The Ghost of the GOAT: Why There Isn't a 'Next Michael Jordan' Anymore
HOWARD BECK (B/R Mag) - APRIL 26, 2017
KOBE BRYANT SWEARS HE SAW IT—Michael Jordan's ghost, not two months ago, right there on the floor of Madison Square Garden.
It took the form of DeMar DeRozan, working his mid-range magic against the Knicks. That fadeaway jumper from the elbow. The game-winner. The sly smirk. It was unmistakable—just like Mike—and then, swish, it was gone.
"It was a carbon copy of my stop-pivot-turn-fade, which I learned from Michael," Bryant tells B/R Mag. "I mean, it was just amazing to see that."
The truth can now be told: Yes, Kobe Bryant says, he did copy Jordan—"Damn near 100 percent of the technique," he says. "Damn near 100 percent"—and Bryant in turn became the living example for his young peers, a conduit from the NBA's greatest of all time to a new generation of stars.
Look closely, talk to enough people around the league—players in their 20s and 40s, coaches, recruiters, star-makers, flameouts, false prophets—and you'll find bits of MJ's DNA scattered everywhere:
"The closest thing to being as COMPETITIVE as Jordan today is probably a guy like Russell Westbrook. We don't see that type of demeanor on the court anymore." — Paul Pierce
"You take players now, what Kawhi Leonard's doing—same thing, the FOOTWORK that he's using. It's pretty cool." — Kobe Bryant
"Draymond has some of his EMOTIONAL DOMINANCE—the amount of trash talk and the brashness and the physical sort of manifestation of that confidence." — Steve Kerr
Look up, and you'll see Jordan's No. 23 beaming from the chest of LeBron James, a tribute from this era's defining star to the last.
Look down, and you'll see Jordan's silhouette in mid-flight—that unmistakable Jumpman logo—on the feet of Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, all members of the Jordan Brand team.
The spirit lingers, but it shrouds a greater truth: The Age of Jordan, at least as we knew it, is over. And that might be the best thing to happen to the NBA since, well, the Age of Jordan began.
For nearly three decades, NBA stars fought against an impossible ideal—MJ himself, the GOAT. If you jumped high (Jerry Stackhouse), dunked hard (Harold Miner), dropped 50 points (Tracy McGrady!) or did it all with a smile (Grant Hill), you got the label: "Next Michael Jordan."
"I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan," Vince Carter tells B/R Mag, recalling a mantra that could have been spoken by all of them. "You're not putting that on me."
But a new generation of stars, thanks to the rapid evolution of the game and the passage of time, has been allowed to blossom, unfettered by trite comparisons. So Russ Westbrook is just Russ Westbrook, Steph is just Steph, and the quest to reincarnate MJ is mercifully over.
"When you're looking at players out there now," Bryant tells B/R Mag, "you're saying, 'OK, there's not a next Michael Jordan.' It's not about the surface stuff. It's about: Are they approaching the game the way he did? … That is what it means to be a Michael Jordan—to be a Kobe. That is what we should be looking for."
Ask DeRozan who he wanted to be growing up in the '90s and 2000s in Compton, California, and the answer is easy: "I watched every single thing Kobe did, Jordan did, and tried to emulate it," he tells B/R Mag.
And though MJ's spirit may stir within him, ask DeRozan if there's any vestige of MJ left in today's players and, well: "I don't think so."
OVERHEARD AT THE UNITED CENTER at a recent Bulls game, where two fans were admiring a large photographic display:
Fan No. 1: "Oh, wow! Look at that guy! He's wearing the original Jordans!"
Fan No. 2: "Dude! That is Michael Jordan."
Relaying the story, former Jordan teammate-turned-Bulls commentator Bill Wennington chuckles and shakes his head: "It's like, OK, they know his sneakers, but they didn't know who he was."
Today, an entire generation knows Crying Jordan better than the actual Michael Jordan.
Even in NBA locker rooms, the institutional memory is quickly fading. Only 17 active players competed against the creaky, Wizards edition of Jordan, who sank his last field goal 14 years ago.
Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram was nine months old when Jordan clinched a sixth championship with his iconic jumper over Utah's Bryon Russell.
Steph Curry, now an elder statesman and an idol at age 29, was 10 years old.
"I didn't really appreciate what I was watching," Curry tells B/R Mag.
Curry's most vivid memories as a young fan were of Bryant, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, and of friends copying Bryant's fadeaway. ("I was actually a Steve Nash guy," Curry says.)
Yet Generation Steph is playing in a world MJ practically created. The sports-drink endorsements, the signature shoes, the branding, the very idea of becoming a brand—all of it came from the Jordan template. And his imprint is everywhere.
"He established the blueprint of a great player who transcended his sport, who had market appeal, commercial appeal," says Grant Hill. "Other than that, there really wasn't an athlete who did it on that level."
Jordan's rookie-year Bulls jersey outsells all other NBA throwbacks by a factor of three—more than LeBron's rookie jersey, more than Kobe's 2007 jersey (his first as No. 24), and more than any jersey in the NFL or Major League Baseball. "If you added up all of the NBA athletes together," says sports industry analyst Matt Powell, "it wouldn't equal Jordan in one year."
Indeed, MJ is everywhere and nowhere at once: Thirteen players wore No. 23 this season, but only three—James, Anthony Davis and Wes Matthews Jr.—have cited Jordan as the reason.
The hero-ball style that Jordan inspired may be as out of fashion as acid-washed denim in today's pace-and-space, three-point-obsessed NBA. And just three of the league's top 20 scorers this season play Jordan's once-glamorous position of shooting guard (DeRozan, Beal and CJ McCollum), while only two shooting guards made the All-Star Game (DeRozan and Klay Thompson) alongside eight point guards.
But today's stars are still chasing Jordan, who remains the career leader in postseason points, with 5,987 (313 points ahead of LeBron). And he remains the only player in the last 40 years to post a career average of 30 points a game while shooting close to 50 percent from the field.
Jordan was never fond of the comparisons and preferred not to revive them by commenting for this story, says David Falk, his longtime friend and former agent.
But, Falk adds: "I've said to many of my friends, 'God, if Michael played today, he'd probably average like 60.' And I really believe that."
EVERYONE WANTED TO BE MICHAEL JORDAN. But to be the next Michael Jordan was both a compliment and a burden, the ultimate aspiration and an unshakeable curse.
"I want to be me, man," Carter recalls of his sentiments as a springy 6'7" guard out of UNC in the late '90s. "I just don't want to put that pressure on myself. In no way, shape or form I'm thinking that I am him, will be him or could be him."
"As soon as I walked in, my first year, that's what you hear. For as cool as it may be, you don't want it. You're like, 'No, thank you.'"
In 2000, Carter won the Slam Dunk Contest and jumped over 7'2" center Frederic Weis at the Olympics. But his teams often faltered in the playoffs, and Jordan clones were simply not permitted to fail.
"There was a point where [critics said], 'He doesn't have the approach, his mentality is not like Michael Jordan,'" Carter recalls. "You're right. Because I'm not Michael Jordan. You're right. You're exactly right. And that was starting to get frustrating."
The Bulls' rivals wanted their own Jordan, for the thrills and the championship parades. Marketers wanted another Jordan, to keep selling shoes and sports drinks, even if stars played nothing like Mike.
Pundits fell into a hyperbolic trap, throwing around "the next Jordan" indiscriminately.
"No remorse at all," says commentator Dick Vitale, who reportedly slapped the "Baby Jordan" tag on Miner and stamped Stackhouse and Jerome Harmon—a flashy Louisville guard who lasted just one NBA season—as Jordan heirs.
In Vitale's recollection, he merely called players "Jordan-esque," not "next"—"and if I did it the other way, then I say I'm guilty," he tells B/R Mag, chuckling. "You get caught up in the emotion of a game, an emotion of a moment, crowd going wild, you see a spectacular play, so who are you going to identify him with? Michael Jordan."
The earliest "next Jordan" references arrived in 1983, mostly referring to small-town kids with big dreams. In 1984, the term was applied to Kevin Madden, a Virginia prep phenom who had committed to North Carolina.
The first "next Jordans" of any prominence appeared in 1986: Len Bias, a star at Maryland; Roy Marble, a freshman at Iowa; and Ron Harper, then starring at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. ("I can't be him," Harper would reply.) The last "next Jordan" was that other Ohio-born prodigy, dubbed "The Chosen One" in high school, but rarely celebrated on his own merits after becoming the NBA's top draft pick in 2003. ("I'm who I am," LeBron James said in 2012. "Hopefully the comparisons will be Who's the next LJ?—not MJ.")
A review of newspaper stories between 1990 and 2010 turned up more than 3,000 references to "Next Michael Jordan," "Next Jordan" or "Heir Jordan." They came from coaches and players, columnists and player reps, hype men and ad executives. "The agents, the announcers," says former Commissioner David Stern. "They were adding a little bit too much pressure to already-great players who shouldn't have had to deal with the shadow of Michael."
While some scoffed at the very idea of a next Jordan, Sonny Vaccaro eagerly sought them out. The former Nike executive, who was credited with signing Jordan, tells B/R Mag: "I believed in looking for the best 'next.' That was my life."
The young star who had the best chance to become "legendary," Vaccaro says, was Penny Hardaway—"one of the greatest players that I have ever seen. He had that other thing: charisma."
Hardaway's turn came in the 1997 playoffs, with the Orlando Magic, when he torched the Miami Heat for three straight games, going for 42, 41 and 33 points.
"The way he played in the last three games, we are looking at the next Michael Jordan," Magic coach Richie Adubato said at the time. "No question about it."
Hardaway has no recollection of that quote, or anything similar, and doesn't recall any discomfort at the comparisons.
"Michael set the bar really, really high," he tells B/R Mag. "I don't think it was anything negative."
Off the court, "Lil Penny" commercials gave Hardaway crossover appeal. But injuries curtailed his greatness and cut short his career in 2008.
Google searches for "the next Michael Jordan" had begun dropping by then, and, aside from a brief spike in early 2013 as James was picking up his second championship, the phrase has been a mere blip ever since. Though the label has lingered, no top prospect since James got saddled with the expectations. The lineage effectively ended with him.
As it turns out, a new generation was rising, ready to fill the void with their own brand of dominance and showmanship and mind-bending talent. It's just that they look and play nothing like Michael Jordan.
When Hardaway steps in the gym at Memphis East High School, where he now serves as head coach, he sees players dancing with the basketball as if they're Kyrie Irving.
"A lot of fancy ball-handling," Hardaway says. "Making multiple moves, counter moves, the different spins off the glass."
And he's had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.
"They're just not making as many as Steph," he says, chuckling. "They'll just say, 'I can really shoot them!' And I'll go, 'Yeah, well prove it to me.' If you prove it to me, then you have that right.'"
"They want to be Kyrie and Steph, for sure."
STEPH CURRY SEES THE VIDEOS flooding his social feeds. They come from proud parents and youth coaches and boastful 20-somethings. They want to share the shot—the one they hit from 30 feet, or from half court.
"Somebody will hit a deep three, and they'll tag me in it, saying, 'Such and such did his best Steph Curry impersonation,'" Curry tells B/R Mag. "Just random people from all over the country—all over the world."
For decades, basketball fans all wanted to be like Mike. Now everyone wants to shoot like Steph.
"I hear it a lot," Curry says. "It's pretty special."
Stackhouse sees it every day in Toronto. His players, members of the Raptors' D-League team, are doing Russell Westbrook impressions.
"And then they start doing the high-stepping like LeBron," Stackhouse tells B/R Mag. "And then they shoot the 'three to the temple,' like Carmelo Anthony."
"I think they take a little bit of all of them now, as opposed to it being like one guy," Stackhouse says. "Everybody wanted to be Jordan and stick their tongue out and fade away. They got a mix of all these guys now that they try to pattern their game after. I think it's pretty cool."
The template has been shattered into a thousand pieces and reassembled into an array of wondrous hybrids: box score-stuffing point guards (Westbrook, James Harden), small forwards with guard skills (James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo), giants who can pass and shoot (Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns).
The game has changed radically—more wide-open, more free-flowing, less grabbing on the perimeter, less banging in the post—and it no longer demands, or rewards, the repertoire of footwork and mid-range isolation artistry that made Jordan elite.
To be like Mike today would mean working the seams that are now scorned as "inefficient."
"His game was built around 15 feet—and now you're told that that's a bad place to be," says Jeff Van Gundy, who spent most of the 1990s agonizing over how to defend Jordan as a Knicks coach.
"And I wonder," Van Gundy continues, "if he was playing now, would someone try to convince him to move out [to the three-point line]—versus one-dribble pull-up, which is the most indefensible shot in the game? Or the turnaround in the post, which they say is not a great shot? I think that's one of the reasons why people aren't even trying to play like him anymore."
James, with three rings and four MVP trophies, is by far the dominant player of his generation. Yet there is no "next LeBron" debate, perhaps because there's a short supply of 6'8" kids with Adonis-like bodies and Magic-like passing vision. "They're not saying Antetokounmpo is the next LeBron," says Grant Hill, "but that was happening with Mike. I think it was bigger than basketball."
But the boyish Curry resonates, perhaps because his greatest skill is, simply, the fundamental element of the game:
Not everybody can dunk, but everybody can dribble, and everybody can shoot.
— STEPH CURRY
And so coaches everywhere are managing a new challenge: a millennial army of aspiring Stephs.
Ron Harper and Paul Pierce see it in their own kids. ("Now it's just pretty much chuck up a three-pointer and see how many you can make," Pierce laughs.)
And of course, there's LaVar Ball, who has trained his three sons to become virtual Curry clones.
"I think kids are saying, 'I want to be me—and I want no limits on what I can do,'" says Seth Berger, the former AND1 founder and head coach at the Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "And I think that's a very good thing. Kids should explore the reaches of their abilities."
When Cameron Reddish, one of the nation's top prospects, asks Berger if he can shoot when he comes across half court, the coach replies, "If you're open." He went 2-of-5 from 35 feet this season.
"If Cam is open at two steps behind the NBA [arc], that's a really good shot in my opinion," Berger says. "I want him to take that shot."
Shoot like Steph? Sure, he says, but please don't stop there.
"Hopefully, it inspires them to work on their game and not just try to go out and do the stuff that I do," Curry tells B/R Mag. "Because I want them to know how much time I put into it."
If he were asked the same question two decades ago, when his No. 23 jersey dotted every playground and his face dominated every commercial break, Michael Jordan might have said the same: Come fly with me, sure, but work on your reverse pivot first, kid.
The lesson of Jordan was ultimately not about elevation or artistry or competitive fire, but the fundamental work that came behind it all. You may not see obvious traces of Jordan in today's NBA, but the rest is there.
"It doesn't matter your style of play," Bryant says, his tone turning emphatic. "What matters is how you approach the game."
If Bryant came the closest to approximating Jordan—and nearly all of the two dozen people interviewed for this story says he did—it was not only because of a gift for athletic mimicry, but also a passion for the work itself, a devotion to detail that Jordan himself embodied.
"The thing that I think is the most important in the comparisons is not the output of the career, but the technique within that," Bryant says. "That's what's most important for the next generation of players, is to understand the technique. The footwork, the spacing, the timing, the basics. That's the most important thing.
"Forget about the endorsements, forget about the rings for a second, let's forget about ballet movements and all this other s--t. Let's forget about that. The technique is what's most important. Because that is what's actually timeless, that the next generation can study and carry on and then pass on to the one after that."
The ghost lingers, flittering in and out of view, his influence more subtle but irrefutable.
Chance the Rapper wins a Grammy and is recast in a Jordan-esque pose, hugging (at his request) the award as MJ once hugged his first championship trophy.
A brief, curiously constructed rallying cry—"The ceiling is the roof!"—instantly becomes another meme. Jordan speaks, the world reacts.
Occasionally, MJ will descend from the owner's suite in Charlotte and take a seat courtside—the ghost manifesting itself for all to see.
As for the next MJ, that search has all but ceased, even if the irresistible comparisons endure. A week ago, it was no less an authority than the man on the NBA logo himself, Jerry West, calling Westbrook "a reincarnation" of Jordan.
He is a reference point in every championship run and every barstool debate, still the impossible ideal. No one became the next Michael Jordan, because nobody could, and maybe no one ever needed to.
"I never thought there was one anyway," says Steve Kerr, Jordan's former teammate and Curry's coach. "That's what made him MJ. He was unique."
Yet even the most enduring symbol of Jordan's greatness—the one that cast an actual shadow—is out of sight these days. The Bulls recently moved their Michael Jordan statue, known as "The Spirit," from its perch outside the United Center, where it had stood for nearly 23 years, to an indoor atrium.
Like any wizened elder, the statue needed protection from the elements. To view it now, you have to seek it out.