. That matters in the NBA. He won’t be able to just jump over people like he did in college.”
“I don’t care if he’s FIVE four and ½,” I said. “He’s going to dominate the NBA.”
Look, I get it wrong as often as I get it right. I once called Mark Price "an overrated white boy," when he was in college and, as my friends remind me, I said Kendall Marshall would be a better NBA point guard than John Wall. (In my defense, Marshall has won as many titles or conference titles as Wall.)
Everyone gets it wrong sometimes, but the Blazers--and Riley--clearly whiffed on Jordan.
Jordan retired for good in 2003, after his somewhat embarrassing stint with the Washington Wizards. It wasn’t as if he was Willie Mays with the Mets bad, he just wasn’t Michael Jordan.
James came into the league the next season, sort of perfect symmetry, looking back. He instantly transformed the Cleveland Cavaliers from losers to winners; to a team that had to be taken seriously.
The Cavaliers got to The Finals once while James was there and he had some poor playoff performances. People like me said, "Yeah, he’s really good, but you simply can’t mention him in the same sentence as Jordan." I was disdainful of people who compared James to Jordan.
I wasn’t wrong THEN. But James, after the disaster that was The Decision, continued to get better. He transformed the Heat (I wonder if Riley wouldn’t have wanted him if he had played for Carolina and rounded up his height) into a team that went to four straight NBA Finals and won twice.
Then he made the prodigal son returns home trip back to Cleveland and, in his second season, the Cavaliers finally won a title and the entire city went mad with joy. He has now played in The Finals seven straight seasons.
Forget his numbers, which grow more remarkable with each passing year or the fact that he is playing as well—or better—now than ever at the age of 33.
He’s also grown into stardom in ways Jordan never did. He’s been outspoken on political issues and, unlike Jordan, who once refused to help Smith campaign in North Carolina against noted segregationist Jesse Helms because, “Republicans buy shoes, too,” he has been willing to take on those he disagrees with politically—even if there are right-wing people who suggest he should, "stick to dribbling a basketball."
Is James BETTER than Jordan? Let’s put it this way, putting them in the same sentence either way is not an unreasonable position to take. He will pass Jordan for fourth place on the all-time scoring list next season—not that points are the ultimate measure of greatness by any means—and has taken some decidedly ordinary teams much farther than they should have gone.
I divide basketball players into two categories: I don’t think its fair to compare Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Jordan, James, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. The skill sets are too different.
But when it comes to the perimeter players, I’ve come around: Jordan and James; James and Jordan—you can go either way and I’m fine. Which is proof of just how remarkable James has become.
Riley was wrong about Jordan; I was wrong about Price and Marshall. I think he and I can finally find common ground when it comes to James. Like Jordan, he’s breathtaking.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” was on the New York Times bestseller list for five months. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys,--A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected as one of the best books of 2017 by the Junior Literary Guild. His new YA mystery, set at the Masters—“The Prodigy,”—will be published in August.