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I was eight years old when Michael Jordan hit that shot. Yes, that shot.
Do I remember it? Yeah, kind of…not really. I can’t tell you exactly where I was, or what I was doing when it happened, like I can for so many moments that have come after it. That shot gave Jordan his sixth ring, cementing his legacy as the greatest ever. When people think of Jordan, they think of six.
I was born four years after Jack Nicklaus won his final major – his 18th major. Those 18 championships cemented his legacy as the greatest ever. When people think of Jack, they think of 18.
I was a 90’s baby, and 90’s babies didn’t experience Jordan or Jack. They don’t belong to us. It’s the shitty reality we live in. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve spent days watching Nicklaus and Jordan in their prime, but I didn’t experience them in their prime. There’s a difference.
I experienced Tiger. I remember the Tiger Slam. I remember the seven majors in three years. Tiger became the not just the face of golf, but of all sports right as I was old enough to know how important he was. He was going to catch Jack. He had to catch Jack. All he had to do was catch 18. No matter how mind-blowingly amazing Tiger was at his peak, there was still that number…that damn number means everything.
Woods announced Wednesday that he’ll miss the US Open in June because of a back injury, and every time a major comes and goes (whether Tiger actually plays in it or not), we all read the headlines:
WILL TIGER EVER BE BACK?
CAN WOODS CATCH NICKLAUS?
NICKLAUS THINKS WOODS WILL PASS HIM
Make no mistake about it, the standard we hold Tiger Woods to begins and ends with 18. It’s not just us, either. Tiger admits that it’s his goal. At this point, though, he would have to win as many majors the rest of his career as Phil Mickelson has won in his entire life. Think about that. It’s not going to happen. Woods will never be what he was supposed to be for my generation of fans. There’s really only one athlete who still can be:
LeBron was the prodigy, and Jordan was his hero. It’s a mirror image of how Tiger thinks of Jack. They’re prodigies idolizing a legend. Both LeBron and Tiger have and always will be captivated by a number that must be reached before they can stand on the same level ground with their heroes.
18 for Tiger…6 for LeBron.
There is not another athlete in our culture more associated with the number of championships he or she won than Nicklaus and Jordan.
I know Jack has 18 majors. I know MJ has 6 rings.
They are the GOATS, and those numbers are their trump cards.
Off the top of your head, how many titles does Gretzky have? Babe Ruth? Pele?
Who’s the greatest NFL player of all time? There are seriously a dozen players in that discussion. There’s no consensus in football like there is in basketball or golf.
The only other name that comes to mind is Michael Phelps. His eight gold medals in a single Olympic games is a standard that must be reached before someone takes the GOAT crown away from him, but if you think competitive swimming carries the same weight as any of the major US sports in our society, please close out of this window and go back to your Kimye wedding slideshow. Also, it’s one thing to watch someone become a legend over the span of a week. It’s not the same as watching someone chase a number for more than a decade. That doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive, but it’s different. It isn’t theatric. Phelps is not a definitive athlete of this generation. Tiger Woods is, and so is LeBron.
LeBron has represented a lot of different things since he stepped out of his H2 Hummer and into the NBA 11 years ago. We loved him when he called himself “The Chosen One.” We were in awe of him when he arrived against Detroit in ’07. We felt betrayed by him when he left Cleveland for Miami on national TV. We scorned him when he and the Heat choked away the 2011 Finals. As a society of sports fans, we constantly jump to polar ends of the spectrum when judging a player’s legacy. In less than two years, LeBron went from The Guy We Think Could Be The Next Jordan, to The Guy Who Will Never Ever Be As Good As Jordan. There’s seemingly no in-between.
Well guess what?
If the Heat go on to win the NBA Finals this year like they are favored to, LeBron will be halfway to Jordan. He will have earned his third championship at the same age that Jordan did…right on schedule. People will start asking if he’s The Next Jordan again – they basically already have. Every argument against LeBron will focus on the rings. Until LeBron has six, there’s no debate.
We revelled in LeBron’s failures until he stopped failing. Now we root for him because even idiots like us realize that if you’re lucky, you might get a couple shots to watch the torch pass from one GOAT to another. Deep down, you want it to happen.
It was supposed to be Tiger, but that dream is over. Our best hope is now on James’ broad, muscular shoulders. He can be what Tiger never was for us. He can catch the greatest. He can maybe become the greatest. It will only ever become a debate if he can catch his hero’s number.
Catching Jordan’s six rings will never be the only thing that matters in an argument to decide who is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. If it was, Bill Russell would win that debate forever. It’s just that for some reason, we always use the rings to explain why MJ belongs in a category by himself as the best ever.
There are plenty of other factors that will eventually determine whether or not LeBron is better than Jordan, or even whether Tiger is ultimately better than Jack, but both Jordan and Nicklaus have a trump card.
My generation needs a guy who reaches across the table and steals the trump card away. It’s not going to be Tiger anymore. Like it or not, our only hope might be LeBron.
Follow Josh on Twitter @JoshParcell