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LeBron James is the Next.
No, not the Next Jordan. Not anymore. Everyone -- even the kid who argued with Jason Segel -- knows that by now, after a NBA Finals performance that made James look more like Adonis Jordan than Michael.
Now -- barring an outbreak of championships, hero moments and prescient Hanes commercials -- James is the Next Not Jordan. As in, the next guy to etch his name on this list of players who once drew comparisons to His Airness, only to fall short:
Note: This list is not comprehensive, but it is chronological. And it should never be expanded. Ever. Really, people, can't we stop with the "Next Jordan" thing already?
Next "Air"?: Before LeBron and even Roy Marble, there was Curtis Hunter: The Original Next Jordan. Of course, the stakes were different back on Oct. 16, 1984, when an Associated Press writer called Hunter "a top candidate" to replace M.J. -- and meant simply as North Carolina's go-to guy, not basketball's G.O.A.T.
Hot air: Well, neither happened. An injury-plagued Hunter never rose above reserve status, and it took all of a year for someone to tab another Tar Heel (Kevin Madden) as the Next Next Jordan. Which, of course, was spot-on. At least Hunter (at North Carolina A&T) and Madden (his high school) went on to coach, and neither drafted Kwame Brown. So they have that on His Airness.
Next "Air"?: "Harper plays like Michael Jordan," a future NBA executive told reporters in 1987. "Some of his moves are so spectacular that you forget the 10 shots he just missed." That eventual GM? One Danny Ainge. Wonder if he wants to sign the 47-year-old Harper as part of the Celtics' youth movement.
Hot air: The Jordan tag followed Harper around for a short time, then Harper started following Jordan around (admittedly as a pretty good role player) and won three championships, plus two more with the Lakers. Oh, and he guest-starred on "Kenan & Kel". Jordan ever do that?
Next "Air"?: "Gill likes to think he has a chance to be the next Jordan," the Gaston Gazette's Michael Smith wrote in 1992, two years after the Chicago kid was picked fifth overall by the Charlotte Hornets.
Hot air: Uh, yeah. Gill never made the All-Star team. He played for seven franchises. But he did become a broadcaster (Big Ten Network), continued Harper's tradition of ex-Nexts to appear on Nickelodeon shows ("My Brother and Me"), and could probably beat up M.J. if left alone somewhere (just check his competitive boxing record).
Next "Air"?: There's some debate here. Was Miner really compared to His Airness, or was the man -- drafted just 12th overall -- called "Baby Jordan" because of his impressive dunks?
Hot air: "I always felt the worst thing to happen to Harold was the 'Baby Jordan' tag," former USC coach George Raveling told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. But was it? Miner only played four seasons in the NBA, and won two Slam Dunk Contest titles. That's the same number as Jordan, who played 15 years. In other words, Harold Miner was far more efficient than Michael Jordan.
EVERY GOOD PLAYER IN THE MID-1990S
Next "Air"?: After Jordan won his first three titles, people were like Jim Carrey in a Joel Schumacher movie -- they were seeing the Number 23 everywhere. Kevin McHale, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1995, about UNC's Jerry Stackhouse: "I don't think he's Michael Jordan. Then again, Michael Jordan wasn't Michael Jordan when he was coming out of college." An anonymous GM, to the Hartford Courant that same year, on Ray Allen: "I know it's heresy ... but if anyone ever reminded you of Michael Jordan, this is him." And the comparisons kept coming, citing everyone from Grant Hill to Penny Hardaway to Allen Iverson to ex-Tar Heel Eric Montross.
Hot air: OK, not Montross. But the others got it, and it worked out for no one. Sure, they produced iconic movies, popular puppets, socially conscious TV ads and rousing speeches. But these would-be Jordans combined to win just one more title than M.J. did. In baseball.
Next "Air"?: Before Carter left his Florida high school, one scout told the Tampa Tribune that the high flyer was "the high-school version of Michael Jordan." And then he became a Tar Heel. You can imagine where that went; the comparisons even crossed the U.S. border, and bled over to cousin Tracy McGrady.
Hot air: New rule: If you're 6-6ish and athletic, go anywhere but UNC. UNC-Asheville. UNC-Pembroke. UNC-South Carolina. Doesn't matter. Especially if you have a reputation for shrinking in big moments and like to wear mortarboards on gameday.
Next "Air"?: Chicago star, Chicago native. Athletic perimeter player, athletic perimeter player. Star of phone commercials alongside a goofy bald guy, star of phone commercials alongside a goofy bald guy. The comparison was inevitable.
Hot air: ESPN's John Hollinger labeled Wade's 2006 Finals performance more Jordan-esque than any of Jordan's. Since, though? Wade's been on a 15-win team, lost in three first rounds, and, unlike Jordan, couldn't overcome his nasty cough in the Finals.
Next "Air"?: "That's what every guy wants to be who plays any sport," the NFL running back told reporters during the 2009 season. "They want to be the next Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or whoever you want to name." Shortly thereafter, then-Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Johnson "has the sweetest jumper since M.J." (Note: Fisher didn't really say that.)
Hot air: He set the all-time single-season yards from scrimmage record. He also has starred in some solid ad campaigns, including one for ESPN Fantasy Football. And he will never, ever fold in the NBA Finals. That's pretty close to Jordan. I mean, for a guy who doesn't play basketball.
Next "Air"?: The Chicago Tribune made the link back in 1997. Some do to this day. So let's take a look. Titles: Jordan 6, Kobe 5. All-Star Games: Jordan 14, Kobe 13. Number of times each hypnotized Spike Lee into abandoning his Knicks love: Jordan 1 (if the whole "Mars Blackmon" campaign counts as one), Kobe ("Doin' Work") 1.
Hot air: Even if the titles were even, the career numbers (32,292 points on 49.7-percent shooting in 1,072 games vs. 27,868/45.4/1,103) favor Jordan. And M.J. never, ever, would be caught on camera dressed like this.
Next "Air"?: Oh, who ever really thought he was Next? I mean, aside from Jordan's best teammate. Two weeks ago.
Hot air: What did Jason Segel say again? We'll go with him on this one.
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