LeBron Can't Be Your Childhood Hero

I've searched high and low for a reason why basketball fans hold LeBron James to a different standard than any other athlete in American sports and I've finally found it -- Michael Jordan's fans don't want to grow up. Yep, when you peel back the American sporting psyche you can see that the LeBron hate isn't about LeBron at all, it's about a perceived assault upon Jordan fan's sporting childhood. There's power in having witnessed greatness, reflected glory from the penumbra of Air Jordan's flight across a basketball court. We can't be like Mike, but we can protect our memories of what Michael Jordan was like. No one else can ever compete with Jordan because in order to do so someone would have to compete with our own childhoods, and that's impossible. 

That's the root cause of the vast majority of the LeBron James criticism, Michael Jordan's fans don't want their childhood hero to be challenged by anyone for the title of greatest basketball player of all time. It isn't all just about basketball it's about youth and dreams and being there in inception. They want to protect their memories of Jordan's dominance, want to continue to embrace the artificial Air Jordan image that they so eagerly bought into as children or young adults. Jordan's dominance is the toy in our childhood bedroom that we'll never give away, the nostalgic memory that takes us back to a time when we watched sports without irony or cynicism or low expectations. For a generation of American sporting fans Michael Jordan is synonymous with our childhoods.

So why is LeBron James the most scrutunized athlete in professional sports today? It has nothing to do with LeBron James, it's about us, our own battle to protect the memories of Michael Jordan from our own childhoods. If anyone attacks those memories, the ghost of Jordans past, then it's taken as an attack upon our youth. First, it was Kobe Bryant. Remember how vociferously he was attacked by Jordan fans? And Kobe didn't even attempt to overtake Jordan, he was the ultimate member of the Jordan generation, he tried to lose himself so completely in the Jordan mythology that the two were almost twins, indistinguishable one from another. Now that Kobe's challenge for the title of best ever has failed, all of Jordan's fans can turn to LeBron. That's why with every poor performance or cramping injury or latest perceived flaw, the Jordan jackals come out and unleash their slings and arrows at LeBron. But it's not about LeBron at all, never has been. It's about us, and our childhoods and how no one ever can or ever will defeat our memories of Michael Jordan. Put it this way, if God decided to play basketball tomorrow, Michael Jordan fans would still say God wasn't as good as Jordan in his prime. 

Put it his way, how many people do you know who are huge fans of Michael Jordan and LeBron James? Hardly anyone, right? That's because for a generation of sports fans Jordan is inextricably connected with our youth. You were young when Jordan finally overcome the Detroit Pistons and won his first title, or you came to the Jordan reign later in your life but you can recall that final shot in 1998, see it the moment you close your eyes. For many of us it was the last moment of sporting innocence. 

Now we tear down our heroes, the hater gene has risen and predominates in sports, but for over a decade the mythology of Michael Jordan ruled the sporting universe. From 1987 to 1998, Michael Jordan was an iconic superstar without parallel in the world. How popular was Jordan's brand? He turned male-pattern baldness in African-American men into a positive trait. Think about this for a minute. He was so popular that he got people with hair to shave off their own hair and be bald like him. Unless you grew up in a city tortured by Jordan's successes, can anyone name more than a handful of childhood sports fans who didn't root for Jordan? He was our last superstar without flaws, the unblemished corporate pitch man whose story is so well known that it connects with our own American ethos -- work hard enough and you too can become the greatest, you'll be able to float on air, be like Mike.

The greatest thing that ever happened to Michael Jordan was being cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore. Because that flaw made us all believers. Maybe we too could be like Mike, our athletic excellence was inside, waiting to blossom and emerge in our adolescence, maybe, just maybe, there was a superstar inside all of us too. Only, there wasn't. Jordan grew six inches after his sophomore year of high school, sprouted into a superstar at UNC and later led the Bulls to dominant wins, but he was forever embedded in that cocoon of failure, before he could fly like a butterfly, Jordan was us.

He wasn't a King in high school. 

Of course that was an artificial image created to sell products. But it was a new image, one that we weren't used to seeing yet. And we all bought it. We all put on our new Air Jordan's and ran up and down the basketball court, convinced we could run faster and jump higher, the limits of our pedestrian lives had been removed, we were like Mike too. No one wants to hear it today because it interferes with our childhood memories, but we were all worshiping a false idol. If Michael Jordan was in his prime today, the same age as LeBron, he'd be half as popular, maybe a quarter as popular. You think Tiger Woods artificial corporate pitchman life exploded, look out for Jordan in this modern TMZ sports era. While LeBron has no real skeletons in his closet from a life lived in public for over a decade, Jordan chased women all over the country, went out gambling all night before playoff games, his father was murdered under mysterious circumstances, he took an inexplicable sojourn into pro baseball, and fought with his teammates in practice. Most of us would say that makes him real, demonstrates that his great basketball talents didn't also translate in other areas of his life, but that wasn't Jordan's image. He was pristine and unencumbered, the athlete soaring through the air, who unlike the rest of us, didn't ever have to return to earth.  

It's no coincidence that the Air Jordan logo never touches the ground.

Since 1998 the Michael Jordan brand has continued to grow, but the Jordan of our youth has been a ghost, returning for a few minutes with the Washington Wizards, but then gone again, permanently, left on a sideline somewhere to watch others play, a basketball grandfather. But Jordan's timing remained impeccable. His brand continued to grow as his fans aged and YouTube videos brought him to a new generation that had never seen him play in person. Somewhere at every minute of every day Jordan is in flight, soaring into a new generation's minds, an elusive phantom that no one can catch, the player who jumped one day and never returned to earth.    

For a generation of sports fans no one will ever be better than Michael Jordan. Ultimately, that says a lot more about us than it does about LeBron James or anyone else who tries to claim Jordan's crown.

It's not about them at all, it's about our childhoods. 

Written by
Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021. One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines. Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide. Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports. Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.