For a man whose face is famous for crying, Michael Jordan has done quite well for himself. He’s amassed $1 billion, captured six NBA titles, and once vanquished a team full of aliens (Spoiler alert). His career serves as basketball’s most illustrious resumé, and naturally doubles as sports analysts’ most utilized measuring stick. Every contemporary superstar is compared to Michael Jordan; it’s a rite of passage. Unfortunately for members of the NBA’s new guard, though, these comparisons usually do not tilt in their favor. From beyond the grave of his playing career, MJ has, unsurprisingly, been a tough man to beat. In the 2016 NBA Finals, however, he may be entrenched in a matchup that’s impossible to win.
Let me preface this by stating something that may be obvious: Michael Jeffrey Jordan is manically competitive. His career is the product of an irrational obsession to be the best, and I refuse to believe that, post-retirement, his unparalleled competitive fire has been extinguished. To rephrase that: MJ cares about his legacy. He must. It goes against every fundamental essence of his being to not be completely consumed with the idea of remaining atop basketball’s iron throne. In a cruel twist of irony, though, he can do no more to help his cause. His playing days are over. On Sunday night, the world’s most competitive human being will be subjected to spectate a game, just like all of us, that will undoubtedly alter his distinguished legacy.
On one side of this heavyweight bout stands LeBron James, Cleveland’s prodigal son. As just a teenager, LeBron was dubbed the next Michael Jordan, and, since then, has done an extraordinary job attempting to reach this impossible expectation. In many counting statistics, James is often Jordan’s equal, and occasional superior. His major shortcoming, however, is an ugly record in the Finals. Lebron’s two wins and four losses in the sport’s biggest series is never touted as a strength. When compared to MJ’s impeccable six wins and zero losses, James’ record becomes even more unsightly; add in that the sports world has decided championships to be the trump card in any individual player debate, and Lebron’s tiny blemish intensifies into a damning scar. Of course, the counter-argument almost writes itself — why punish a player more for losing in the Finals instead of being eliminated earlier in the season? When considering LeBron’s current appearance, his ability to reach the NBA championship series actually surpasses Jordan’s. The answer to this question is pretty simple. People don’t remember what they don’t see. On basketball’s biggest stage, Michael Jordan has never faltered, but LeBron James has. This Sunday, James has a singular opportunity to influence this notion. He will never match the perfection that Jordan achieved by remaining undefeated in the NBA Finals, but this attainable title could drastically improve his record in championships, and move him dangerously close to MJ’s throne. Factor in the dramatics surrounding LeBron’s return to his homeland, and this game becomes even more pivotal in determining his eventual legacy, which will forever be entangled with the original #23’s. Unfortunately for Jordan, however, James is not the only person that can harm his historical standing this Sunday.
When the ball tips in Game 7, the Golden State Warriors will officially be 48 winning minutes away from rarified air. They have already bested the record of Jordan’s 1996 Bulls in regular season wins, and are looking to secure the title of “Greatest Team of All-Time” by capping off their historic run with a championship. This upcoming matchup serves as the team’s final challenge, and Jordan’s last hope that his Bulls can remain basketball’s most accomplished group. Though a Warriors win will not push any specific player into the discussion of basketball’s elite, it certainly does its damage. At his peak, MJ dominated the NBA in a way no other player has. Prior to this year, basketball pundits had been pronouncing many of Jordan’s records, including the one regarding regular season wins, as untouchable. The Golden State Warriors can change that narrative. By seizing the label of greatest team, they strip MJ of one of his most conspicuous accolades, and poke a sizeable hole in his veil of immorality. In other words: they prove that Jordan’s records are breakable. In comparison to an additional championship for LeBron, this impact of a Warriors win must be considered, at the very least, equal. Before this season, Michael Jordan was unequivocally considered the greatest player on the greatest team of all time. That was a differentiating title that none of his competitors could lay claim to. If the Warriors win on Sunday, that title will belong to Steph Curry.
At Game 7’s conclusion, regardless of the outcome, Michael Jordan’s legacy will be damaged. He will still remain basketball’s most celebrated individual, but the gap between him and upcoming competition will continue to close. Even the stubbornest of Jordan defenders must accept that time will eventually crown a new icon of the sport. I do not believe, however, that they accept how quickly the process may be occurring. It has been just 13 years since Michael Jordan last regrettably donned the Wizards’ navy blue. At the time of his retirement, most believed Jordan’s name would be cemented as the greatest ever for generations to come. If this Finals is at all indicative of the future, though, those generations may be passing quicker than most anticipated.