Sadly, NBA still playing in Jordan's shadow

June 25, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Michael Jordan ruined things for everybody.

I'm sure he didn't mean to, although with his competitive nature, he might have intended it all along. But could anyone else have foreseen that every aspect of the NBA would look bad compared with him for the rest of eternity?

Could he have even imagined, for instance, that how he was drafted would be an issue in a draft 23 years later, involving players who weren't born when he first entered the NBA?

Yet Jordan's name is all over the debate about Thursday's draft, and that continues the decade of derision taking place in his name. The pace picked up notably during the NBA Finals earlier this month, and now the Jordan Factor is about to stink up the league's next generation, too.

See, the draftniks are pondering whether Greg Oden or Kevin Durant should be taken first. Those in Durant's corner say passing over him would be a huge mistake - like the one the Portland Trail Blazers made in 1984, when they passed on Jordan to take Sam Bowie.

Never mind how little sense that makes, talking about scouts and executives and rosters and draft classes from two decades ago and comparing them with their counterparts in a completely different era. (That's not even mentioning the insanity of comparing Oden to Bowie.)

Think of how grateful Durant must be for this. At 19, he's already being set up as "the next Michael," only to be torn down eventually for not being "the next Michael."

Join the club. It's huge, crowded with draft busts (Harold Miner), injury-wracked prodigies (Penny Hardaway), future Hall of Famers (Kobe Bryant) and everyone in between.

But that's life After Michael.

Granted, you can't argue Jordan's greatness. But since his career ended, too many people have felt a need to elevate him by stomping on the reputations of everyone and everything that has followed him.

Were you aware that no other NBA championship team has been as accomplished, gifted, popular or charismatic as Jordan's six-time champion Bulls from the 1990s? Of course you knew, because every year at this time, someone reminds you of it. The San Antonio Spurs, champions four times in the past nine seasons, failed the test. The Los Angeles Lakers, winners of three in a row earlier this decade, flunked, too.

That's why, of course, television ratings for the Finals and the playoffs aren't as good as When Michael Played. Lost in the bellowing about the record-low numbers produced by the Spurs' sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers was that the last two games were among the top seven shows in the ratings that week, much the way the Michael's games regularly were back in the day.

That doesn't support the theory that life, in general, was better to live When Michael Played.

Know what else? LeBron James isn't Jordanesque. James is a similar player to Jordan the way Babe Ruth was similar to Joe DiMaggio: both great but in completely different ways. By almost any other standard, James not only has had a tremendous career so far, but he also just completed a stunning postseason run and turned in a playoff game for the ages.

But, somehow, the only standard by which he's being judged is Jordan. And no one can ever live up to that.

The NBA, as we remember, was much better When Michael Played. Now, one conference dominates the other, necessitating a reformatting of the playoffs. Back then, the East, where Jordan played, didn't have an overwhelming advantage over the West - oh, wait, yes, it did. But nobody minded.

The quality of play was better, and thus, the champions produced were better. There's probably proof of that somewhere, except that there isn't. The era in which coaches grew painfully conservative, defenses ruled and scoring began sliding down, not stopping until a couple of years ago - all of that was well underway during the second of Jordan's three-peats in the late '90s.

But who can remember that when that last shot in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals crowds so much of our brain's capacity?

The denigration goes on and on. A few years ago, it was determined that the solution to the NBA's image problem was an age limit. The rationale that frequently surfaces: If Michael Jordan played in college for three years, so can these high school punks.

At about the same time, the dress code was instituted. Guess why? Michael Jordan wore suits to games and at news conferences, and everybody loved the league then.

No sport ever dragged itself through this long a period of mourning for a departed star. Baseball didn't give up and start mocking succeeding players after Babe Ruth (or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Reggie Jackson) retired. Football didn't curse an entire generation of players after Johnny Unitas (or Walter Payton or Joe Montana or Jerry Rice) finished playing.

With the NBA, though, nobody can let go of Jordan. Untangle yourself from his memory, and you might realize how much good basketball you've missed. And you might see some good ball in the future, from Oden and Durant.

Even if neither is The Next Michael.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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