Numbers shouldn’t matter, but there’s more than a jersey print when it comes to LeBron James switching back to the #23 jersey instead of the #6 he wore while playing for the Miami Heat. Escaping from the name and comparison to Michael Jordan would do him and the Cleveland Cavaliers a world of good.
There’s no way getting around it: Everything LeBron James does, like Kobe Bryant before him (and maybe still now) is compared to how Michael Jordan did, to what he did. That is simply the way sports is consumed as a media product by most fans, even though a player can be great without winning championships. There are a lot more factors than just being good or not that fall into that equation.
LeBron James talks once in a while about legacy. About being remembered as the greatest or one of them. As good as he was for the Cavaliers from 2003 to 2010, which included winning two regular season MVP awards and surprisingly taking them to the NBA finals in 2007, he didn’t have his magical moment to put himself at the top of the mountain where the truly great belong. Maybe it’s unfair, but until you do something special by leading your team to the NBA champions, it’s impossible to get into that club.
James went to Miami, put on a #6 jersey and went to work. He reached four finals in four years, something even Jordan didn’t do. He won two championships and added two more MVP awards. He put himself up there with Jordan, Magic Johnson and whoever else you think belongs in the discussion about the best player in NBA history. He needed those championships and two great finals series to earn that validation.
But James isn’t Jordan. He is a different player. He has his moments of having everyone spread and clear out, making it quite evident that it’s his show, his moment. With Jordan, in NBA finals, you felt it was like that all the time, although history and time distort what actually happened. Scottie Pippen and others had some memorable moments as well during those finals run, but memory and history don’t have room for everyone to be included.
And James shouldn’t try to be Jordan. He isn’t. He is a different basketball player. Maybe inferior, maybe better, but clearly different. Not just his position and size, but also in how he approaches the game, and lets it come to him instead of usually trying to take over without anyone getting in the way. It isn’t him. Wearing that #23 maybe works for promotional purposes, but it puts James once again under the wrong spotlight.
It’s never easy playing in the shadow of Jordan. It might take some time, but I’m pretty sure that the comparisons to him won’t go on forever. No one ever puts Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in those lists. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t mentioned as much as well. That’s just human nature. Out with the old, in with the new. James has made a lasting impression, but it can be even greater, especially if he doesn’t try to follow in footsteps he’ll simply never live up to.