Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It’s a sports debate for the ages—not to mention a thought experiment that commentators can trot out even during a particularly barren sports landscape. So it was no surprise to see quarantined viewers and members of the media once again relitigating the question during Sunday night’s premiere of The Last Dance, ESPN’s long-awaited documentary series on Jordan and the ’90s Chicago Bulls.
“My first reaction to [The Last Dance]: Stop comparing LeBron to Jordan. No disrespect to LeBron, but Jordan is Jordan. Let’s stop the foolishness. I know everybody needs content but Jordan is on a different level,” wrote Fox Sports 1 talking head Jason Whitlock on Sunday.
“I can see why everybody says Michael Jordan’s the GOAT. Because it’s the first time that the NBA had seen that type of athleticism, that type of fire, and a skill set like that. I just don’t think it’s uncommon anymore,” ESPN analyst Marcus Spears said Monday on ESPN’s Get Up. “I think this it’s the first time the NBA has seen LeBron James as well and his makeup. There will be stories told…about LeBron in the same way. And our kids will say the same thing, how can somebody watch this and say LeBron James is not the best basketball player ever. I just happen to be way ahead of the curve.”
For many—including The Last Dance director Jason Hehir—the debate breaks over generational lines. Members of Generation X and older side with Jordan, having watched his ’90s domination as it happened. For millennials and those younger, James and his sustained dominance of the league since his debut in 2003 hold greater value—not to mention his eye-popping statistics, including scoring the third-most points in NBA history.
“I’m a child of ’80s and ’90s. So in the same way that our favorite band is often the band we were listening to when we were 13, our favorite athletes are the ones that we watched in our formative years as well. So I always was of the opinion that there will be no one greater than Michael Jordan,” Hehir told Vanity Fair last week. “The acronym GOAT is greatest of all time, right? If you’re talking about greatest, LeBron James wears the number 23 in honor of Michael Jordan.”
While Hehir said it wasn’t his intention to turn The Last Dance into a referendum on Michael versus LeBron, the film itself does a pretty good job of providing pro-Jordan fans a case without much editorializing, specifically when it illustrates Jordan’s global impact. In a future episode of the limited-run series, Jordan’s shocking retirement in October 1993 is explored in great detail, showing how the announcement shook pop culture to its core and received blanket coverage from the media.
“If LeBron retired right now, they would immediately compare it to Michael’s retirement,” Hehir said. “There are so many things that current athletes do that they will immediately be compared to Michael, because Michael already did it. If LeBron wins three titles in a row, they’ll compare it to Michael’s threepeat…. The idea of an arrival shot at an arena did not exist before Michael Jordan. Think about that. It’s common production core now that, at the beginning of a game, you show the teams arriving getting off the bus and walking in. They didn’t do that before Michael. People were so enamored with seeing him away from the court.”
As Hehir noted, one reason Jordan’s legacy is still so towering is that he rose to acclaim during an era that predated social media, when public figures still had a certain mystique. (That’s part of the reason why The Last Dance is so compelling: In it, Jordan speaks on the record and at length with a candor often now reserved for Instagram Stories.)