During a basketball camp run by Nike, when asked by one of the prospects what still motivates him, LeBron James said that the spectre of Michael Jordan is the thing that keeps him hungry, wanting more.
In an excellent piece by Lee Jenkins on SI.com, the main point is that James has a ghost he’s chasing. A ghost from Chicago. No matter what James does individually, the six championship rings Jordan has set him apart. From LeBron, from Kobe Bryant, who ended up winning five. But is James chasing Bryant? Probably not. These aren’t straight, linear rankings. Maybe the last few years hurt Bryant, but I doubt there’s a majority of people ranking him above LeBron on their personal all-time list. I have James in my all-time top 5. I doubt people outside Los Angeles have Bryant in that kind of company.
Can James ever go past Jordan? Anything is possible, even with the Golden State Warriors looking like a team that will go 82-0 or something like that next season. He’ll be turning 32, but if he doesn’t suffer from a sudden decline or an injury that completely changes the path of his career, theoretically James has enough seasons to catch up. More reasonable thinking suggests it’s going to be very difficult for him to win three championships in the foreseeable future. There’s just too much competition. The Heat won three titles from 2006 to 2013, and the Spurs won four from 1999 to 2007. But an 8-9 year period is always difficult to predict, and the Cavaliers were underdogs last year, and they’ll be underdogs again when the season begins.
It’s hard to ask James not to keep putting MJ on a pedestal, on an imaginary throne he’s trying to take over. Everyone in a competitive field needs something to push them. James wants excellence and eternal glory, but even more, he wants to be remembered as the best, even if he himself will always view Jordan as the greatest of all-time. There really shouldn’t be anything left that haunts James, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find.
The championship. The second championship. The championship with Cleveland, which is much bigger than just the four words: Winning a title in that city with that sports history and the cursed feeling, while beating a 73-9 Warriors team, a defending champion, that had a 3-1 lead in the series. James wasn’t alone in this. Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot of the series, James “just” had the biggest block. But James, the star the NBA was waiting for to fill in Jordan’s place as the face of the league, always, on purpose sometimes, makes the story about him. This wasn’t a Cleveland team winning a championship. This was LeBron James bringing the city of Cleveland; the city of the Indians and the Browns, a championship.
Next year, the weight on his shoulders will probably be a bit lighter, but it’ll still be there. When you’re that good in the present, and when you’re already part of an elite NBA club no matter how you try to categorize it, there’s always pressure, from yourself and from the outside world. That’s the burden of LeBron James, which he hasn’t always carried in the most graceful or sympathetic of manners, but it has molded him into the player and person he is. Someone with a very clear goal in mind, a goal he’ll keep chasing until there’s nothing left for him to prove, nothing left for him to go on, simply a league that will become too much for him. It might happen, even to him.