James threatens Jordan’s legacy like never before in booming NBA

May 9, 2018, 7:00 PM | Updated: 9:16 pm
(AP photos)...
(AP photos)
(AP photos)

The NBA doesn’t suck. The business model isn’t withering. Lack of parity isn’t a deal-breaker. Competitive integrity has survived the proliferation of super teams, stars who take the night off and franchises that fleece fans by losing games on purpose.

Wink, wink.

The NFL once relished this throne of unaccountability, a league formerly known as bulletproof, immune to scandal and controversy. Now the shield seems to guard professional basketball.

Television ratings during the NBA’s regular season rose to a four-year high in 2017-18, with ABC up 17 percent, TNT up 13 percent and ESPN up four percent. The numbers countered a downward trend in other sports, primarily the NFL, which likes to blame its numbers on presidential elections, anthem protests and an increasingly-scattered audience.

The NBA keeps growing. Its individual brands are irresistible currency. It feeds consumers a steady diet of celebrity entertainment, from feuds, taunts and those who use fashion statements to troll opponents.

The sport also embraces one of the most ground-breaking, controversial television partners in history. For years, Charles Barkley has been telling you how bad the NBA has become, wondering aloud why viewers are still awake and watching the halftime show on TNT. No other professional sport delivers this kind of anarchy, a courageous act of comedy and self-deprecation that adds immense value to the product.

The NBA also delivers a gluttony of athleticism and artistry, including two of the most globally-revered acts in sports: the dunk and the three-point shot. And it doesn’t hurt that LeBron James seems to be crossing another threshold, threatening Michael Jordan’s legacy like never before.

Only fools believe James is in the same neighborhood as Jordan, who remains firmly entrenched as the greatest of all-time. Jordan was smaller, dazzling, ruthless, more competitive, more consistent and undefeated in the NBA Finals. James changed the game, but Jordan changed the world.

He reignited the love of slam dunks and airborne antics, turning a landlocked sport into 3D viewing. He turned gym shoes into status symbols and collector’s items. He paved the way for athlete pitchmen and underwear endorsers.

It took him a while to win his championship, but he never disappointed and always exceeded expectations. Those who absorbed his fury will never change their minds.

To the contrary, James has an abundance of critics. They include former ASU star Eddie House, who once felt like James “quit” during the 2011 NBA Finals when House was a teammate on the Miami Heat.

“I can’t get over the fact that he didn’t show up in Dallas,” House said during a Fox Sports interview in February. “Not only because I was on the team, but the fact that he was the best player and everybody was dependent on him to show up and do what he does, and he was MIA. He had a bad series. No, a bad series. Jordan never had that.

“People killed James Harden for having a bad series last year, right? ‘Oh no, he ain’t as good as (he thinks) he is.’ But you going to say somebody quit in the Finals at the end of everything, when all the marbles are on the table, that he’s the greatest of all-time? I can’t buy it. I can’t buy it for that reason right there.”

House softened his comments during a radio interview this week on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. He said that Jordan is still lying on the couch, his GOAT status safely preserved. But he added that James has finally entered the room.

James’ enduring stardom is doing more than erasing his awkward moments as a NBA superstar. The staunchest detractors are growing to respect his staying power, and as time passes, so do our legend from yesteryear. Recency bias dooms us all, including the greatest basketball player in history.

Nothing succeeds in the NBA like a one-man show, and James has the opportunity of a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the Western Conference Finals will stage an epic showdown. James Harden could cement his status as the greatest player to attend college in Arizona, a hard-swallow for Wildcats fans. Mike D’Antoni could finally find his elusive ring. Or the Warriors might light up the night and the scoreboard, reminding us of how much we love basketball, a game that turns sport into art.

Like it should be.

Penguin Air

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