National Basketball Association

Old School vs. New School: MJ or LeBron?

February 2

By Eric Adelson 
Special to FOX Sports

Some people learned to bake sourdough bread during the pandemic. I taught sports debate to kids.

I know, I know: You probably think I should be shot into the sun for encouraging Gen Z to continue our national obsession with "Who’s the GOAT?"

But I had good intentions — at least a couple, anyway.

And I came away with a very different way of looking at Old School vs. New School.

In pre-COVID times, I helped out at the local elementary school as a chess coach and occasional math tutor. When the world shut down, I wanted to figure out a way to keep teaching. So I signed up to be an online teacher on Outschool. I figured I would teach sportswriting. I would keep things fun, but I would sneak in some writing tips, too. It would be like adding a leaf of kale to a chocolate peanut butter smoothie.

To my surprise, kids actually signed up. We looked at sports highlights on YouTube over Zoom, and I explained how I would try to write about them. Almost immediately, I realized that many of these 9-to-14-year-olds had a deep knowledge of sports. Some would talk about the "Immaculate Reception" or "The Catch" even though those events happened generations ago.

For the first month or so, I stuck with the basics: how to conduct an interview, how to start your story. Parents reached out to me and seemed thrilled that their kids were doing something other than Roblox. There was not going to be any summer camp during the pandemic, and the parents wanted more classes.

Two of the big stories of the summer were LeBron James in the NBA playoffs and Michael Jordan in "The Last Dance." Why not do a class on sports debates? Part of me worried it would be 30 minutes of middle schoolers having a virtual food fight, but another part of me wanted to teach them that good debate requires good research and good argument strategy.

Also, I admit, I was really curious who the kids thought was the GOAT.

I structured the class like this: I would start with highlights of MJ and LBJ. Then I would ask the students to compare the two legends’ styles. I wanted to get the students observing and describing, rather than just opining.

Next, I would take a poll: Who thinks Jordan is the GOAT? Who thinks it’s LeBron? And who thinks it’s someone else?

In the very first class, and in most classes after that, a clear majority of hands shot up for Jordan. There were classes that had no LeBron voters at all. (One class had an irrepressible Wilt Chamberlain stan.)

I was surprised. These kids were born years after Jordan left the Bulls — some more than a decade after the "last dance." Meanwhile, LeBron won all his titles as they grew up. I figured recency bias or simple media exposure would help James. Instead, it was as if a large majority of millennials had chosen Jack Nicklaus over Tiger Woods — justifiable, yes, but a bit jarring.

In the next part of the class, I asked students to make their arguments. But I also asked them to make arguments for the other side. To me, this was the main idea of the class: It wasn’t enough to know what you think; you need to know what the other person thinks. A good argument takes the counterpoint into account, rather than just ignoring it. In fact, the best arguments use the counterpoint as leverage to improve their points.

The students had ammo. They said Jordan was "more clutch," that he was "a better defender" and, of course, that he owns "six rings." A lot of them said Jordan did more with less talented teammates. (Poor Scottie Pippen.)

"You need to have a certain mentality to be the true GOAT of the NBA," one student said. Another said Jordan "was great before the 3-point era, and even then, he could score anywhere."

Several also mentioned "his legacy" and "his brand." Some even mentioned the Dream Team.

Did all this come from watching "The Last Dance"? I suppose it could have. But several students said they didn’t watch the documentary or didn’t stay up for all of it. Remember: I had some 9-year-olds in these classes. The Dream Team won gold nearly 30 years ago. When I was 9, did I even know who John Havlicek or Bob Cousy were?

I pushed back a little, challenging the students. The NBA is now a global game, I said. You now have Giannis and Luka and Jokic. Jordan didn’t have to compete against that level of international talent. He also didn’t have to deal with 6-foot-11 players shooting 3s. Jordan could dominate at one position, I said. James has done it at five.

The kids were unfazed. Jordan’s era was "tougher" and "more physical," they said. And the refs "didn’t call anything." My favorite comment: "Back then, you could punch somebody, and there would be no call." It was as if I were listening to WFAN on my clock radio in the ‘90s, only Bruce from Flushing and Doris in Rego Park had become preteens.

The course never got disrespectful. When asked to argue for LeBron — even if they were pro-Jordan — students quickly mentioned that James was "a better teammate" and "a better passer." Some said he was "a better all-around player."

They just liked Jordan more.

Toward the end of every class, I showed them stats. I said that any time I write a column on anything, I want to bring evidence. I want to bring data. I shared side-by-side statistical comparison of the two players. I said there is a strong case to be made for either. But I also pointed out that LeBron had a better shooting percentage and a better 3-point percentage. I said LeBron is statistically better at some of the things Jordan is famous for. I showed them the advanced numbers and the playoff stats. They showed Jordan’s incredible career, but they also showed that LeBron is anything but the choker some have accused him of being.

Then I asked if anyone had changed their minds.

Nope.

Kids know the stats. They know the stories. And a lot of them simply love Jordan as if he played last night instead of last century.

Granted, the missing factor here could be parent propaganda. Most of these kids have parents who watched Jordan and can relay stories of his greatness. There were a few times I spied a dad sitting just out of camera shot. A kid would look over to the side, nod and then offer some argument to the class. There were other times when students’ homework assignments would be miraculously advanced compared to what they said in class. And then there was the time a dad emailed me to give his own take. (Let’s hope he’s as involved in his child’s algebra class!)

But I think there’s another way to explain this. When I got back to teaching college students at the University of Florida, I asked their opinion on the same debate. Of those who responded, 10 voted for MJ, two voted for Kobe Bryant, and only one voted for LeBron.

Jordan hails from the first highlight era. ESPN didn’t exist the decade before he was drafted. There was no social media back then to dissect athletes’ flaws. He resides forever in a sports sweet spot — the perfect IG filter, if you will. His was a time when stories could be told with video and not untold with Facebook memes. And YouTube has brought that golden era forward to today.

This isn’t to say the "new school" pro-Jordan view is wrong. I mean, let’s be blunt: MJ won six championships in six trips to the Finals. He surely could have won more if he had stayed on the court during all of his prime years. He might have won even more if he had skipped college, as James did.

Yet it’s more than that. It’s who Jordan was — and still is.

In the last class I taught, I thought one student captured it well. He said, "I don’t care if LeBron wins seven or 10 rings. Jordan changed the game. He’s the GOAT."

Hard to argue with that.


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