It's been 12 years since Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls, and seven years since he suited up for the Washington Wizards. But the six-time champion and consensus greatest player of all time is as much the face of the NBA today as he was when he retired in 2003. Even now, in 2010, the NBA is Jordan's league.
How else can you explain Jordan's appearance on the cover of NBA 2K11? The NBA is coming off its highest-rated finals series in a dozen years, and is about to begin one the most profitable seasons in its existence, a season that will see a superpower in Miami, a potential dynasty in L.A., a competitor in Boston and resurgent teams in Chicago, New York, and maybe even the Clippers. And yet with all that, 2K Sports is trotting out a man who last played in the league when LeBron James was in high school, instead of LeBron James, whose mere presence in Miami has over 150 media members camped in front of the Heat's facilities every single day.
That's because even though LeBron James may be 95% of what Michael Jordan was as a player, he's about 5% of what he was as a presence, spokesman and celebrity. Jordan was a once-in-lifetime superstar, the type of player that can lift his sport to unforeseen levels of attention and popularity, the type of player that Wayne Gretzky was for hockey, Mike Tyson was for boxing, and Tiger Woods is for golf (or at least was before the scandal). And with having that type of player comes the void afterward when said player retires, and the sport desperately tries to reel in casual fans by promising them the "next" Gretzky, or the next Tyson, or the next Pele, or the next Secretariat.
Often times, a sport's strength can be determined by how often it has to dip into the past to advertise in the present. Hockey hasn't been the same since losing Gretzky, and neither for that matter has boxing or horse-racing. As popular as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are, they don't move the dial like "The Great One" did, which is why as recently as 2005, 989 Sports was producing a "Gretzky NHL" series of video games. Boxing, meanwhile, is so down that every video game based on the sport is guaranteed to include vintage fighters like Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier. Baseball is somewhat of an exception, since its already so ingrained with its past that ads featuring Ruth and Gehrig aren't common. But even with baseball, you'd never see Willie Mays or Hank Aaron on the cover -- they may be idols, but by no means are they more relevant to fans than active players like Joe Mauer or Derek Jeter.
Of course, video game covers are hardly representatives of their respective sports, though they do offer insight into how prevalent a sport is. Take for instance the NFL, which is more popular than its ever been. Four different networks have billion-dollar contracts with ithem and the latest edition of the Super Bowl wasn't just the most watched sports event of all time, but the most-watched event in American television history. The NFL doesn't rely on stars to maintain its popularity; when Brett Favre does eventually retire, the league will keep moving right along, as it will when Tom Brady and Payton Manning retire. They don't need to name-drop Joe Montana and John Elway in order to get viewers, which is precisely why you'll never see a Madden cover featuring a long-retired player like Elway in place of a Brady or Manning or Brees.
The NBA isn't quite there yet. The league is strong enough to stand on its own, but it still lacks an identity. Things may change if the Miami Heat become a powerhouse, but at the moment, the NBA is more a league that used to have Michael Jordan than a league that has LeBron James. James, for all his statistics, has had a microscopic impact on the league's standing compared to Jordan. 150 media members is nice, until you compare it to the 800 media members who were on-site to cover Jordan's second retirement in 1999. Michael Jordan's first game back from retirement in 1995 garnered 35 million viewers; James has yet to play a finals, conference finals or semifinals game that drew even a third of that total. Jordan's last finals appearance was the highest-rated series in league history, culminating in a climactic Game 6 that drew a record 72 million viewers; in James' first and as of yet only finals appearance, ABC drew the lowest ratings in finals history for the four-game sweep of his Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2009, James' Q-score -- a measure of public likability -- was 31; Jordan's was the highest of any athlete: a 50.
I could go on and on and on, but it's hardly fair to compare King James to His Airness, who after all was the creme de la creme of once-in-a-lifetime, all-encompassing superstars. But that doesn't mean that James is doomed to live in No. 23's shadow forever; the 2010-11 season could be his coronation as the preeminent face of the NBA, though that's predicated on the assumption that he'll win a championship in Miami. LeBron is the only player who can lift the NBA into the next era, one that won't require ABC to use Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in advertisements for Lakers-Celtics games -- one that won't require Michael Jordan's fifteen year-old photograph to be used in order to sell video games. And if LeBron James doesn't meet expectations, then the NBA will remain as it is now: a sports league whose most visible asset is the 47-year-old owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.