Mariotti: LeBron Like Mike? Hell, No.

Oh, how they adore him now, all the amnesiacs and frontrunners who used to call him a choker, a traitor and, in sum, a LeBum.

There’s LeBron James, watching giddily as a red curtain drops to reveal his very first NBA championship ring, a 219-diamond finger boulder protected by four policemen who apparently aren’t needed on the Miami streets. There he is again, in yet another heavy-rotation TV ad, hanging around with his fiance and kids and stopping by barbershops to groom whatever hair remains on his head, somehow acting like he has been in South Florida longer than the Everglades. There he is again, in his gold LEBRON X sneakers, the ones labeled with “MVP” and rub-it-in notations such as “16-7” (the Heat’s postseason record) and “697” (his postseason point total).

“I want to be the best of all time,” James tells the Associated Press.

And people actually are discussing this notion as a possibility, not a folly.

Meanwhile, there’s Michael Jordan. Oh, how they ridicule him now, all the amnesiacs and frontrunners who used to call him Basketball Jesus. There he is in Charlotte, dealing with the indignity of owning a team coming off the worst single-season record in NBA history—7-59, which computes to .106, uglier than a hung-over Dennis Rodman at the free-throw line. There he is in hinterlandia, reduced to hiring the assistant coach of a college team as the Bobcats’ head coach. There he is in semi-obscurity as a pitchman, still doing those underwear ads—did someone bind and gag him at 21 and sign him to a lifetime Hanes deal?—yet less visible as a global basketball ambassador than ringless rabble-rouser Charles Barkley.

“I’m not real happy about the record-book scenario last year,” Jordan tells reporters, clearly aching as he deals with new-found basketball infamy. “It’s very, very frustrating.”

And for the first time, people actually are identifying him first as one of the worst owners and talent evaluators in sports instead of what he once was: the most complete champion and badass competitor of his day.

I have come today to correct this absurd discrepancy, this farcical role reversal.

Never, ever can LeBron James be the best of all time. The ad world can create an illusion of James as The New Jordan, but the concept is flawed and irreversible. That’s because James, simply, already has lost two NBA Finals. Jordan took the Bulls to six Finals and never failed, winning six trophies and six Finals MVP awards. No one else in team sports—not Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, not Joe Montana or Tom Brady, not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, not Wayne Gretzky or the world soccer gods—can say the same.

LeBron? Not until last June did he overcome a revealing run of futility in clutch moments, a taint that shouldn’t be forgotten anytime soon. Two seasons ago, he played fourth quarters in the Finals as if the ball had cooties, fleeing the challenges that Jordan lived to embrace. Michael ALWAYS wanted the ball when it mattered. Who knows if one successful postseason, after many failures, has cured James of his pressure-time phobias and wanderings?

As if humbled by the degree of championship difficulty, James even can be heard these days stopping far short of his foolishness on July 9, 2010. That is when he sat on a stage beside a laughing Dwyane Wade and counted the number of championships the Heat could win: “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …” Now he’s more cautious, saying, “These moments are not given … I haven’t had much time to really just think about what actually happened. At the end of the day, there’s still going to be people that say, ‘Well, he’s not going to be able to win two. He’s not going to do it again.'”

When he had the audacity to suggest seven or more titles, doubt should resonate. No matter how many he wins in Miami, James won’t shake the way he quit on the city of Cleveland, skirting the more daunting and noble task of bringing championships to his battered, luckless home region. Also don’t forget how he quit on the Cavaliers during his final 2010 playoff series against Boston, only fueling suspicions he had decided to escape Cleveland long before and, thus, may have lost focus—or, worse, laid down—in that infamous Game 5.

I bring up these memories to emphasize that Jordan never has quit. He may have taken a hiatus from basketball for a painful minor-league baseball whirl in 1994, but the detour was understandable after his father’s murder. He may have retired for a second time after the sixth title in 1998, but only because the Bulls were prematurely dismantled by team executives fed by delusions they could win titles without him (14 years and running on that nonsense).

It would have been easy for Jordan to demand a trade when he was being assaulted in the playoffs by the Bad Boy Pistons, or when ownership refused to renegotiate his eight-year, $24-million deal while the likes of Johnson, Bird and Patrick Ewing were having obsolete contracts ripped up by appreciative owners. But Jordan never said a word. And when his contract finally expired and he briefly toyed with the idea of signing with the New York Knicks, he felt too loyal to leave the Bulls, prompting chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to say he hoped he wouldn’t regret the mega-investment. Yes, Reinsdorf really said that. Three more titles later, management let three Hall of Famers—Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen—walk out the door, bringing in the likes of Tim Floyd and Pete Myers. Jordan didn’t quit then, either. He returned to the game in 2001, announcing in a West Side parking lot to me and AP columnist Jim Litke that he would play for the (gag, cough, vomit) Washington Wizards.

“I’m doing it on my terms,” he told me.

He wouldn’t say it publicly at the time, but Jordan still seethed because he wasn’t given a piece of Bulls ownership and felt that Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had won the power struggle over the two superstars and head coach who made the six-pack happen. To Jordan, a statue outside the United Center wasn’t enough. If he built the franchise and the building, he wanted to be rewarded with a prominent position in the organization. Some might say Reinsdorf was wise in keeping Jordan away from the decision-making process, knowing Michael’s track record in his management career. But other than lucking out with Derrick Rose in the lottery, just what the hell have the Bulls accomplished since the Jordan era? They won with each other in the ’90s… and have struggled without each other since.

If ever Jordan might wish to quit, it would be now. He has been an abject failure as an owner and basketball executive, from the day in Washington he chose bust Kwame Brown with the overall No. 1 pick. After the Wizards fired him and sent him drifting for a few years, he bought the Bobcats, only to let the pro franchise in basketball-mad North Carolina slip into laughable irrelevance. It’s mind-boggling that the foremost symbol of sporting success on Planet Earth has devolved into a loser. Colossal failure torments Jordan so much that he stopped sitting courtside last season, so he could scream and pound his fist in a private suite.

The Bobcats won their first game this season. But the team remains a mess, with no real gate attractions, unless you count the raw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. When James Harden became available last month, Jordan made a pitch to the Oklahoma City Thunder, only to be rebuffed for a lack of tradeable assets. Know how rough it’s getting? When asked by a Charlotte Observer columnist about Cam Newton’s troubles as quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Jordan mentioned that Newton lives in his building, prompting the columnist to wonder if Jordan was the one living in Newton’s building.

“I was there first,” Jordan shot back.

But please know this: Even if Jordan loses the rest of his games as an owner, it should have no bearing on the reality that his body of work on the court- and as an international sensation with two decades of transcendent staying power–remains far beyond the reach of James or anyone else. In Cleveland, James couldn’t win a trophy with a decent roster. In Chicago, Jordan turned decent casts into champions six times. Without Jordan, Pippen would have been traded three times, Dennis Rodman would have tumbled into a gutter much sooner than he did, and Jackson might have enjoyed his greatest coaching successes with the minor-league Albany Patroons. Jordan invigorated entire continents, gentrified neighborhoods, and lit up Madison Street while revolutionizing Madison Avenue. Everyone who came in professional contact with him should be assessed a Jordan Tax, from Reinsdorf to a one-time drifter named Steve Kerr, who became a Finals hero because Jordan passed him the rock and cashed in with five rings and a big career as an executive and network TV analyst.

Simply, Jordan’s legend is too great to let his record as an owner and executive mar it. And for all his faults, he certainly isn’t ready to quit now, though he is letting Rich Cho, his general manager, take the lead on more basketball decisions.

“I don’t anticipate getting out of this business. My competitive nature is I want to succeed. It’s always been said that when I can’t find a way to do anything, I will find a way to do it,” he tells the Associated Press, trying to sell himself in the absence of noticeable hope.

“I didn’t get in the business to try to get out. Granted, I want to turn this thing around as fast as possible, but this is obviously a process. I’m committed to it and I want to pass it down to my family members or my kids. I want this to always be in Charlotte.”

So stop any and all arguments. It doesn’t matter if Kobe Bryant, a two-time Finals loser and beneficiary of having Shaquille O’Neal as a tag-team partner, wins his sixth ring this season. It doesn’t matter if James wins not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven… but eight championships, which he won’t.

Michael Jordan is the best of all time.

Don’t broach the thought again, LeBron.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with MJ photo by AP/Photo, and LeBron photo
courtesy Keith Allison/cc. Shards of Jordan illustration by PVBroadz/cc; MJ statue courtesy Glorius/cc.

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