News Flash: Michael Jordan Was Good at Basketball

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News Flash: Michael Jordan Was Good at Basketball
18 Apr 1998: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls looks on during a game against the New York Knicks at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Knicks 111-109. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

Chuck Klosterman, when writing about his skepticisms toward the inevitable battle between humans and their unwelcomed computer overlords, dubbed himself the “Michael Jordan of his Apartment” to his toaster’s “Labradford Smith.”

Upon first reading this comparison, I laughed, but I had no idea who Labradford Smith was. Google has since informed me that Smith was an anonymous guard for the Washington Bullets in 1993 who scored 37 points against Jordan in the first of two Bulls/Wizards games taking place on consecutive nights.

MJ accused Smith of talking trash throughout the performance, saying such offensive barbs as, “Nice game, Mike” instead of the more appropriate, “Thank you for allowing me to play professional basketball for a living, Mr. Jordan.” Mike insisted to teammates that he would make Smith pay the following night, and, of course, he did. Jordan scored 47 on the helpless guard, in what has since been referred to as “The Labradford Smith Game.”

Beyond that little anecdote, there isn’t really much to that particular performance. The best player on the planet scorched a faceless, inferior opponent for a lot of points. We don’t fully understand the meaning of that game until we look at it in the larger context of Jordan’s legacy.

Basketball is a big man’s game. Sure, shooting guards Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson assumed the role of the extremely popular, respected backcourt player ever since Jordan stepped out of his prime, but size is unarguably the game’s most valued tangible asset.

Since the inception of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, guards have won the trophy 15 times. Bryant and Iverson each have one trophy, and Jordan owns five. Centers have been awarded 27 times.

Jordan, Bryant, and the great Oscar Robertson all stand several inches below their peers on the NBA’s top 10 scorers list. This is primarily based on simple logic. Having a pinpoint shooter nailing 20 jump shots on a regular basis is definitely an asset, but it’s much easier to contribute from four feet away with your hand above the rim.

Kobe Bryant is probably the closest thing to a Michael Jordan clone we will ever see, and while he has certainly been the game’s best guard over the past decade, it’s tough to choose his pure scoring ability over the efficiency of guys like Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. This isn’t a knock on Kobe. It’s just a pragmatic approach to success on a basketball court.

Jordan, however, completely defied this logic. Nobody is going to argue that he was the best basketball player on the planet from 1986 to 1998. This opinion is so commonly shared that I almost feel ashamed for bringing it up. Furthermore, his dominance was not accented by a weakened pool of competition. His backcourt game managed to stand out in what is probably the league’s greatest era for big men. While guys like O’Neal, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo were standing directly beneath the basket, Jordan was regularly more efficient than all of them from 20 feet away.

Again, none of this is revolutionary. Jordan is to basketball what Babe Ruth is to baseball. He is almost always the answer to the greatest player to ever play question, but what is often taken for granted is that he overcame great odds as a guard to assume this position.

Klosterman, in another essay, also writes in support of prenatal stem cell use in response to sudden emergence of super humans. He tells us about about a five year old German boy built like Earl Campbell and a Russian teenager with X-ray vision. These two people possess powers exceeding the normal human skill set. The willpower of Michael Jordan is arguably (OK, very arguably) just as abnormal as girls in Western Russia seeing through walls.

I don’t believe in bulletin board material. Most of the time, it only creates more news for talking heads on 24 hour sports networks to discuss in anticipation of an event that consists of ultra-skilled athletes not caring about bulletin boards.

When Tom Brady makes a fool of Ike Taylor after Taylor speaks ill of Brady, it isn’t because of some weird extra motivation. I think we all owe Brady the respect of assuming he’s fully motivated every time he takes the field. Brady owns Taylor because Brady is extremely good at what he does, and Taylor is pretty mediocre. When Joey Porter talked smack about Matt Cassell and backed it up, it wasn’t because Cassell forgot to look at the bulletin board. It was because Joey Porter was very good, and Cassell was very bad.

The problem with bulletin board material is that it assumes the norm is for professional athletes to leave some amount of willpower in the reserve tank until it is brought out of them by something stupid someone said in an interview. I think I speak for most fairly smart people when I say this is extremely dumb. This is also the primary difference between historically great players like Kobe Bryant and the best basketball player of all time.

Kobe is the best point of reference because, as I said before, he is basically a Jordan clone. He is roughly the same size, and he possesses a near identical skill set. Both players spent most of their career in the triangle offense, and both have a telekinetic form of determination strong enough to kill small animals.

The difference between the two lies in Jordan’s superhuman ability to exert an immeasurable amount of willpower even after exhausting every ounce of himself on the court. Bryant’s individual (if I could use footnotes, I would use one here to clarify that individual accomplishments and team championships are exclusive to one another) legacy contains scoring achievements that seem difficult to believe.

He is defined by things like the 81-point game against Toronto, or the time he scored 62 against Dallas before sitting out part of the third and all of the fourth quarter. He scored 40 or more points in nine straight games, and averaged over 40 for an entire month. It’s very reasonable to say Kobe is the best pure scorer of all-time. While, universally, he is not better than Michael Jordan, he IS better than Mike in some contexts. This is probably the most inarguable of the numerous “Michael Jordan vs. Player A” comparisons.

Jordan’s individual legacy is different. It contains highlight dunks and scoring tears, but it largely consists of Jordan conquering “Jordan vs. The World” situations. There’s “The Labradford Smith Game,” of course, but there’s also “The Flu Game” in which Jordan scored 38 against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals and “The Father’s Day Game” against the Sonics in the 1996 NBA Finals. His greatness isn’t defined just by his talent; it’s defined by having something other athletes do not have.

I’m a pure stats guy. I don’t like over-romanticized sports stories, or Bill Plaschke’s attempts to turn sports journalism into a poetry contest. Performance is performance as can be measured, and nothing else. I don’t believe in clutch. I don’t believe in bulletin board material, or willing one’s self to win.

But I believe in Michael Jordan.

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