Friday, August 8, 2008

Earvin “Magic” Johnson vs. Michael “Air” Jordan: Who's Better??!?!!

This post originated on the courts of Weisser Park (Fort Wayne, IN) in 1990-91. Fahte (pronounced Fah-Tay) Green was a phenomenal playground point guard. He was a year or two older than I, but we used to argue between pick-up games (sometimes during) about who was better, MJ or Magic? I would try to justify my stance by quoting stats of MJ’s scoring prowess…Fahte would say that MJ was a selfish player and counter my argument by referring to the “magical” no look passes Earvin threw to wide open teammates. I would call Magic a dinosaur, a relic of the NBA’s past. His awkward dribbling style and stiff rigid fakes were my proof. Fahte and I would counter each others arguments until we were not unlike little kids arguing over who was the best super-hero, screaming at each other about differences in personal taste. For Fahte, Magic was the quintessential point guard; a leader who thought about the best way for his team to score a bucket. Magic knew better than any other player, where all of the players on the court were and where they would be. He was the consummate team player with the uncanny ability to make the defender look one way, while he passed the ball in the other direction. He was a winner as a kid, in high school (Everett High in Lansing, MI), college (Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan), and everyone knows how Kareem got hurt in the NBA Finals (after dropping 40 on the 76ers) during Magic’s rookie season and how Magic stepped in at the center position (Magic led the Lakers to victory with 42 points, 15 boards, 7 assists and 3 steals) and the Lakers were crowned NBA champs. I knew all of that, but there was still that thing inside me that couldn’t let Fahte win the argument (can anyone say EGO?).
Michael Jordan spoke to me in a way that Magic did not. Magic was from my uncle’s era, an era of tight shorts, long tube socks and gym shoes without “air”. An era raised off a steady diet of Kareem’s sky hook, fluid jump shots from Bernard King and aerial moves by Dr. J. Michael Jordan spoke to the kids, trumpeting the changing of the “guard” and the dawn of a new era in basketball…bald head, baggy shorts, wagging tongue, $100 signature Nike sneakers (bearing his name and likeness) and the attitude that said, “I don’t care…If I have to, I will do it by myself!”
Now close to 20 years later I feel like all my early 90’s arguments with Fahte Green were justified. No one has elevated a sport (barring Tiger Woods and Golf) more than Michael Jordan has raised the sport of basketball. Today, the product of MJ’s greatness can be traced to Europe. The NBA has long since tapped into Europe’s basketball talent pool, luring European players to America. Now the opposite is happening in the States, Europe has found a way to lure American players there to play on European teams (see Carlos Arroyo, Josh Childress, and High-School player Brandon Jennings; all are making the leap across the pond to play in Europe). The Europe today is not like the one in which Darryl Dawkins was exiled to when he was unable to cut it in the NBA. There is stronger financial backing and a much higher talent level. Some would say there are European players better than their American counterparts (see D’antoni’s choice for the Knicks, Danilo Gallinari from Italy). If not for the transcontinental, “Be Like Mike” marketing campaign in the 90’s, basketball would not be on the global level that it is now. Michael Jordan’s ability to be marketable (puppeted?) as the new face of greatness, excellence, hardwork, persistence and (let’s not forget) his lack of political/social/racial attachment made him the perfect vehicle by which the NBA could reach the world. His ability on the basketball court made MJ that much more palatable to mainstream America.
The summer of 1990 the Lakers beat the Bulls to become the NBA Champions. Michael Jordan was vindicated by beating the Pistons (to become the Eastern Conference Champs) after years of tortuous “Jordan Rules”, but his team still fell short of the champion title. The next year the Bulls returned to the NBA Finals (Thanks to Scottie Pippen’s consecutive blocks of New York Knicks forward Charles Smith lay-up attempts in the Eastern Conference Finals) and met the Lakers again…however 1991 would crown the Chicago Bulls Champions of the NBA. During the 1990-91 NBA season Michael Jordan claimed the NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP, All-NBA First Team, NBA All-Defensive First Team and was an NBA All-Star starter. MJ had finally redeemed himself and his team for the years of being at the bottom of the barrel. He put his stamp on the NBA and ended the “Showtime” era. I have not seen Fahte Green since those summers past in Indiana, but if I saw him today, I know I do not have the intestinal fortitude to hold back from saying, “I told you so!!!” Viva Los Treps!!!