I had a nice drive through Western Pennsylvania yesterday. This is Pittsburgh Steelers’ territory and the pride of “Steeler Nation” was evident along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. All of the Steelers flags, banners and signs against vivid, green foliage made me excited about the upcoming NFL season. The Steelers report to training camp next week, so as I sped through the hills on 76, I thought about the Steelers’ quarterbacks and if Terrell Owens (T.O.) could finally land a home in “Steel City.” I was prepared to provide a little insight to help you make an argument.
Now, I can’t.
The media attention encircling Michael Jordan’s comments regarding LeBron James’ decision to take his “talents to South Beach” have distracted me. Reports are that arguably the game’s best player said that he would not have done what LeBron did. Period.
Before I break down why you can’t even compare the situation and in fairness to “His Airness,” I have to include what he actually said about the new trio in Miami.
"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,'" Jordan said after playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada. The interview aired on the NBC telecast of the event. "But that's ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."
Notice MJ said “hindsight.” His answer reflects how he would respond today at 47 years old with all of his experience, wisdom and championship rings; not what he would have actually done 22 years ago at 25 years old.
With that said here are a few facts (hindsight for MJ) to consider that make the circumstances incomparable.
1. At 25, Jordan had played 3 ½ seasons in the NBA. At the same age, LeBron had played 6 ½ seasons. That is almost twice as many as Jordan. By the time Jordan was in his fifth year, he had his “Robin” in Scottie Pippen. Going seven years without that type of support would have given Jordan a different level of frustration.
2. The Bulls brought in strong players to compliment Jordan. After Jordan retired in the fall of 1993, the Bulls made the playoffs that season and went to the second round. They were a solid team. With LeBron in Miami, we are not going to see the current Cavaliers roster in the playoffs next spring. The Cavs are not relevant without LeBron. This demonstrates that they did not get LeBron sufficient support.
3. Jordan had two rings before he played in the Olympics on the 1992 “Dream Team” with his Chicago Bulls’ teammate, Pippen. He was accustomed to playing with talented people on his side. He did not return from Barcelona excited about the experience of having skilled players support his efforts. LeBron left for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to play on the "Redeem Team" without any rings or a teammate the caliber of Pippen. After his days playing in high school, where no one was even close to his level, and on a lackluster Cavs team, it was energizing for him to play with people who are just as skilled and competitive as he is.
4. Jordan was never a free agent. Jordan signed a seven-year contract with the Bulls after he was drafted in 1984. In 1988, he signed an eight-year extension. This took him to the mid- 1990s and his mid-thirties. LeBron was a young free agent and every team (along with the rest of the basketball world) had been counting down to July 1, 2010 since the summer of 2006 when he signed an extension with the Cavs.
5. Jordan was a basketball player. LeBron is a businessman. For Jordan, he was playing a game that he loves and felt lucky to get paid for it. When his contract extension was being negotiated in the late 80s, he was quoted as saying:
"I haven't really been monitoring it. I think (the Bulls) have been talking to my attorneys. I've just been playing. If they decide to give me a raise, give me a raise. I'll live with that.”
LeBron understands that this is a business and recognizes his value. At a younger age than Jordan, he is much more active in the negotiations and decisions that affect his career and business. While Jordan admits that he deserved more in salary, he accepted what he was given. LeBron is not just going to live with what an owner gives him.
Jordan’s hindsight is the Bulls building a talented team around him, 6 rings in 8 years and a bronze statue in his likeness in front of United Center. Knowing that, why would he have left? If he were actually in LeBron’s shoes: 25 years old, entering his eighth season and not seeing the potential to accomplish his goal of a championship, would he go to another team? We’ll never know, but I think so. Jordan is extremely competitive. I could see him leaving, going back to Chicago Stadium with his new team and scoring 100 points on the Bulls. The “House that Jordan Built” would not have been erected.
Then again, maybe not. This is a new time. Back then professional players just played basketball. Even Jordan understands that.
A player planning his own future is so foreign that Charles Barkley (former NBA All-Star player without a championship) is “disturbed” because he believes that LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh planned this all along. He is probably right. Champions and great organizations don’t just happen; they are planned. I’m disturbed that he can’t conceptualize players being savvy enough to plan and build a great team and environment for themselves. As I said last week, we are now in the era of A.T.D and players are no longer just playing on the court. They are treating it as the business that it is.
Sorry for the distraction. I’ll get to T.O. and the start of NFL training camp next week.
Heels & Helmets