By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) LeBron James isn’t Michael Jordan.
Even if he lived up the bawdy proclamation that he issued four years ago upon taking his talents to South Beach and was to actually win, “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” NBA championships for the Miami Heat, James still wouldn’t be Jordan.
No one is. Or likely ever will be.
It’s not just because Jordan won six NBA titles that his all-time greatness is so deeply ingrained in the minds of most basketball fans. It’s also the fact that once he got to the NBA Finals, Jordan never lost there.
That sterling 6-0 record in the championship round is almost impossible for any player to duplicate — and certainly for James, whose personal record in NBA Finals now sits at a lackluster 2-3 following the Miami Heat’s loss to San Antonio on Sunday.
Fair or not, many will judge James’ all-time greatness in comparison to Jordan by how well he fared on basketball’s biggest stage. Based on those results thus far, a friend of mine this week made the analogy on Facebook that “Jordan is to Russell what LeBron is to Chamberlain.” And while I’d never viewed LeBron James’ legacy through that historical prism before, once I did, I couldn’t have agreed more.
Because as his career continues to progress and produce awe-inspiring athletic feats mixed with championship setbacks and heaps of scorn from many basketball fans, James very much is shaping up into more of a latter-day Wilt than he’s looking like Jordan’s heir.
This week at Medium.com, former SI.com scribe Andy Glockner wrote that, “We’ve never seen someone like LeBron before” and mentioned how he’s “Michelangelo’s David who can pass like Magic and now shoots better than Jordan.”
James indeed is an athletic freak who stands out even in a league filled with them. And once upon a time, Chamberlain was that guy, too.
Standing 7-foot-1 and blessed with incredible strength, stamina and speed, Chamberlain was capable of scoring on dunks, finger rolls and fadeaways. In each of his first seven years, Chamberlain captured scoring titles and in one season averaged 50.4 points per game. He’s the only center to ever lead the league in assists. And his 22.9 rebounds-per-game career average is still an NBA record.
On top of that, the guy was a workhorse. He once tallied more than 48 minutes a game for an entire season. He never fouled out in 1,045 contests. For all his feats, Chamberlain was named Rookie of the Year, won four MVP awards and earned selection to 13 All-Star Games. But in the end, when it came to his historical legacy, much of it didn’t really matter.
As sports writer Larry Schwartz once wrote about Chamberlain for ESPN’s SportsCentury:
No matter what he accomplished on the court, fans always expected more from him because he made it look so easy. He was hooted because he couldn’t shoot foul shots (his lifetime percentage was .511). He was called “selfish” because he scored too many points. He was accused of being more concerned with statistics than winning. Worst of all, he was called a “loser.”
The reason? It was largely because in Chamberlain’s first seven years his teams went 0-for-5 in playoff series against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics.
“That’s when people really started calling me ‘loser,'” Chamberlain said.
During his stellar career, Russell captured 11 NBA championships, losing just once in the Finals – a winning percentage that is Jordan-esque – and today is still considered perhaps sports’ greatest winner ever. During his own remarkable NBA tenure, Chamberlain did ultimately win two championships, but he’s still not remembered as a winner in the way that Russell and Jordan are.
Rather, he’s much more remembered as a great talent.
To date in James’ career, I believe many people seem to look at him much in the same way. He already has two titles, but among most NBA fans he’s still greeted with derision rather than celebration and not hailed as much for his championship credentials. People respect James’ prodigious talents and even acknowledge his supporting cast’s shortcomings against the Spurs – both this season and in 2007 when his Cavaliers fell to them in the Finals – but many also are quick to mock James on social media for cramping up and are eager to gloat when he loses.
Even though he’s already won, James often simply can’t win with the fans. In his day, Chamberlain couldn’t either.
Now, many of James’ troubles, of course, have to do with the self-aggrandizing way that he left Cleveland for Miami. And at just 29, he still has several more years during which he could change his public image, whether that be with the Heat or another franchise. But I wonder at this point, can he?
More than once in his career, Chamberlain said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Having already cast himself as the villain when he took his talents to South Beach and then having given his critics fuel for their fire with two championship series losses, I’d say that James also knows that kind of giant weight.
And much like Wilt, it’s a burden that he may have a difficult time overcoming in establishing an ultimate reputation as the game’s greatest. After all, no matter how many rings he wins, LeBron will never be perfect. Nobody is.
Except Jordan in the NBA Finals.