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Why Michael Jordan doesn’t matter

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Why Michael Jordan doesn’t matter

The WISCH LIST

July 3, 2010

The guy’s legend remains larger than life, his image is bronzed for posterity at the House that He Built, and he’s still – and likely always be – regarded as the greatest to ever play his sport.

But Babe Ruth doesn’t scare a soul anymore.

So, why should Michael Jordan?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering the past few weeks as I’ve weighed the reasons why uber-free agent LeBron James should sign a contract with the Chicago Bulls this summer – and why he shouldn’t.

There may be plenty of good reasons why James should shun Chicago – actually, I can think of 30 million of them (the amount of money that Cleveland can pay him above any other team) – but I’ve also come to the conclusion that His Airness should not be one of them.

Because Michael Jordan doesn’t matter.

At least, he shouldn’t. Not to LeBron. Not in the way many think he should.

Now, before you try to punch me with a fistful of NBA championship rings or send Mars Blackmon to heckle me at work, allow me the chance to explain.

Of course, Michael Jordan matters. In the landscape of Chicago sports, no athlete has ever mattered more. And it’s unlikely that anyone ever will.

Jordan – with that wagging tongue, those aerial acrobatics and, of course, the six championship rings – turned himself into an icon nonpareil during the 1980s and ’90s while transforming the Chicago Bulls into a global brand recognized from Berlin to Basra to Beijing.

A dozen summers after Jordan last donned a Bulls jersey, his shadow still looms large over the United Center. And during the past month, that’s left many asking why LeBron James would want to stand in it.

But what I’ve instead come to wonder is why he wouldn’t.

Because, for a player as great as LeBron, the specter of Michael Jordan shouldn’t be viewed as a curse. It should be viewed as a blessing.

Consider this: In 2004, before his career was irreparably tarnished and his Hall of Fame candidacy (almost certainly) destroyed by admitted steroid use, Alex Rodriguez was well on his way to being considered one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Maybe the greatest.

In an attempt to attain such a lofty stature (and championships), A-Rod wanted to join – not run away from – the team that the greatest of all-time, Babe Ruth, called his own for 15 seasons. That’s because, over time and many titles, the Yankees have become something truly special in professional sports: A franchise of legends that, in turn, attracts legends.

The seven World Series rings that Ruth won and the best-ever reputation he built in the Bronx didn’t intimidate Rodriguez. Instead, A-Rod was almost certainly drawn to New York at least in part because of those things.

Playing for the Yankees just meant more than playing for anyone else.

Love them or hate them, the Yankees are baseball’s undisputed Gold Standard. And by coming to Chicago, LeBron James could potentially make the Bulls the same. He could turn them into the NBA’s version of the Yankees.

Or, at the very least, the Lakers and Celtics, two franchises that in Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Larry Bird and Bill Russell boast probably six of the 10 greatest basketball players of all-time, yet don’t seem to scare any current players away.

You’ve never heard anyone saying that Kobe should have left Los Angeles to make his mark because Magic and Kareem had already made theirs there. Really, even mentioning such a thing sounds ridiculous. It should sound the same way in Chicago, too.

Winning as a Laker has hardly diminished Kobe’s legacy. Rather, it has enhanced it. That’s because the Yankees, Lakers and Celtics are all special franchises. The Chicago Bulls could be. They can be more than just Michael Jordan.

And LeBron James is the one who could accomplish that.

If he decides to sign with Chicago, LeBron has the unique opportunity to not just make himself legendary, but to potentially make a franchise truly legendary, as well.

Chances like that don’t come along very often. And for a guy looking to leave a legacy, well …

That’s one for the history books, Babe.