OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — LeBron James changed his jersey number, won an NBA championship and still gets inevitably compared to Michael Jordan at nearly every opportunity.
With James producing at a record-setting clip that no one had ever reached, just as Jordan’s 50th birthday approaches this weekend, classifying James’ place in league history couldn’t be a hotter topic.
James wants no part of it, posting on Twitter that he’s “not MJ.” And his peers say it’s time to back off all the comparisons.
“It’s simple. There will never be another Michael Jordan,” said Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, who grew up in Chicago watching Jordan’s games on WGN. “He was the first to do a lot of things. Whenever you’re the first, there can never be another.
“But you know what? That guy down there (James), he’s in the beginning of starting his own path. There will be someone who will be compared to the next LeBron James, but there will never be another one of him. Certain guys are that special and that unique.”
James entered Thursday night’s showcase game at Oklahoma City on an NBA record six-game streak with at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better. Then he scored 39 points and shot 58 percent in the Heat’s 110-100 win.
Doing something that even Jordan never did on his way to six NBA titles made James the buzz of the league heading into All-Star weekend, which also happens to be when Jordan hits the big 5-0. But it wasn’t the most important thing to him.
“It didn’t bother me during the game or not, if I was shooting 60 percent or not,” James said. “I just go out and play my game, and that was the result of it. It didn’t bother me and it didn’t matter if I got it tonight or not. … To win is what it’s all about.”
And just because LeBron is adding to his own lore doesn’t mean that it has to come at the expense of Jordan’s greatness.
“I think those two guys are different,” three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant said. “LeBron’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. I think people really were waiting for him to win the championship to compare, just like any other great player. … It’s not a knock on LeBron or taking anything from him, because the stuff he’s done is unreal as well, but it’s kind of hard to compare anybody to Michael Jordan.”
At the Heat’s shootaround, James was asked to reflect on the first time he met Jordan. It happened during James’ sophomore year of high school, when he visited a spot where Jordan worked out in the offseason in Chicago.
He can’t remember anything Jordan said to him — or if the two spoke — but he recalled watching Jordan’s every move during what he called a chance to meet a “hero.”
James started his NBA career wearing Jordan’s No. 23, but switched to 6 later and suggested that no one in the league should wear 23 again out of tribute to MJ. The plan never stuck.
And while establishing his own identity, James still finds himself dodging Jordan’s impressive shadow.
“I always say you can’t compare guys until both guys are finished playing,” Durant said. “You’ll see when Kobe Bryant’s done playing how you can compare him to Michael, Magic Johnson and LeBron, stuff like that. But while they’re playing, I don’t think you can really compare them.”
This stretch of proficiency is just another phase in James’ ascent. Where he’ll end up, whether he’ll ever approach all those titles James, Wade and Chris Bosh predicted upon their creation in Miami, is still to be determined.
“Every year, he’s come back a better player for 10 years now. That’s remarkable in itself. Not a lot of guys can say that. I’m not so sure he’s at his peak, which is frightening,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, a Jordan contemporary. “He’s one of the best players in the game’s history, not just the current generation of players, of all the players.
“What he is able to do at the level that he does it on both ends of the floor, you usually don’t see. You don’t see it often.”
Wade said he believes James’ transformation to an even better version of the NBA’s top player started last season after a difficult transition from beloved star in Cleveland to the league’s most-hated man in Miami.
“Once last year came and he was able to bring his family down to Miami and really get comfortable in the surroundings, the new environment, he started getting back to being the LeBron James that we all became accustomed to,” Wade said.
“It’s not saying the year before that he wasn’t special. Any time he puts on the jersey and he steps on the court, he’s a special player, but now he’s just even more confident. He’s at that age, at 28 years old, where everything just comes together.”
Remember that Jordan, although he hadn’t been in the league as long after playing college ball at North Carolina, was 28 when he won his first championship in 1991. Wade would caution that this is only the start of James’ very own, unique story.
“MJ’s legacy at 50 years old is still going strong,” Wade said, “and LeBron James’ legacy will be the same.”
This week Michael Jordan said he would choose Kobe Bryant over Lebron James.