Lebron James has decided to honor Michael Jordan by giving up the number 23.
This is a great idea . . .for Lebron James.
However, he has taken this noble gesture a step too far by suggesting that every NBA franchise retire the number 23. Taking nothing away from Michael, whom I consider the greatest player in NBA history and perhaps the single greatest marketing tool the game has ever had, having his number retired across the league makes no sense.
Putting aside the problem of franchises like Utah, New York, Indiana, Portland, Phoenix and especially Cleveland being forced to pay homage to a man who prevented them from winning a championship, MJ simply doesn't deserve such an honor.
Having one's number retired by every team should be reserved for players whose careers changed the game in such a way that every team, if not every player, is impacted. In a larger context, it should be reserved for people who had great cultural impact as well.
Jackie Robinson changed the game of baseball. Every major league team was affected by Robinson's life and career. Moreover, the country as a whole felt his impact as well.
Michael Jordan has also had significant cultural importance. Anyone who is old enough remembers the Spike Lee commercials and the "Like Mike" jingle. He was a fashion icon, making baggy shorts and Air Jordans de rigueur accessories for ballers in the late 80's and beyond.
There is nothing wrong with this, but it's not equivalent to what Jackie Robinson did in helping change the way black Americans were thought about by white Americans, and the way they thought about themselves.
Now, Michael Jordan was also the most competitive and skilled player ever to lace up sneakers. If Kobe Bryant is the Assassin, Jordan was the Angel of Death. Jackie Robinson might well have been a better athlete than Jordan (in all seriousness, folks, he might have been), but he wasn't as good a baseball player as MJ was a basketball player.
For guys like Lebron and Kobe, MJ was like Eddie Van Halen used to be to a certain generation of guitar players. Everyone before him seemed boring. Everyone after him seemed like pretenders. It was only later, when Slash came on the scene with his retro-style, that guys like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix became cool again.
The fact is: as great as Michael Jordan was, his significance in the development of game of basketball was fairly limited, as is his political and cultural influence. As a player, he was not a pioneer; he was the culmination of the work of players who came before him. As an icon, he was apolitical. He stood for nothing outside himself.
Ironically, if any number deserves to be retired by all franchises, it is the very number Lebron has decided to wear instead of 23.
You see, that number belonged to two pioneers of basketball that might truly deserve to be honored by every NBA franchise: Bill Russell and Julius Erving.
Russell was perhaps the first black player to make a significant impact in the NBA, and what an impact it was. With 11 rings in 13 years, he is the greatest winner in the history of team sports. He invented NBA defense as we know it today, was highly opinionated about social matters, and at the same time was a class act. He was pride personified. He was idolized by guys like Bill Walton, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving.
Dr. J, in turn, took the above-the-rim style of guys like Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and turned it into an art form. He was Air before there was Jordan, only he was even cooler and classier. When you consider his importance to the ABA and how that league influenced the NBA game, Dr. J was one of the most important basketball players of all time. He was also idolized by guys like David Thompson, Clyde Drexler, and MJ himself.
The impact these guys had on the court outstrips anything Jordan did. They changed the way the game was played and who played it. They made Michael Jordan possible. They are the giants on whose shoulders Jordan, and Lebron James, have stood.
Jordan deserves to be honored. Put him on the logo. Name a trophy after him. But don't invite comparisons to Jackie Robinson. MJ is not that kind of icon.