There he sat on the sideline, sweat beads dripping and a towel cascaded over his head.
Everyone with the exception of Michael Jordan thought they knew what was about to transpire, but no one could have predicted this. Flu-like symptoms plagued Chicago’s chances of winning Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.
It was a pivotal game in the series which would have given the Jazz the ultimate momentum after winning Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. There was no hope without Michael Jordan and everyone knew it.
Jordan went on to score 14 fourth-quarter points, which included a go-ahead three pointer to put the Bulls up 88-85. The collapse into Scottie Pippen’s arms was almost as memorable as the game, but the 44 minutes played made Jordan’s place in history more concrete than ever.
He was an unstoppable Goliath in the league who would halt at nothing to give his franchise everything he was perpetuated to be.
He was the Greatest of All Time.
Jordan’s personality on the court and off was overly confident, raw, competitive and killer. After being labeled the greatest, that word carries a beastly resemblance to everything that Jordan was.
Which further poses the question, “Does a player have to be Jordan to be great?”
Kevin Durant wouldn’t say so. Neither would LeBron James.
Kobe Bryant would agree that to be the best you have to emulate the best, or at least that it what is speculated from the way he plays the game. From his killer instinct to the way he glides through defenses and makes for a pretty solid defender himself, Bryant is almost everything that Jordan was.
He is not quite the blueprint, but he is virtually a genetic replica of the type of aura and culpability Jordan carried.
However, players like Durant and James, who are arguably the best two players in the league, have a very different way of winning games and very unique aspects in which they dominate. They are not Jordan-esque, but does that mean that they cannot transcend him as an individual player?
Jordan’s ego is nothing like Durant’s. As a matter of fact, it can be debated whether or not Durant exhibits much of an ego at all. He always defers to his teammates when it comes to where credit for a win should be placed and undoubtedly places the blame square on his own shoulders after a loss.
It is so hard to dislike Durant because of the fact that he has hoards of talent and does not behave like fans have become accustomed to superstars behaving. He plays the game with as much ease as he breathes and he gives off the energy that nothing can be done alone.
Durant realizes that as much as the Oklahoma City squad needs him, he needs them as well. By recognizing he can’t do it alone, he encompasses everything that championship ball is based upon. The individual is never first. Team first, always.
Yet, looking across the league map to the Miami Heat, you see LeBron James, whose perception rests alongside everything that fans hate about basketball players. A lot of people look at him as an overpaid, over-praised athlete that has yet to prove himself, although he has boasted more than a fair share of individual accomplishments.
James has proven only that he is an incredibly talented basketball player, but has yet to give credence to the label of a great leader, at least as far as majority public perception is concerned. His personality is nothing like Jordan’s, either.
Jordan was not about putting the offensive responsibility of his franchise’s game in anyone’s hands but his own. James, however, takes a totally different approach to how the game should be played, kind of like Magic Johnson.
LeBron has no problem being his team’s offensive facilitator, while guarding every position of his opposition and scoring a mother-load on his own. Sometimes, the fact that James is so multi-faceted works against him. Yet, ask every teammate he has had, “Who was the team’s consistent MVP?”
Was he the perennial factor in their success for seven seasons?
Without a doubt, he was everything that organization wanted him to be and more. James went to the Miami Heat to play with another superstar in order to focus on more than the scoring aspect of his game and to get some help from someone of at least equal value to himself.
Criticize him all you want for it, but you cannot praise Kevin Durant, as he is playing with not one, but two men who sit on the throne that Oklahoma City has provided. James and Durant stand apart from each other as well as from Michael Jordan, but does that make them any less great than Jordan was?
Both players excel in their own right. Kevin Durant is a prolific scorer. He has the diehard mentality that every NBA player cringes at the thought of, while James holds the all-around ability and notoriety that forces franchises to not only anticipate him, but game-plan for him.
LBJ is no less great because he does not play the game like Jordan. He has supreme athletic ability, a marvelous basketball IQ, speed like a gazelle and the defensive capability to be considered a Defensive Player of the Year candidate as well as win the regular season MVP award.
Durant is no less great because he includes Westbrook in his reasons for success and allows the point guard to take as many, if not more, shots than him on any given night. Roles with the Thunder have been defined, and Durant sees no purpose in tweaking them. He knows when to take over and he has shown the ability to do so multiple times against a more experienced team in the San Antonio Spurs.
Of course, the six championships will always coast in Jordan’s favor.
With that amount of dominance, any player should be given his due. Let’s not overlook the fact that championships are won by the team. MJ had an incredible influence over Chicago’s direction, but he was not one against five.
There were men like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman beside him just waiting to give him the go-ahead to be the offensive juggernaut of the franchise.
Kevin Durant is well on his way to winning multiple championships and LeBron James’ window has yet to close, but they will never be the sole reason their organizations are left standing at the close of an NBA Finals series.
Michael Jordan may have been the greatest of all time, but it will not take someone who spends seasons duplicating his approach to dethrone him. As much as fans would love to hold Jordan "higher than thou" for the remainder of the NBA’s shelf-life, there will be someone greater.
The apprehension of that statement was created by the man that Michael Jordan was. The legacies of LeBron James and Kevin Durant may suffer mightily because of it.
Follow Joye Pruitt @Joyethewar.