Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?
Whether you’ve posed or you’ve been the recipient of that question, it usually leads to a lengthy heated debate with two names usually dominating the discussion: Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Yet after collecting the 2020 NBA Finals Championship trophy and the award for MVP (Most Valuable Player), James still felt the need to address the perceived critics.
“It means a lot to represent this franchise – when I joined I promised to put this franchise back where it belongs. We just want our respect, Laker nation wants its respect. I want my damn respect too,” James said sternly.
Confetti scattered at his feet and speaking in the foreground of the team – a trophy in each hand – James said: “One thing I can do is commit to the game. I put myself, my mind and my body in a position to be available to my teammates. That’s the best thing you can do for your team, be available.
“I have never missed a play-off game in my career. I just hope I make my guys, the fanbase and my family proud,” he added.
With Covid-19 restrictions meaning no fans were allowed inside the arena at Disney World in Florida, the applause generated by his team-mates perhaps failed to match the magnitude of what James had just accomplished.
Now aged 57, Michael Jordan has long been considered basketball’s Goat (greatest of all time). But by leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their first championship in a decade, has Lebron James closed that gap or even surpassed him? In truth the split between votes for Jordon or James is usually dependant on which era you grew up in.
Prior to James joining them, the Lakers hadn’t made the play-offs for six years. In leading the Lakers to a 106-93 win over the Miami Heat, James now has four national titles with three different teams. By achieving the feat with a trio of franchises (Miami Heat 2012, 2013) Cleveland Cavaliers (2016) and now the Lakers (2020), it’s a clear testament to the 35 year-old’s ability to lead and transform a team’s fortunes. Michael Jordan won six NBA titles – all with the Bulls, who dominated the sport during the 90s.
At just 18 and coming straight from high school, James was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the number one overall draft pick in 2003. Even at that tender age he was already one of the most well-known, talked about athletes in the world.
“LeBron James has carved out his own space on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. He has his own space up there,” said Ovie Soko, the former GB international. “I think he’s one of those players who is not appreciated enough and I think when he’s done playing, calls it a day and hangs up his boots, the world of basketball will really miss him and then we’ll truly understand what we are seeing.”
James himself says he’s proud of his on-court accomplishments but, ultimately, he wants to be remembered for what he has accomplished off it.
“I don’t live my life thinking about legacy but what I do off the floor means more to me than what I do on the floor,” said James.
The 35-year-old has, through his foundations, opened a school in his home city, as well as being a prominent anti-racism campaigner. He was also a key figure in getting NBA teams to turn stadiums into polling stations for the upcoming US elections.
“The game of basketball will pass me by but how I move, how I walk, what I talk about, how I inspire the next generation is what matters the most,” he said. “If you appreciate my game that’s cool but if you didn’t that’s cool too.”
It is often reported that James spends upwards of $1m (£770,000) a year on maintaining his body – whether that’s nutrition, cutting edge therapies or hiring the best conditioning experts. This is James’ 17th year in the NBA, a league he continues to dominate even at the age of 35. He appears to have lost little of his athleticism and continues to climb the ladder of career statistical achievements.
The 6’9″ American is now third in the all-time scorers’ list on 34,241 points, behind Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387). While he shows no signs of slowing down, it’s also understood James would like to finish his career by playing in the league at the same time as his son, LeBron “Bronny” James Jr, who is 16. Players are eligible to join the league aged 18.
Another key part of the Lakers’ success this year has been the form of Anthony Davis who joined the team at the beginning of season from New Orleans Pelicans. Davis dedicated the win to former Laker Kobe Bryant.
“We didn’t let him down. Ever since the tragedy we’ve wanted to do it for him and we didn’t let him down,” Davis said.
Since January, the city of Los Angeles has been referred to as a ‘city in mourning’. The last time the Lakers were national champions was in 2010 – a team led by Kobe Bryant. In January of this year Bryant was killed when a helicopter he was travelling in crashed in Calabasas, California. All nine passengers on board died, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Lakers players and coaching staff have said the death of their former star has been one of the driving forces behind their hunger to land the title. Bryant spent 20 years as a Laker, winning five NBA championships.
Davis said: “I know he’s looking down and is proud of us, it means a lot to us. It’s a tough moment. He was a big brother to all of us. We did this for him.”
Soko added: “I think the win is huge for the city and for the organisation. It’s a perfect way to wrap up the season. It’s already been difficult for Kobe fans around the world but especially for the organisation.
“They have seen a young boy, grow into a man, and then the great player he was for the Lakers. I genuinely believe it’s a fitting farewell to such a great player.”