In trying to distance himself from Michael Jordan, LeBron James might've actually reaffirmed the impact the Chicago Bulls legend has had on the NBA as a whole and on the three-time MVP, in particular:
The MJ-LJ comparisons were bound to spring up again at some point. Jordan will turn 50 years old on Sunday, the same day that James takes the floor in Houston for his ninth straight All-Star Game. James' historic run of six straight games of 30 or more points on better than 60-percent shooting has only thrust him further into a conversation of which he allegedly wants no part.
In James' defense, he has a point.
As ESPN's Tom Haberstroh notes, LeBron's combination of physical dominance and technical prowess is unlike anything ever seen from Jordan, and might better be described as a cross between Shaquille O'Neal and Steve Nash.
Except, LeBron's own denial of wanting to "Be Like Mike" doesn't quite pass the smell test. This past December, while accepting the 2012 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award, James reflected fondly on his formative years, when he looked up to Air Jordan (via Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated):
Jordan was my superhero growing up. He was the guy I feel helped me get to where I am today. As a competitor, who would not want to go against the best? That's like asking [Tom] Brady would he want to go against Montana in the fourth quarter.
If that weren't proof enough of the MJ-LJ connection, LeBron also hinted at having a Photoshopped picture of himself facing off with Jordan as the screensaver on his phone:
But LeBron is far from the only current NBA star who's "guilty" of looking up to Michael Jordan. Jordan was arguably the greatest to ever play and forever changed the game, the league and the sports world of which everyone in the Association is a part. He was so profoundly and ubiquitously iconic in the way he dominated his era, both on and off the court, that it'd be weird to imagine a pro player in this day and age not idolizing MJ.
Before LeBron came along, Kobe Bryant had the distinct honor/burden of being "The Next MJ." Even now, Bryant's name is often brought up in conjunction with Jordan's, particularly when considering the late-career legacy of the former. The resemblance between the two, be it in statistical accomplishments or style of play, is unmistakeable:
Bryant, for his part, hasn't exactly shied away from acknowledging Jordan's influence.
Antawn Jamison, a current teammate of Kobe's with the Los Angeles Lakers and (like Mike) a North Carolina alum, recently suggested that the soon-to-be-50-year-old Jordan could still play in the NBA, but that Michael doesn't need to play anymore to affect the game itself (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
"The key is, that's the guy we wanted to be like. This guy inspired us to try to do it all, the impossible and the man over there (gestures to Bryant's locker), he's trying to catch him so that just lets you know his impact is still felt and he's just done so much for this league as well.
"Ask anybody in this locker room. (Jordan) could walk down that hallway (and have the recognition) like he's still playing, like he's about to lace them up. This generation, and even the ones younger than some of the guys in here, he's still having an influence on guys who have never even seen him play in person. That's saying a lot. It's been, what? Ten years since he's played? Name me another player that's been out of the game for 10 years and still has an impact on the game the way he does."
That inevitably left the Black Mamba to comment on Michael's lasting influence (via Dave McMenamin):
"It's always around. You can see it in myself. I'm an embodiment of him and he was a muse for me growing up, obviously, as he was for a lot of people. So, that legacy still lives on as Dr. J (Julius Erving) was for him and David Thompson and all of those guys. So, the legacy of your predecessors is always around you."
Not that Kobe hasn't been less-than-enthused by the constant comparisons at times (via ESPN's Chris Palmer):
"I appreciated them, but after a while it just got old. They eventually faded away because I was putting together my own identity. But I’ll never forget how much I learned from MJ. I got so much from him. I knew what he did, I knew his moves and I used them. But for me the comparisons didn’t work because our situations were totally different. I came straight out of high school and played with a dominant big in Shaquille. Man, I was so young when I got to the NBA. What was I, like, 17? I mean, 17! The more you think about it, my situation was completely different than MJ’s, so the comparisons were just, you know, I stopped paying attention to them."
Ignoring them doesn't make them go away, as Kobe and LeBron can attest.
Surely, inviting those comparisons won't, either. In one of his first major advertisements, Carmelo Anthony, a close friend and colleague of both Bryant and James, literally took on the form of His Airness:
In all fairness, the ad itself was for the Jordan Brand, of which Anthony has been a premier member since entering the NBA in 2003. But the spot refers all too clearly to the reality of growing up a hoops head in the 1990s: that Jordan was basketball, and as such, he was the one to follow; the one whose game most merited imitation.
At least one of 'Melo's New York Knicks teammates has willingly copped to it. In an interview for Dime Magazine, Knicks sixth man J.R. Smith told Spencer Lund of Jordan, "That was my favorite player. Every play in my backyard, fadeaways, thinking I was Jordan, trying to dunk. And now, fortunately, I get to re-enact them at the Garden."
Chris Paul, too, had dreams of starring at Madison Square Garden once upon a time. Believe it or not, the best point guard on the planet entertained the thought of playing for Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats as recently as April of 2011 (via The Associated Press), stating, "It would definitely be something to think about."
The 'Cats had yet to stumble through their all-time-worst season after the lockout, though a 34-48 mark in 2010-11 was a harbinger of the futility to come.
And why, pray tell, would a player of CP3's caliber even consider signing with such a futile franchise? Simple: Paul is a native of North Carolina who, like most basketball-crazed kids growing up in the Tar Heel State, revered Jordan (via the AP):
"To have a personal relationship with him now and for him to be a mentor of mine, it's something when you're growing up as a kid in North Carolina you would never expect."
"I think guys do and will want to play for MJ. Who better to learn from?"
Such is the power of Michael's mystique. His franchise is down in the dumps, and the best players in the game still give the 'Cats an edgewise word in their internal debates, if only because of the man sitting courtside.
To be sure, the perception has probably changed significantly in the nearly two years since Paul first paid mind to a Carolina homecoming. Charlotte has lost 98 of 117 games since the start of the 2010-11 season and remains a long way from righting the ship.
That turnaround won't come in time for Paul's free agency in July, nor should anyone expect the 'Cats to be a factor in 2014, when Kobe, Carmelo and LeBron (among others) might all be members of a marquee class seeking gainful employment on the court.
But even if Jordan's foray into franchise ownership runs further aground, his legacy as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) on the hardwood will remain untouched.
And as long as the depth and breadth of basketball's reach continues to grow along with that of the NBA, so too will Jordan's.
Whether the best of the best want to admit it or not.