By Michael Ranger
“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
On Wednesday night LeBron James passed that “ghost” in career points, putting him at fourth all-time in NBA history.
After passing Michael Jordan (32,292 points), James (32,311) now only trails Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kobe Bryant (33,643). If James manages to stay healthy — durability is one of his calling cards — he will eventually be at the top of that list.
LeBron’s comments on “the ghost” are from a 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated. Whether or not he is in fact still chasing that ghost is a debate in itself.
For many basketball pundits, James will never catch that ghost. No matter what he does from here on out, it won’t be enough to surpass the greatness of Michael Jordan, whose feats on the court are forever entrenched in the sport’s folklore. For others, including LeBron himself, that chase ended a few years ago.
When reflecting on his third NBA title on a 2018 episode of ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete,” James said he felt that bringing the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship in 52 years put him at the top of the mountain.
“That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt.”
The relationship between LeBron James and Michael Jordan can be dissected through various quotes over time that the younger star has made about the player he idolized growing up. James’ comments on Jordan throughout the years have gone from unabashed adulation, to occasional annoyance about the constant comparisons between the two, to LeBron declaring himself the greatest player of all-time.
At some point along the way the idol turned into a respected rival.
LeBron entered the league in 2003 wearing number 23, the number he wore in high school, the number that Jordan made famous. In 2009, during his seventh NBA season and final year of his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James publicly announced his intention to change to number six the following year. His reason being no one should wear the number out of respect to the greatest player who ever played.
“I feel like no NBA player should wear 23,” said James at the time. “I just think that what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized in some way soon. There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn’t Michael Jordan first.”
Something changed in James’ thought process over the course of his four years with the Miami Heat, where he won his first two championships. James went back to the number 23 in 2014 when he returned to Cleveland after his time in South Beach.
Statistically speaking, LeBron’s case as the greatest of all-time is almost solidified. He will finish his career with a treasure chest of league records. He’ll pass Jordan in most statistical categories before his career closes. But the case for Jordan has always been more about winning. His six championships have become a measuring stick for any player who is chasing his so-called ghost. Kobe Bryant came close with five titles. James has managed three.
His detractors have always pointed out the disparity in winning between him and Jordan: an argument that was probably unfair early in his career, considering James only took one extra season to win his first title. He won it in his eighth year at the age of 27. Jordan won his first title in his seventh year at the age of 28.
In a 2013 interview, Jordan himself was asked by Ahmad Rashad to pick between Kobe Bryant, another player who was constantly compared to Jordan, and LeBron. Kobe had secured his five championships at this point and LeBron was working towards his second.
“In terms of dominance of the game of basketball it’s LeBron,” said Jordan. “Championship wise it’s Kobe. If you had to pick between the two that would be a tough choice, but five beats one.”
Another NBA legend, Larry Bird, told Bill Simmons in a 2013 podcast that “it’d probably be more fun to play with LeBron but if you want to win and win and win it’s Kobe.”
Their basketball legacies can be debated. But the legacy that James has built off the court while being the face of the NBA is unrivalled.
In his peak playing days Jordan was notorious for not speaking out on any social or political issues. Being one of the most famous people on the planet and a role model, especially for those in the African-American community, he was often asked to weigh in on heavy topics. Always shying away from rubbing anyone the wrong way.
In the 1990 senate race in his home state of North Carolina, Jordan chose not to endorse candidate Harvey Gantt who was hoping to become the only black senator in the country at that time. Gantt was running against the incumbent Jesse Helms who was facing allegations of running racist campaign ads.
The legend goes that in response to his refusal to pick sides on hot button topics Jordan once said “republicans buy sneakers, too.” No one has been able to officially attribute the quote to him but it has still managed to follow him around all these years.
He finally broke his silence in the summer of 2016, 13 years after he played his final NBA game, when he released a statement responding to the scourge of police shootings involving unarmed African-Americans. The statement published by The Undefeated was titled ‘Michael Jordan: I Can No Longer Stay Silent.’
Staying silent hasn’t been an issue for LeBron. He also weighed in on the police shootings in 2016, but if his response didn’t garner as much attention as Jordan’s it’s probably because we were used to it by that point.
James publicly endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, when he was still only 23 years old and in his fifth year in the league. He condemned Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling in 2014 after a tape was released of Sterling making racist comments. He has publicly reflected on a bevy of political topics such as Darfur, Trayvon Martin and Charlottesville, among others. He’s expressed support for the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, who drew criticism when he chose to kneel during the national anthem. He famously called President Trump a “bum” on twitter.
In 2018 James partnered with the University of Akron in his hometown and donated $41 million from his foundation to send over 1,000 kids to college on full scholarships. James has solidified his legacy off of the court. He is probably the greatest ambassador the league has ever seen. There isn’t much to deliberate in that regard.
Today the Kobe vs. LeBron debate is virtually irrelevant. By all standards James has surpassed Bryant’s greatness. The arguments between LeBron and Jordan on the other hand will likely continue to boil for years to come, probably long after LeBron retires.
LeBron James the basketball player may still be chasing that ghost that played in Chicago. LeBron James the human being doesn’t need to chase anyone.