- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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Fortified by the most powerful marketing machine on earth, remarkable athletic talent, youth and a dazzling celebrity so outsized that 30-foot billboards featuring his likeness are commonplace, it sometimes appears that LeBron James can make things happen simply by talking.
He spoke earlier this month about changing his number from 23 to 6 -- an homage to Michael Jordan, he said -- and about how even that individual gesture is not enough to canonize Jordan properly. James said the league needs to retire the No. 23 in perpetuity -- the ultimate honor for Jordan -- as baseball did 12 years ago with Jackie Robinson's No. 42 and hockey did in 2000 with Wayne Gretzky's No. 99.
Phil Jackson, Jordan's old coach and a man who should know better, immediately followed in lockstep, telling The Associated Press that Jordan did as much for basketball as Gretzky did for hockey. Jackson added that the only potential drawback might be Magic Johnson and Larry Bird possibly having hurt feelings.
At best, James' suggestion is a well-meaning but ill-considered -- perhaps even unconsidered -- and forgivable lapse from a kid born, for goodness' sake, in the mid-1980s. For his history-challenged generation, the world began with Jordan. The world before MJ for them is nonexistent, the world after permanently altered.
At worst, however, it is a heinous example of how the king of the sunglasses-indoors, friend-of-Usher crowd has no historical perspective. LeBron's thinking is as morally empty and narcissistic as those Nike ads that pay him so much money. James is apparently so utterly clueless about the reasoning for baseball's mass-retiring of Robinson's number and the history of his own league that he doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed to imply that Jordan and Robinson exist in the same historical context.
And to this, we are all witnesses.
In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's integration of the major leagues, Leonard Coleman, then the president of the National League, devised the idea to retire Robinson's number. It was a bold statement to recognize the boldest unifying step this country had taken. The United States as a nation was not integrated until Robinson integrated it. The military was not yet integrated. Segregation was legal, not just in the South but in many parts of the North and West as well. In some places in the South, even city record books documenting births, deaths and marriages of African-Americans were kept separately.
It was common practice for department stores to refuse to allow blacks to try on clothes because store owners were convinced whites would not purchase a piece of clothing that a black person had previously worn.
"What Robinson did was take black people from the background and he put them in the foreground," the late Leonard Koppett, one of the best journalists of his era, told me years ago. "For white people, black people lived in the background, even in places like New York. You saw them. You walked past them. They were part of the wallpaper of your life. Jackie changed all that. From that day forward, when he came on the field, black people were present. Now you had to see them. You had to hear them. You had to pay attention to them. He did not integrate baseball. He integrated America."
To understand this, you have to have a world view that begins before 1984. You have to think about the impossible, about the things in life that generations who came before never thought they would see. About a time when even the most forward-thinking people in this country could not envision a world without slavery, about a time that survived for nearly 100 years after abolition when it appeared that segregation was going to remain a maddening, intractable given.
Most people, black and white, simply could not see a future beyond the separation, past their historical and persistent grievances, past the hate. Most of the country, especially African-Americans of a certain generation, could not envision an American president who was not white and male.
The Robinson challenge, given this environment, was not simply to prove he could play baseball at the major league level, but to prove the two races could coexist. Play nine innings together, take showers together, eat dinner, play cards and laugh together -- and ultimately serve side by side as Americans in the same units of the armed forces, which occurred a year after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. None of these simplicities -- they seem like simplicities now -- was a given in 1947.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were considered pioneers; but during the first years of integration, it was standard for the white players to shower first before the blacks were allowed to enter.
What Robinson did, in effect, gave the nation a new life even as it killed him. His journey broke him. His hair was snow white by the time he was in his 40s. He was a diabetic. He was legally blind before he died in 1972 at age 53.
This, and not his steals of home or winning the MVP in 1949, is why his number -- and no other -- is retired by Major League Baseball. And it's why no other number should be retired by any sport. This is why James looks so uninformed today. This is what happens when you practice your crossover more than you study your American history.
Neither Jordan nor Gretzky carries the same historical significance as Robinson does, and to discuss this issue solely in terms of athletic achievement is to warp the conversation. The name of the game here is history, the impact on history. Jordan sold, and still sells, a lot of sneakers, a lot of Gatorade and lot of underwear. What Jackie Robinson did, in one sense, is more impressive even than the election of Barack Obama. American society -- black, Latino, Asian, but especially white -- chose Obama to be president. Robinson was forced on a society that for the most part did not want him, either as a teammate or as a symbol of coming change.
These concepts are a little more important than Jordan's buzzer-beater over the Cavaliers.
With the increasing conformity of sports, where the spontaneity of a song in a given arena quickly becomes a canned, ubiquitous jock jam, it's easy to cheapen and make a gimmick of an important gesture such as retiring a number. I called Coleman, whose idea it was to retire Robinson's number in the first place, about this. Recognizing the political minefield, he declined comment, probably wisely.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman retired Wayne Gretzky's No. 99, it spoke of an odd, desperate opportunism, a way for a troubled league to honor its best player. More than Jordan in basketball, Gretzky is a historic figure in hockey, for the argument can be made that his 1988 trade to Los Angeles opened an entire new chapter in the history of the NHL: It helped bring the large-scale, warm-weather demographic to the game. Now, the league is in Miami, Dallas, Phoenix and Tampa in addition to L.A. and Atlanta.
But even the retiring of Gretzky's number indirectly undermined the Robinson tribute, for the Gretzky effect was on the economics of hockey rather than the social landscape. The NHL's new "Hockey is for everyone" ad campaign might be directly related to Gretzky making the sport ubiquitous, but Gretzky did not change American or Canadian society. He and Jordan are similar in that regard: They are the greatest practitioners of their sports, but hardly the most revolutionary. Gretzky might have played hockey better than anyone else, but he did not change how the game is played. In terms of historic significance, Bobby Orr, a rushing, tempo-changing defenseman, far outweighs Gretzky.
James apparently doesn't even understand his own sport's heritage. Jordan might have been basketball's greatest player; but, like Gretzky, he did not change the way his game is played. Wilt Chamberlain -- not Michael Jordan -- is the most dominant individual ever to play the game of basketball. Along with Bill Russell, Wilt revolutionized the sport. Rules were changed because of Chamberlain. Players were drafted differently because of Russell.
Perhaps we can call Jordan basketball's greatest champion because his teams had to play additional rounds in the playoffs to get to the titles, but Russell nearly doubled Jordan's championship total, 11 to six, and Russell's teams won eight in a row (1959-66). Jordan didn't even revolutionize the aerial game. Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving were responsible for that.
James advertises his ignorance even further when he says he wants to change his number to 6 -- the number worn by Russell and Erving -- without acknowledging that both players altered the history of the game in a more profound way than Jordan did. Outside of winning games, Jordan is known for his cosmetic contributions -- his sneakers, his long shorts, his shaved head -- and for being a Nike sycophant. Unlike Robinson, he was allergic to any and all forms of political courage.
We know James is part of the "Me" generation, for whom anything that occurred before last Thursday might as well be ancient history. But if he is going to speak, let him do so armed with respect. Respect comes with education and knowledge of the history of your surroundings. Instead of changing his number, perhaps LeBron should change his reading habits.
He might just learn something.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May 2010. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.
2hMichael C. Wright