LOS ANGELES: LeBron James was once among thousands of youngsters striving to “be like Mike,” but the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar never dreamed he’d be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago Bulls icon Michael Jordan as one of basketball’s greatest.
James eclipsed Jordan as the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer on Thursday (Friday in Manila) as he led the Cavaliers into a third straight NBA Finals — fueling comparisons to six-time NBA champion Jordan.
As pundits parsed the stats showing Jordan achieved his 5,987 playoff points in 179 post-season games while James reached 5,995 in his 212th post-season contest, James dismissed such conversations as “barbershop” debates.
When pressed, however, he acknowledged Jordan’s massive influence and the significance of the milestone.
“I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just seeing what he was able to accomplish,” James said after scoring 35 points in the Cavaliers’ 135-102 victory over the Boston Celtics that clinched the Eastern Conference title.
“When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike.”
From trying to emulate Jordan’s fadeaway jump shot to copying his uniform quirks, James said, “I did pretty much everything MJ did when I was a kid.”
“I didn’t go bald like Mike, but I’m getting there,” he quipped. “I wanted to be Mike, so for my name to come up in any discussion with Michael Jordan or Kareem (Abdul Jabbar) … it’s a wow factor.”
To be sure, “Air Jordan” still reigns over “King James.”
Jordan’s six NBA titles are twice as many as James’s three — two of them won with the Miami Heat before he returned to Cleveland with the avowed aim of bringing a championship to his home state of Ohio.
Jordan leads James in Most Valuable Player awards five to four and Jordan is fourth all-time in regular-season scoring with 32,292 points compared to James in seventh on 28,787.
James said at a summer basketball camp last year that he found motivation in “this ghost I’m chasing—the ghost played in Chicago.”
But he said his goal is not just to match Jordan’s numbers.
“It has nothing to do with passing him in rings, passing him in points, passing him in MVPs. It’s just my personal goal to keep me motivated,” James said.
“The conversations about who’s the greatest of all time, things of that nature — it doesn’t matter to me.”
More than scoring
What does matter is the chance to cement his own legacy, one that inspires young players to look beyond scoring as they develop their games.
Bill Laimbeer, stalwart of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams that were once the bane of Jordan’s Bulls, says that attention to every aspect of the game makes James, for him, the best ever.
“I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said this month on “The Rematch” podcast. “LeBron can do anything. Michael couldn’t get all the rebounds. He couldn’t be the assist man like LeBron James can.”
James says he wants to be known — and remembered — as more than a scorer.
“Scoring the ball is so heralded in our sport,” James said. “I want the fundamentals of the game to be as great as they can be.
“If some kid or a group of kids from the West Coast or the East Coast or the Midwest or the South and everything in between, all around the world can look at me and say, ‘Well, I made the extra pass because LeBron made the extra pass,’ or, ‘I got a chase-down block and I didn’t give up on the play because LeBron didn’t give up,’ that would mean the world to me.”