Lang’s World: Michael Jordan is the Greatest There Ever Was Or Ever Will Be

The moment I knew for certain that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing came five years ago, when I was on set at NBA TV, where I used to work. We were taping some show or another, and I was sitting there under the bright lights, killing time next to Dennis Scott, while a technical problem got ironed out. A monitor to our right was running a loop of video of generic NBA action from the last few decades, and it briefly flashed a play of a Denver Nuggets guard with a high-top fade making a steal and dunking in transition.

“Wow!” exclaimed one of the young production assistants who was standing nearby. “Who was that?”

Without even looking up from our phones, 3D and I said casually, in unison, “Robert Pack.”

I grew up on the NBA. I memorized box scores. I read biographies on NBA stars who I never saw play. My friends and I quizzed each other on which colleges NBA role players had attended. I collected cards and watched games and NBA-related content non-stop. I even saved my money all summer and bought an Atlanta Hawks season ticket when I was in middle school.

So yeah, I grew up on the NBA. I dedicated years of my life to the game, to the point where random players like Robert Pack became an essential part of my DNA. I did the work, and the way I see it, the NBA has paid me back by giving me a living, in various shapes and forms, for the last two decades.

All of which is to say, from what I’ve seen thus far, “The Last Dance” currently airing on ESPN was not made for me. This is a show for the uninitiated, perhaps for those who never lived through the Jordan era. I remember Phil Jackson sitting quietly on the bench, I recall Scottie Pippen being angry about his contract, and I was there for Stuart Scott on “SportsCenter.” (Booyah!)

Still, I’ve enjoyed watching the first few episodes of “The Last Dance,” and while it’s always fun to dwell in nostalgia, I grew up on the NBA, so I do not need convincing that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time.

Because I remember. Oh man, do I remember. Michael Jordan kicked the butts of every team and player he came across. Growing up as a Hawks fan, Michael Jordan first infuriated me in 1986, when he stole the dunk contest from Dominique Wilkins and didn’t seem remorseful about it. The Bulls beat us like a drum throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and knocked the Hawks out of the Playoffs on their way to rings in ‘93 and again in ‘97. Meanwhile, despite all the Ls Jordan gave me through the years, I still bought his shoes, which is perhaps the ultimate testament to his greatness: I was willing to rep MJ on my feet even though I despised him in my heart.

Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins

Of course I eventually, grudgingly, came to respect Michael Jordan. What other choice did I have? Keep irrationally hating and sound like a parody, like Skip Bayless talking about LeBron James? It was either that or come to my senses. I knew MJ was incredible. I’d never seen anyone like him, and I realize now we never will again.

We are still early in “The Last Dance,” (episodes three and four aired last night) but the main thing I’ve found myself missing thus far is context, which I’m hoping is coming down the road. For instance, we briefly saw Toni Kukoc in the first two episodes, but I’m guessing most people don’t recall how Kukoc ended up on the Bulls, and how Jordan and Pippen at least initially viewed Kukoc as the ultimate symbol of GM Jerry Krause’s franchise-first philosophy.

Do people know that when Jordan and Pippen first faced off with Kukoc a few years earlier in the ‘92 Olympics, they couldn’t wait to publicly humiliate him? As Karl Malone told me when I was reporting a Dream Team story for GQ, “You ever watch a lion or a leopard or a cheetah pouncing on their prey? We had to get Michael and Scottie out of the locker room, because they was damn near pulling straws to see who guarded him. Kukoc had no idea.”

The main thing this recent Jordan renaissance has reinforced for me is that it remains impossible to compare players from different eras. It doesn’t seem that we can talk about players any longer without having to compare them to those who came before, and when Jordan is in the conversation, it inevitably turns to this: Is Michael Jordan the greatest player of all-time?

Well, here’s what I know: Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of the NBA—11 titles! But he played in an era with far fewer teams, when they played a style unrecognizable to modern NBA fans. Russell was listed as 6-10 and 215 pounds, so in today’s terms, he was a center who was lighter than Dillon Brooks. You don’t think Shaq could have cooked Russell into barbecue chicken if they played against each other in their primes? Nobody can argue that Russell didn’t dominate the NBA when he played. And perhaps if Russell had come up in Shaq’s era and was able to enjoy the advances in training and technology, he would have developed a different body type; after all, apex competitors find a way to compete, no matter the circumstances. Certainly, Russell would have devised a way to be great, no matter when he played. But 11 titles in an era with 30 teams and a salary cap is improbable, maybe even impossible. And that’s just one player, which doesn’t even get us to where LeBron or Kobe or Oscar or Wilt or Kareem or Bird or Magic figure into this whole conversation.

Bill Russell goes up for a layup

So here is the way I have come to frame all of this: I’ve seen all these guys play, many of them in person. Out of all of them, I believe that LeBron James is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. His versatility, his vision, his physicality, his intangibles, his durability, his shooting, his passing, his commitment to playing the game the right way, his total dedication to fitness and working on his craft… it’s all incredible. I saw Michael Jordan revolutionize and dominate the NBA and sports culture at large, almost single-handedly, and I never thought I’d see anything like that again. But we have. LeBron James is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen.

That said, LeBron may be the best, but I still believe Michael Jordan is the greatest of all-time. He was perfect in the NBA Finals, won and won and won games despite all the drama happening around him, and like I said, he perfected the blueprint for dominating the NBA, a blueprint guys have been trying to follow, mostly unsuccessfully, ever since.

There was a brief shot in the first episode of “The Last Dance” of Michael Jordan walking down a street and looking up to see a giant billboard of himself plastered on the side of a building. That was in Barcelona, where MJ helped globalize the NBA. Actually, it reminded me of LeBron’s “Witness” billboard in Cleveland, which came like three decades later, and helped me remember that MJ laid so much of the groundwork for players today.

But back to Barcelona. When I was reporting that Dream Team story, I talked to dozens of people who were around the Dream Team there in Spain. One of them was saxophone legend Branford Marsalis, who at the time was the bandleader for NBC’s “Tonight Show.” With NBC televising the Olympics, Branford got a free trip to the games, and once there managed to get into the Dream Team’s hotel. (Actually, the crack security staff at the hotel thought Marsalis was Magic Johnson’s brother, so they just let him in without any security credentials.)

Once inside the hotel, Branford found most of the players hanging out and relaxing, but there was Michael Jordan, studying film of their upcoming opponent, Angola.

“Jordan was sitting watching the Angola game, just watching, staring,” Branford told me. “I said, ‘Man, I don’t even want to bother you, but why are you so intent on watching this game?’ And he said, ‘I always take my opponent seriously. I never underestimate anyone.’ And it wasn’t lost on me that he was the only guy watching the game, looking for weaknesses. With all those other insights people have into his true greatness, that was something that wasn’t lost on me. Everyone else was like, ‘We’re going to beat ‘em by 50.’ But he was like, ‘You never know.’”

(Team USA would beat Angola by 68 points, behind 10 points and 8 steals from Michael Jordan.)

Team USA at the Olympics

Another memory I have of Jordan’s greatness is a little more personal. Back when I was a kid in Atlanta, one cold January night, Jordan’s Bulls came to town. I went to the game with a couple of my friends, and I’m not even sure we had seats—I think a friendly ticket taker may have turned his head when we arrived. I can’t conjure all the details, but I remember Jordan was basically held in check in the first half, and just before halftime, we ran down to where the Bulls players would file off the court and go to their locker room. As Jordan neared us, we all started in: “You stink! The Bulls stink! You’re overrated! Booo!” Basically, the finest trash talk a couple of 13-year-olds could muster.

When Jordan walked by and we were laying into him, he made eye contact with us. He didn’t say a word, but he stared right into my eyes and, honestly, deep down into my soul, silencing me, a Dementor performing his Kiss.

As I said, the exact numbers are fuzzy, but this I know is true: In the second half of that game, Michael Jordan took over. Bank shots, pump fakes and jumpers from the midrange, dunks—he did it all, and the Hawks had no answer for him. The Hawks lost that game because of Michael Jordan, and perhaps, at least in part, because of me.

I’m glad we get this one “Last Dance” so those who came along after me will get to behold the Jordan experience. Because the odds are at some point another basketball player will come along and play in a way and a style that nobody ever believed was possible. He’ll win a bunch of titles and score a ton of points and pull off moves nobody ever dreamed of before. Eventually, discussions will have to be had: Is this the greatest basketball player of all time?

But you can count me out of those talks. When a 23-year-old MJ scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the Playoffs, Larry Bird said, “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

I’m with Bird. I grew up on the NBA, and mine eyes have seen the glory. I am a true believer: Michael Jordan is the greatest there ever was, or ever will be.


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