For his part, James hasn’t exactly stayed silent on this debate. Indeed, a few weeks ago on an episode of the ESPN+ series More Than An Athlete, James reflected on the implications of his 2016 NBA title, which ended a 52-year championship drought for the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers.
There are many ways to appraise Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Depending on what statistics or achievements you are tallying, answers vary.
“And then after I stopped, I was like — that one right there made you the greatest player of all time,” James said. “Everybody was just talking — how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back, you know, the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, 'You did, you did something special.'”
However, by one significant metric, the answer seems more apparent. As Howard Bryant writes in his book, “The Heritage,” James has courageously made “unequivocal support for black America inseparable from his public persona” and become an advocate for a cause long abandoned by black athletes. By embracing the struggle for social justice at a moment of sizable political polarization, he has encouraged the voice of others and cemented his legacy for posterity. Michael Jordan, in comparison, gave primacy to corporate interests. So while Jordan’s statistics and trophy vault are impressive, he falls behind when you look at the bigger picture.
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For the uninitiated, James was designated Michael Jordan’s heir even before he had attended his senior prom. The basketball wunderkind began to make national ripples as a teenager when Sports Illustrated “The Chosen One” on its cover and ESPN televised his high school games.
Here's the thing, though: Jordan’s story now endures mainly through his Air Jordan shoes, memes and YouTube highlights. James’s tale only begins on the hardwood. As Michael Eric Dyson appropriately notes in his book, “What Truth Sounds Like,” James is a black athlete who has parlayed his accolades, trophies and galactic superstardom to “step out of character and break the mythology of a raceless and neutral American identity.”
The fact is that athletes are some of the most consequential and affluent black employees in the United States. This has been true throughout history: While the vital contributions of many black doctors, lawyers, scientists and intellectuals were impeded by segregation, black Americans penetrated the white mainstream through sport.
This privilege of being the “ones who made it,” as Howard Bryant puts it, came with responsibility, however. Sportsmen like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos embraced the tradition, which is informally termed “the Heritage” by Bryant. But as the financial and political stakes changed, so did the black athlete’s desire for expressing outrage publicly let alone political engagement.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA legend in his own right, has said Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.” Certainly, the Chicago Bulls star was not known for his actions or voice off the court.
In 1990, Jordan refused to endorse black North Carolinian (Jordan’s home state) and Democrat Harvey Gantt in his senate race against incumbent Jesse Helms, who was described by David Broder in 2001 as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” The former Chicago Bull stayed mum in 1992 when the Los Angeles riots erupted after the Rodney King verdict. He also chose to remain silent on the paucity of black coaches in the NBA, on the reports of kids literally murdering other kids to procure his signature shoes and on the children used in sweatshops to produce his shoe line.
The few public statements Jordan has made since his retirement have been relatively uninspiring. As Michael Eric Dyson summarizes, “during his playing days, he was depressingly silent about the injustices that plagued his people, and now, tentatively, he speaks up when the terms are uncontroversial, his reputation safe.”
James, too, hasn’t always been a perfect role model. And there have been some notable lapses — his silence when given the chance to speak out on the Darfur genocide and Tamir Rice shooting come to mind. But through the years in the spotlight, he has slowly but surely found his footing The (now) Los Angeles Laker star has taken an unambiguous stance on racial injustice and police brutality, challenged President Donald Trump’s divisive governance on Twitter, supported Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality, crucified NFL owners for their “slave mentality,” and called for the ouster of Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling after his racist comments.
This past summer, he opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where the black poverty rate is 28 percent. The school’s ambitious plan is to not only educate its students, but to also improve all facets of their lives.
And despite being told to “shut up and dribble” last year by Laura Ingraham of Fox News, James has not allowed the potential loss of income or endorsements to change his behavior. “I do this because this is bigger than me personally,” he told ESPN’s Undefeated.
Now, through his multimedia platform Uninterrupted, James is turning towards Hollywood and the entertainment industry in an attempt to use his clout to provide others with a platform to speak out also. As Bryant writes, the task here is simple: “Being a politically active black athlete should no longer be considered radical, but commonplace.”
These are all the hallmarks of the kind of greatness that cannot be evaluated merely through NBA championships and Most Valuable Player awards alone. James has plenty of those honors, of course. But unlike Michael Jordan, he has also wielded his individual brand to achieve something far greater and meaningful than sneakers.
Jalal Baig is a physician and writer. He is an oncologist in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, Vice, Salon and elsewhere.