LeBron James or Michael Jordan? The debate seems to have started ever since James appeared on that historic Sports Illustrated cover in 2002 and took to the court wearing a number 23 jersey. In the years since, LeBron has put together a Mount Rushmore career, leaving sports analysts and barbershop hoops fans to debate each other into oblivion. But what about their legacies on and off the court? Jordan will go down as one of the most iconic athletes and pop culture figures of all time, but all things considered, LeBron is the GOAT. Read my case below.
PHILADELPHIA, PA – APRIL 6: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks the ball over Ersan Ilyasova #23 of the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on April 6, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Cavaliers 132-130. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
King James on the Court
The difference between Michael Jordan and LeBron James on the court is infinitesimal at this point. Michael Jordan is the most dominant force of any team sport, with his unstoppable scoring, consistently strong defense, and his unshakeable will to win. But many basketball experts tout LeBron as the more “complete” player, with his prodigious passing, ball-handling, analytical basketball IQ and strong rebounding, which enables him to take over a game in multiple ways.
LeBron has been the best player in the NBA for at least eight (maybe 10) of the 15 years he’s been in the league. And get this: he’s still getting better. He attained career highs in assists and rebounds, and he’s passed Jordan for several accumulative records. Jordan has higher peaks, but LeBron has the argument of longevity and consistency.
Jordan doesn’t have a meltdown in his record like LeBron’s infamous performance in the 2011 NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks, and Jordan has a perfect 6-0 record in the finals, compared to LeBron’s 3-5. But Jordan suffered numerous losses to the Celtics and Pistons that prevented him from even making it to the finals in the first place.
When it comes to the on-court debate of Jordan vs. LeBron, it’s generally a matter of preference. But LeBron, at worst, is a top five player of all time, and the separation between the him and Jordan shrinks with every season of dominance.
In other categories, however, it isn’t even close.
LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 12: (L-R) LeBron James #27 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men’s National Team and his sons Bryce James and LeBron James Jr. attend a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Family-Friendly Bron (Scandal-Free)
LeBron came into the NBA as the most-hyped high school athlete of all time, with a Sports Illustrated cover labeling him “The Chosen One” and a $90 million deal with Nike before he ever set foot on a professional court. In the years since, he has become one of the most recognizable and profitable people in the world. It says a lot that LeBron has never gotten into any scandals. He married his high school sweetheart with no exposes of infidelity, we’ve never seen his mugshot for any drug busts or drunk driving, and there haven’t been any rumors that have stuck. His worst offense is The Decision, a TV program that raised money for the Boys and Girls Club while announcing that he was “taking his talents” to the Miami Heat.
Jordan, meanwhile, had an intense gambling addiction. Rumors have circulated for years that NBA brass forced him into retirement (in the middle of his prime) because his habit had gotten out of control. Bleacher Report breaks it down: he admitted to writing a big check to a convicted drug dealer to settle a debt, a businessman wrote a book entitled Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry for Help, and said that he had won over $900,000 in bets from Jordan. The NBA launched an investigation into Jordan’s gambling, and he retired shortly thereafter. Jordan was also rumored to have multiple extramarital affairs, and his divorce from wife Juanita Jordan resulted in one of the most expensive settlements ever: $168 million.
These aren’t appeals for respectability politics, but it’s just a matter of good decision-making. Truthfully, none of this shit is any of our business. But that’s the point: if LeBron has ever messed up, he’s been protective enough of his dealings that we haven’t found out about it. GOAT.
According to Deadspin, Sam Smith’s 1995 book Second Coming noted that Michael Jordan allegedly said “Republicans buy sneakers too” while refusing to speak out against racist politician Jesse Helms. There’s question about whether Jordan actually said this, but the quote has followed His Airness for decades as the lynchpin of arguments against his decision to be apolitical when it came to social issues.
And regardless of whether he said it or not, even Jordan admits himself that he hasn’t been politically vocal. He made a $2 million donation to social justice organizations and police organizations two years ago and in a letter that accompanied the donation, Jordan acknowledged “I can no longer be silent.”
There are arguments about whether being politically active was actually tenable for Jordan, since endorsement deals weren’t as plentiful back then, but the 90s were still rampant with glaring, impossible to ignore issues. Jordan won his first championship a few months after Rodney King was savagely beaten by police on camera, the ‘war on drugs’ was in high gear and disproportionately impacting people of color when Jordan was collecting championship rings, and reports of kids being robbing and killing each other over Jordan sneakers were all over the news. Jordan never spoke out about any of those issues at the time.
LeBron, meanwhile, has used his celebrity and wealth numerous times to impact social justice issues in both symbolic and substantial ways. LeBron doesn’t have a “Republicans buy sneakers too” moment. He and his Miami Heat teammates wore hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin in 2012, he spoke out to get Donald Sterling banned from the NBA after his racist comments, he and other members of the Cavs wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts to raise awareness about Eric Garner’s death, and he’s tweeted in response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
He’s also done a lot of philanthropy in his home state of Ohio, teaming up with the University of Akron to fund college scholarships for as many as 2,300 kids. LeBron hasn’t had to risk it all in the way that Colin Kaepernick has, but he’s followed the tradition of athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali by using his money and his cultural capital for worthwhile causes.
Just Say No to Dad Jeans
I know, I know – Michael Jordan revolutionized athletic fashion with the Nike Air Jordan sneakers. Fifteen years after Jordan played his last professional basketball game, his sneakers remain the go-to brand on and off the court.
But it’s arguable that LeBron has had his own impact on the world of NBA fashion, with his tailored sartorial sense setting a new standard in an era where players’ locker room strolls and press conferences look like fashion runways. This playoffs, he dressed the entire Cavs roster in tailored suits during their playoff run to the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, Jordan dresses so horribly that there’s an entire Tumblr page, WTF Is Michael Wearing, dedicated to clowning his wardrobe. Baggy bootcut acid wash jeans, oversized blazers, and an incomprehensible leather-sleeved tuxedo jacket are just the tip of the iceberg. He’s even gotten kicked out places because of his awful wardrobe choices. And Jordan’s gold hoop earring hasn’t aged well, either. LeGOAT would never.
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 12: LeBron James and Jay Z pose onstage with an award during the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Ceremony 2016 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on December 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)
Anyone who has famous musician friends would try to get music ahead of time, right? LeBron does exactly that, but he shares it with the people. Black Twitter has even begun to call him A&R Bron because of his access to the exclusives. He’s used his social media to preview new music by Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle, Big Sean and Meek Mill.
There was lots of fan desire for a project of Kendrick Lamar’s unreleased songs from his performances, but It was LeBron’s tweet that convinced TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith to release Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. “Thank @kingjames for this,” Tiffith tweeted. Social media has empowered celebrities even more than in the past, and LeBron has used this to become a premiere tastemaker in industries outside of sports.
Michael Jordan’s hip-hop legacy is largely marked by Chamillionaire’s classic story of the hoops legend rudely refusing to take a photo with him at a party. The story has become the stuff of legend, with more than 2 million YouTube views. “I wasn’t mad that he said no, but the way he said it?,” recalled Chamillionaire. “Oh hell naw, I ain’t taking no pictures with no niggas!”
N.O.R.E. has also said that Jordan hates hip-hop, saying that he’s seen him diss legends like Redman in person and say “f**k rap.” A rep for Jordan has denied the rapper’s claims, pointing out the Jordan Brand’s partnership with Drake and Nelly’s co-ownership of the Charlotte Hornets. But I’m rolling with Chamillionaire and N.O.R.E on this one. Hip hop is more than just music, it’s a culture. Even if Jordan isn’t a fan, it is worthy of respect.
The debate about Michael Jordan and LeBron James’ basketball greatness will rage on forever, fueled by preferences, nostalgia, and a million other factors. But when it comes to the bigger picture, LeBron is the GOAT and I just laid out the reasons why. Case closed.
William E. Ketchum III is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York City who covers hip-hop, entertainment, race, and culture. His work has appeared in NPR, Billboard, Ebony, Complex and more. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook at @WEKetchum.