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Conservatives buy Nikes too - LeBron, Jordan and reading between the lines of the GOAT debate

Are LeBron’s efforts to highlight social injustice the reason he’s not automatically regarded as the best player we’ve ever seen?

A herd of GOATs.
A herd of GOATs.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

IN JULY 2016, Michael Jordan donated $2 million to organisations tasked with highlighting racial injustice and police brutality. For a man with an estimated net worth of $1.65 billion, it’s not a huge amount of money.

But it did mark a major departure for the 55-year-old. Indeed, the headline of this article is inspired by a quote that has haunted Jordan for decades. In 1990, he was asked to endorse the black Democratic candidate Harvey Grant in a Senate race against the Republican incumbent Jesse Helms in the state of North Carolina.

Helms, for what it’s worth, was once described as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country” which says a lot about how politics has changed in the United States since.

But Jordan, the state’s favourite son from his college days with the North Carolina Tar Heels, refused to get involved and the Republican kept his seat. Legend has it that the Nike athlete justified his apolitical stance with the words “Republicans buy shoes too”.

Imago 19970318 Jordan in his iconic Bulls uniform. Source: Imago/PA Images

The origins of that quote are murky at best. First appearing in Sam Smith’s 1995 book, Second Coming, an investigation by Slate found that, despite being widely repeated in the years since, there’s little evidence Jordan actually said it. However, his actions, at least until 2016, were that of a man who wanted nothing to do with championing racial or social causes.

In short, he was happy to shut up and dribble.

The same accusation was once levelled at LeBron James. In 2014, when a grand jury in Cleveland decided not to bring charges against the police officers who shot dead 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a local playground, activists urged James to speak out. James responded by saying he wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the case to speak out and was heavily criticised by many in the local community, including Rice’s mother.

But quietly and sometimes not-so-quietly, the man they call The King has used his platform as one of the world’s best-known athletes to raise awareness of social issues, to provide a voice for those most-often silenced.

In 2012 — the year he won his first NBA title — James and his Miami Heat team-mates posed for a photo wearing hoodies as a tribute to Trayvon Martin who had been shot and killed by George Zimmerman in February that year.

In 2014 he led the charge against then-LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was caught on tape making a series of racist remarks. James told the Associated Press:

“As players, we want what’s right and we don’t feel like no one in his family should be able to own the team. At the end of the day, this is going to be a long litigation when it comes to that. This guy who’s owned the team since the ’80s is not going to just give the team up in a day. So we understand it’s going to be long, but we want what’s right.”

Sterling was later banned for life from the NBA.

Later that year, perhaps in response to criticism from the Rice case, James and then-team-mate Kyrie Irving wore t-shirts with the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’ emblazoned across the chest. The protest was in response to the death of Eric Garner who died after being put into a choke-hold by a police officer. Garner could be heard telling the officer ‘I can’t breathe’ as he died. The officer was not indicted.

James is also a vocal supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign but there’s more to his social activism than hashtags and t-shirts.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Washington Wizards James dons shoes with an 'equality message' during a game in December. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

While rightly criticised for announcing his move to Miami in 2010 in an ESPN special called The Decision, the revenue from the program did raise $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club of America — an organisation that provides after-school care for young people.

A year later he partnered with the insurance company State Farm to combat the high levels of school dropouts and the first 1,000 kids to participate will graduate high school in 2021. The programme has also grown to ensure participants can attend third-level too.

On top of all this, James hasn’t missed a beat on the basketball court and this week will appear in his eight straight NBA finals. For context, the last time he didn’t appear in the final best-of-seven series, 78% of current NBA players weren’t on a roster.

Of course, Jordan and James never overlapped. LeBron was born six months after MJ was drafted while James himself was picked up by the Cleveland Cavaliers just weeks after Jordan’s final game.

Despite this, the two find themselves at the centre of the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) debate. While it’s very difficult to compare performances across eras, Jordan does have twice the number of championship rings as James, something that’s often used by the former’s supporters in what is the jewellery equivalent of putting #justsayin at the end of a particularly bad take on Twitter.

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K.C. Johnson: 1995-96 Bulls vs. this seasonís Warriors: Debate centers around defense Compare this Bulls team to the one LeBron just brought to the NBA finals. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Statistics are, of course, difficult to compare across eras but for those willing to have a discussion, we’re often told that Jordan was the better scorer and defender while James is a much better team-mate averaging one more rebound and assist per game than His Airness.

It also must be factored in that Jordan was playing alongside Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman while LeBron has somehow managed to drag George Hill kicking and screaming to a finals series.

But by the time LeBron finishes his career — assuming he stays healthy – it’s almost certain he’ll move up to third in all-time scoring ahead of Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Indeed, the numbers suggest he’s got a realistic shot of retiring as the first man to reach 40,000 points.

James is already more than 2,300 assists ahead of MJ and could well finish second all-time behind John Stockton before he hangs up his sneakers. While LeBron will also retire well ahead of Jordan when it comes to rebounds, he may not even make the top five all-time but still could reach top five among non-centers

Despite all of this, there are still many who will insist that Jordan is the GOAT and there’s no debate. They’ll point to his six titles as evidence of this despite the fact [deep breath] Bill Russell (11); Sam Jones (10); Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, Tom Sanders John Havlicek (8); Jim Loscutoff, Frank Ramsey and Robert Horry (7) all have more, while Bob Cousy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Scottie Pippen all share Jordan’s half dozen crowns.

What else might be at play then?

A recent study found that 85% of people holding key sports reporting positions at newspapers and on major websites in both the United States and Canada were white men. When you consider that nearly two-thirds of NBA players are black — and less than 20% white — there’s a bit of a divide.

Royal visit to the US - Day Two James has never shied away from protest. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Might it be that James’s stance on issues of race and social justice make some Americans uncomfortable? There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but history doesn’t look too kindly on the general public — or the media — when it comes to the protesting black athlete.

Take Muhammad Ali. He may have died widely regarded as the greatest to ever float like a butterfly but his decision to join the Nation of Islam and raise concerns about the Vietnam War saw him not only vilified but sentenced to prison and stripped of his title.

More recently, Colin Kaepernick finds himself without a job for peacefully protesting during the playing of the US national anthem when even the teams who refuse to employ him are on record as saying he’s good enough to have a starting job at quarterback.

That there was a gap in between shouldn’t be a huge surprise. As Howard Bryant points out in his latest book, The Heritage, there were 40 years of “dormancy” when black athletes by and large didn’t use their platforms to advocate for social change. This, Bryant argues, is largely down to the devaluing of labour in a post-Ronald Regan United States.

Bryant makes the point that it wasn’t just Jordan who didn’t speak out. Magic Johnson was equally silent even in the face of footage of Rodney King being beaten by police officers during his arrest and the riots that followed in the city he called home.

Athletics - Mexico City Olympic Games - Men's 200m - Medal Ceremony Tommie Smith and John Carlos give their Black Power salute. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

And because of that silence, because the likes of Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were names consigned to history books rather than gracing baseball fields or athletics tracks, society became comfortable with the idea that athletes should stick to sports.

So comfortable that even the most peaceful protest can be painted as extremism by the likes of Laura Ingraham.

The fact remains that LeBron James is demonstrably a technically better basketball player than Michael Jordan, in much the same way Ronaldo and Messi are better than Pele and George Best were [to deny this is to deny basic human evolution].

But many choose to ignore that fact, to ignore his record-setting career and refuse to accept that James is even in the conversation for the best we’ve ever seen.

But as society continues to struggle with issues of racial and social inequality, it’s starting to become clear that this debate is as much about LeBron’s willingness to be a purse for the penniless, a voice for the voiceless and a face for the faceless as it is about championship rings.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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