I said, ‘Baby, I think Michael Jordan’s better than me.’
She said, ‘Dad, you’ve never said that before.’
I said, ‘Baby, I’ve never felt like that before.’
Charles Barkley’s famous words to his daughter after losing the 1993 NBA Finals have become sort of an homage to the psychological effect Jordan had on his opponents. He didn’t just beat people, he broke them. And after all, that’s what set Jordan apart from his superstar peers, both past and present, in arguments across sports bars and SportsCenter screens alike. Leave stats and titles at the door, Jordan is atop the basketball pyramid for phrases like “will to win,” “cutthroat” and thinly veiled euphemisms for “psychotic.”
“Sure, LeBron might win more,” you’ll hear people say. “But he’ll never be like Jordan.” Translation: James will never be so insanely driven to win that he punches teammates and gambles away millions.
Jordan’s mythical psyche even changes how one reads his quotes. Remember, everything Jordan did was calculated. Nothing was by accident.
“I called to congratulate him. He made the transition from Philly in style. He has received notoriety and it should be his with what he has achieved. He’s very deserving, he has had an excellent season and I’m very happy for him.”
What sounds like a typical cookie-cutter ‘appease the press’ response from Jordan on Barkley’s 1993 MVP Award, is anything but when you consider the context. Jordan had finally beat his critics; he had just won two titles, and was primed to make a run at a third. Was he psyching himself up? Was he trying to create a slight or insult, because Barkley had won the award when Michael was so clearly the most valuable basketball player on the planet? Did he need the motivation so badly that he created it himself?
This is how Jordan’s mind worked. He needed obstacles, rivals. First he took on Bird and Magic, and the idea that a “scorer” couldn’t win his own championships. By 1992-1993 (when MJ made that quote about Barkley), Jordan had overcome those; he had two titles, multiple MVPs, and a couple gold medals too.
He was a success. But for more success, he needed someone to push him, an adversary, a rival, a problem that needed fixing. So, he created it. After dismissing the 1993 Suns in the Finals MJ famously yelled at the top of his lungs in Phoenix, “Dan Majerle my ass!” — a final showing that he was right when he argued with Bulls GM Jerry Krause that Majerle wasn’t that good. You read that right, years later, Michael still had to prove that someone who disagreed with him was wrong (even though he wasn’t — Majerle was a good player for what it’s worth).
But this isn’t about MJ’s personality, or its flaws. It’s about what successful athletes must do to stay that way; the athletes who’ve reached the top of the sport and look around for another mountain to climb.
It’s oft forgotten how much Jordan and LeBron’s careers had in common early on. Jordan-fans routinely forget that the insults they hurl at LeBron are nearly identical to the ones thrown at MJ in the late 80s. But then Jordan surpassed those critics, and he found that, well, he needed more critics. So, he found something to spur himself into action.
Much like Jordan, James has surpassed his “can’t win” critics. Much like Jordan, he’s won a slew of MVP’s and gold medals. And much like Jordan (in ‘93), the league has basically been his for the better part of five years.
But unlike Jordan, who had Thomas, Bird, Magic, Barkley and Malone, LeBron has never had a proper rival to his dominance. Kobe was past his prime when LeBron was taking over, and while James certainly has a fair share of competition (the league is deeper than ever), he’s never had a made-for-TV counterpart.
Until now. It’s no secret Kevin Durant is having one of the better years we’ve seen from anyone not named LeBron or Kobe since Jordan left the league. And for LeBron, it couldn’t be happening at a better time as he heads towards the grueling task of reaching a fourth Finals in four years — something few have accomplished.
On a recent BS Report Podcast with Bill Simmons, Steve Kerr openly doubted that the Heat would win their 3rd straight title in 2014. But it wasn’t for any basketball reason. Kerry simply thought that at some point, you start to lose the drive and resolve that got you to the first two; that it’s inevitable to lose a step when you’ve had so much success.
That’s why LeBron needs Durant right now. LeBron has won four of the last five MVPs, but in all likelihood, Durant will take home that honor this year, right when James is in the midst of making a run for his three-peat this summer. The parallels to Jordan’s career are almost uncanny. MJ had won three of five MVPs before voters sent one over to Barkley, right when MJ was considering leaving the sport he had so totally conquered. And if that wasn’t enough, before embarking on his first quest for a three-peat in 1993, the Phoenix Suns had risen to the best record in basketball, and the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA playoffs — just like the Indiana Pacers have in the Eastern conference this season.
In the five years since the NBA has been ‘LeBron’s NBA’, James hasn’t had to deal with threats to his throne. But those times are over, and challengers have presented themselves — whether in the individual form of Durant or the team form of Paul George’s Pacers.
Perhaps the most telling part of MJ’s 1993 season was that he left the sport just afterwards, with the explanation that he needed a new challenge to conquer. James hasn’t got to that point yet, but the rise of Durant and the Pacers have certainly placed at his feet the made-for-TV challenges that he might need to keep him going.
As James enters the playoffs this April, his good friend Durant will likely be taking his hold on the MVP, while analysts and commentators are warming up to the idea of a dominant #1 seed in the Indiana Pacers. If that isn’t motivation the reigning MVP and NBA Champion — LeBron might also have to go play baseball himself.
Alec Lepage is a 30-something sports writer and blogger in Denver who got his start covering high school basketball. He has contributed to multiple sports blogs, and covers the NBA for Cannon Satellite TV.