Mike and the Mad Dog used to play an oddly riveting game on slow days where they would take out “the book” and go through players’ stats season by season and judge if they were Hall of Famers. As graders, they preferred dominance for a shorter time than racking up stats by being merely very good, with greater longevity (Francesa called these players “compilahs”). While LeBron James is hardly Rafael Palmeiro, by this way of judging Michael Jordan was a better basketball player and it’s unlikely LeBron will ever catch him. (He’d “just” be the second or third best player of all-time, behind MJ and arguably Kareem.)
If you equally weight peak of greatness and longevity, then LeBron could conceivably pass MJ by the time his basketball career is all said and done, if he hasn’t already. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that. However, if we are tallying up all of life’s achievements — on-court success, brand building, wealth accumulation, and empowering the success of friends, family and those who are less fortunate — LeBron, whose public school in Akron opens today, has already crept ahead of MJ.
As his business investments sprout into forests and his social investments churn out countless citizens who in turn achieve great lives and careers that they otherwise would not have, it’s almost impossible to project the magnitude of what he’ll ultimately have accomplished.
In my opinion, one of the reasons that LeBron does not get more credit for his forward-thinking social and educational initiatives is that he doesn’t do a better job of acting like he doesn’t want any credit for it. We all see ourselves as protagonists in our own novel, but society calls for covering up some of the seams of self interest with philanthropic work. Recall the Curb Your Enthusiasm bit about anonymous donors. LeBron, however, couldn’t help himself from celebrating this hugely impressive chapter of his narrative in the third person:
An inordinate amount of high achievers across all career and political disciplines are narcissists, but there are social pressures for them to be more subtle. LeBron disregards those mores. He’ll probably always do that and he’ll probably always get dinged for it, but it’s impossible not to read all of Joe Vardon’s pieces about the LeBron James Foundation and not feel an immense amount of admiration. Ultimately, who cares if he celebrates himself along the way if the results reverberate for generations?
Whether MJ actually ever said “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he was never comfortable with politics. And his charity work has certainly not been nothing. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see his philanthropy triggering the same type of generational impact that LeBron’s appears to be doing in Ohio. And that’s fine. Jordan doesn’t have an obligation to do any of that, but if we’re looking at the bigger picture, LeBron is a more well rounded citizen.
In business, LeBron is almost assuredly never going to catch Jordan’s impact in the sneaker industry, but his other investments could really go to the moon. His stake in the Blaze Pizza chain was worth $35 million a year ago, according to Darren Rovell. In a couple years, when the seeds of LeBron’s move to Los Angeles really start bearing fruit, it’s going to feel like there is more TV and film programming produced by his and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Entertainment than by anyone else, and LeBron will star in many productions as a performer. Uninterrupted also continues to grow bountifully. The Klutch Sports agency has also become an institution unto itself.
Would anyone be astonished if LeBron joins MJ in the NBA ownership ranks, and achieves greater success in the realm?
Of course, LeBron’s forays into all these avenues were made easier in part because Jordan laid the foundation for superstars to become branding monoliths (and Jordan similarly benefitted from Magic and Bird, and so on and so forth). The endorsement institutions that Jordan ushered in were available to LeBron from the beginning of his career, and LeBron therefore has had more time in the day to pursue entrepreneurship and social good.
Nevertheless, LeBron has surpassed MJ when you account for their aggregate accomplishments on and off the basketball court. A few decades from now, this will be regarded as profoundly obvious, and the incessant debates that confine their achievements to inside the lines will look very silly.