Steve Kerr has said before the Jordan era Bulls were lucky there were not cell phone cameras and people recording them at every turn when they were running off championship three-peets — that team got away with stuff off the court they never could have today.
The NBA in the 1990s was a different era, both on the court and off. Rich Paul — LeBron James’ long-time agent and friend — tried to make the case that it’s tougher on LeBron because of that, talking on the Gil’s Arena Podcast with Gilbert Arenas.
“Mike transcended the game. When Kobe came, Kobe was a silhouette of Mike. That’s everything, which is great. But LeBron is the first player to have to deal with a 24/7/365 news cycle of sports and opinions from those that’s not even capable or carry the expertise to give a valid opinion.
“In addition to, ‘I’m not really gonna do it how y’all want me to do. I’m probably going to decide how I wanna do it.’ We all know that don’t go over well, right? And so then, you have this environment in this sports society that’s created and so now you have to root against. That’s a whole other thing Mike never had to deal with because his hardest critic was probably, Peter Vecsey.
“I just think LeBron’s antlers is in platinum and Michael Jordan’s may be in gold. Why? Because he had to be compared to Mike. Who did Mike have to be compared to?”
I love the antler’s reference.
Mike was compared to Bird and Magic and Wilt and Russell and the guys that came before him, and he faced more than his share of criticism. That started with “Jordan can’t win the big one” talk that seems ridiculous now but was a thing when the Bad Boy Pistons were smacking around the Bulls in the playoffs every year. Then Jordan heard it again when he left the sport at his peak to swing and miss at curveballs for a couple of years.
The 24/7 nature of the commentary was certainly different, but the criticism Jordan faced was intense because everyone was getting their news from those fewer sources — when Vecsey or some other newspaper columnist criticized Jordan, it wasn’t one voice among many in the same way it can be now. It was a very different world.
Which is why comparing eras in any sport, but particularly basketball, can be difficult. Jordan and LeBron — and for that matter Curry, Kareem and plenty of others — would have been great in any era. To suggest otherwise is to show your bias toward an era.
Rich Paul understandably has his bias toward his friend and his era. That also doesn’t make him wrong — LeBron is the first NBA superstar of the social media era, and he came to navigate that and use that power as deftly as he played on the court. That is something that has to be part of his legacy.
It was different with Jordan, but not necessarily easier or harder. Just different.