Grumpy Old Men??

By David J. Neal
Updated: July 24, 2010
MIAMI — People still are tryin’ to put LeBron down and, yes, I’m talkin’ bout my generation. Or, rather, the NBA icons of my generation.

The ones who put the NBA back on live television. The ones featured in the star-focused marketing strategy that, long-term, paved the way for LeBron James’ decision, and the ensuing fuss over it.

The old guys who worked so hard and now have it easy.

Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson recently joined Charles Barkley in shaking their heads about James abdicating his throne in Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade in Wade’s South Florida kingdom.

“Nope, wouldn’t have done it back in our day,” they all said. “We wanted to beat each other,” each said, an implied questioning of James’ competitiveness and leadership skills.

`THERE’S NO WAY’

Easy for them to say from the rich, emeritus side of town.

To be fair, none did a verbal Kermit Washington on James.

“We didn’t think about it ’cause that’s not what we were about,” Johnson said, according to Bloomberg News. “From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird.”

“There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, `Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team,’ ” Jordan said in an NBC-aired interview.

“But that’s . . .

things are different. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. It’s an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”

Things are different.

This twists the standard setup. Toughness points always go to The Old Days. That’s when the world — parents, teachers, the law — meant business, by gosh.

Coaches, too, although sports wasn’t so much about the money in The Old Days, whenever they were.

(A sign you qualify for a midlife crisis: you hear someone say, “It wasn’t so much about the money then” about an era during which you remember people saying, “It’s all about the money now.”)

Yet, this isn’t necessarily the case here. Look at where they all were after seven years in the NBA.

MAKING CAVS RELEVANT

At an age when Jordan was shooting down Georgetown in the NCAA Final, James came into the league with the most noise heard from Cleveland since Don King’s last filibuster.

With consistently middling help, he made the Cavaliers relevant, a regular-season winner and, in 2007, shot them into the NBA Finals. That they got swept matters not. James lifted that team as far as it could go while being mainly a scorer, much less multidimensional a player than he desires.

Contrast that with Jordan. Memories of the Michael and The Jordanaires era have dissipated as the reason that was such a perfect nickname. But what if someone else came out of that 1987 draft with Scottie Pippen?

What if the Bulls couldn’t get a Horace Grant or a John Paxson? What if, after seven seasons, instead of lifting the NBA championship trophy for the first time, Jordan looked around and saw a team good enough to win 50 regular-season games but not the 16 playoff games necessary for a championship?

Now, what if he was a free agent that summer and so was David Robinson or Patrick Ewing or a healthy fellow Tar Heel, Brad Daugherty? And what if Barkley called that 1991 spring and said the Sixers had salary-cap space for Jordan and a star center?

Consider: We’re supposed to believe a guy who used to bribe baggage handlers to secure a victory at the First Bag Luggage Carousel Game and cheat at card games involving a teammate’s mother would pass up the chance for an unfair advantage on the rest of the NBA? Out of sheer ego?

Especially when the alternative looks like so much more of the same?

Come on, man.

Magic got drafted onto a team with the era’s dominant center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a supporting cast of guys who would be stars on other teams.

After the Lakers went 2 for 3 on championships to start Magic’s career, they drafted James Worthy, another future Hall of Famer.

Meanwhile, after a Bird-led 32-victory turnaround his rookie season, Boston snookered Golden State out of Robert Parrish and a first-round pick it used for Kevin McHale. When the Celtics needed a backup center, they wrung the last good years out of Bill Walton’s knees.

So, of course, Magic never thought about playing with Bird. After seven seasons, each stood as the entrenched leader of a team that started three layup Hall of Famers and claimed three NBA titles.

Their bond began in competition, to be soldered later by friendship and discovery of commonality. And each liked embodying his end of the NBA’s most storied rivalry, Lakers vs. Celtics.

Give James even a portion of that and he still would be in Cleveland. Show me a Hall of Famer on Cleveland during James’ seven seasons there other than the fading Shaq Granddaddy.

Heck, show me a Michael Cooper, a Dennis Johnson or a Norm Nixon.

Only Barkley, among the aforementioned Hall of Famers criticizing James, ever left his initial NBA home. It should be noted he had perhaps his finest season and led Phoenix to the NBA Finals.

Jordan and Johnson never even had to consider playing anywhere else. James still might not fill their Converses or Air Jordans as a player.

But they never had to walk in his.