Michael Jordan was calmly, even quietly, answering questions Tuesday about the NBA All-Star Game when he slyly allowed his legendary competitiveness to emerge. A question about a pair of high-profile participants in the contest, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, gave Jordan just the opening he needed to remind the world that the NBA has had no greater star than himself.
The former Chicago Bulls great is now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, who are hosting the All-Star Weekend festivities in his native North Carolina. Jordan held a relatively rare news conference to promote the event, and the recent feats of Harden and Westbrook were brought up.
Both players continued impressive streaks during games Monday. While Harden was scoring at least 30 points for the 30th straight game, something only Wilt Chamberlain had previously accomplished in the NBA, Westbrook was breaking a Chamberlain mark by notching his 10th straight triple-double.
Asked about those two players, Jordan told reporters that their exploits reflect “progression” in the NBA, adding, “I am very proud of how both guys have done, because they are making a mark for the league and I think it really helps grow the league.”
On the issue of which deed was more difficult to pull off, Jordan said with a smile, “Which is harder, from a player standpoint? Six championships, by all means.”
It might not have been a coincidence that as Jordan basked in the laughter his line provoked among the assembled media, his hand moved to the ring he was wearing. The six rings he earned with the Bulls, in as many trips to the NBA Finals, stand as his trump card (comparisons to Bill Russell aside) in the GOAT debates that continue to rage among basketball fans.
It’s also nice that Jordan gave that debate some fresh material, because hoops fans were recently forced to dig up a 2009 interview he gave, in an attempt to find a telling response to a greatest-ever claim made by LeBron James, who has a 3-6 record in the Finals. In a December video clip, James said that his role in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers past the favored Golden State Warriors for the 2016 championship, making NBA history along the way by overcoming a 3-1 series deficit, “made me the greatest player of all time.”
James, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, added in the video, “Everybody was just talking how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, ‘You did something special.’ ”
Jordan did not comment directly on those remarks — if only he’d held a news conference just afterward — so it was left to the Internet to unearth a decade-old exchange with Michael Wilbon in which Jordan sounded much more humble than James had just been.
“When I hear [greatest ever], I cringe a little bit, because it’s a little bit embarrassing, because no one knows. … If you ask me, I would never say that I am the greatest player,” the Chicago icon told Wilbon. “That’s because I never played against all the people that represented the league prior to Michael Jordan.”
On Tuesday, Jordan sounded a decidedly different note. It was still less declarative than James’s but seemingly aimed at reminding everyone that, sure, the present-day likes of Harden and Westbrook are doing great things, but let’s not get too excited until they start outperforming their predecessors in the playoffs, as opposed to the regular season.
The connective thread between Jordan’s 2009 remarks and those he offered at the news conference was a clear appreciation for players who have helped the NBA become such a successful enterprise. As a team owner, Jordan is now more invested in that success than ever before, and he’s apparently not above letting people know that he had more than a little something to do with it in his own right.
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