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While there’s room for some debate, most basketball fans will acknowledge that Michael Jordan is the GOAT. Stephen A. Smith doesn’t dispute that reality. But, as you might expect, the ESPN talking head isn’t content to let sleeping dogs lie. There’s always a bold statement or hot take to be found; in this case, he managed to produce an all-timer.

On a recent episode of First Take, the conversation drifted from Steph Curry’s role in shaping modern basketball to how His Airness changed the game. In Stephen A.’s mind, Jordan actually played a role in making the NBA worse.

Yes, you read that correctly. Let’s unpack those claims.

Stephen A. Smith blames Michael Jordan for basketball becoming more individualized and star-driven

At this point in time, there’s nothing groundbreaking about arguing that Michael Jordan played a massive role in shaping the modern version of basketball. While most NBA fans will focus on the positives, Stephen A. Smith decided to look at the other side of the equation.

“Here’s the deal. My brother, the guy I love so much, that I believe is the greatest player to have ever played, Michael Jordan, is responsible, as much as anybody, for changing the game for the worse,” Smith explained. “Stay with me on this. This is throwing no shade on Michael Jordan, of course. He’s the greatest ever, in my estimation. Number one, alright? But he was so phenomenal that the NBA marketed the individual, the audience gravitated toward the individual, and the game became a bit more individualized. Because people wanted to be like Mike.”

Stephen A. then took things a bit further back into NBA history to prove his point.

“Before Mike, you had … Bird and Magic,” he continued. “But what was Bird and Magic? As great as a shooter as Bird was, as Mr. Clutch as he was, OK, Bird could pass, Bird could rebound. Bird had McHale, he had Parish, he had Dennis Johnson, he had Gerald Henderson, he had a whole bunch, Danny Ainge and others. They had a team, alright? Blue-collar but a team. What was Magic? Magic was Showtime. As phenomenal as Magic was, what was his number one attribute? Passing. … What I’m saying is you were thinking team until Jordan elevated it to another level. And from Jordan, then you had the Kobes, the Vince Carters, and others that came along thereafter.”

Jordan changed the game, but it’s probably a bit simplistic to position him as the origin point of individual stardom

While Stephen A. Smith isn’t exactly known for being subtle, he does make some valid points within his larger framework. We do know how much of an impact Michael Jordan had on the next generation of NBA talent. Would Kobe Bryant still have made it to the NBA without watching His Airness? Probably, but it’s fair to wonder if he would have had the same Mamba Mentality.

With that being said, though, it does seem a bit reductionist to tie all individualization to MJ.

First, let’s look at things through a broader scope. Individual players have been stealing the spotlight in a variety of sports for as long as the games have been played. While there’s debate over who the NFL’s first true superstar was, many give that honor to Red Grange. He played in the 1920s and, while he was part of a collective team, made plenty of individual headlines.

Pick any other sport, even if it transcends national boundaries. George Best became an individual icon during his time with Manchester United in the 1960s. Again, he played alongside some incredible teammates, but Best was the larger-than-life personality who loomed large in popular culture. Circling back to basketball, guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Dr. J certainly stood tall above the crowd and, to use modern parlance, were brands in their own right.


Charles Barkley Believes Michael Jordan Is the GOAT for 2 Reasons, and They Have Nothing to Do With His On-Court Resume

That brings us back to Smith’s use of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. While it’s easy to see what he was getting at — those two men were stars who shone within collective units — the example doesn’t exactly hold up.

First off, the mere fact that he’s able to pull Bird and Magic out of the group proves that they did transcend the collective. It’s also worth noting that an element of their success was the carried-over NCAA rivalry; while the Lakers-Celtics history obviously factored in, there was certainly an individual element at play.

Beyond that, Jordan did have some big-name players taking the court with him. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman might not be in the same category as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, but they weren’t slouches either. There was even a famous Chicago mural that didn’t just depict His Airness, but also featured the Worm’s ever-changing hair. If that’s not a sign that MJ was part of an iconic team, nothing else is.

On the whole, it’s probably a bit much to tie modern individualism to Michael Jordan. As humans, we love the concept of a celebrity; someone would have eventually taken that mantle and ran with it.

Was MJ incredibly influential and shaped the next generation of talent? Of course. But being the sole origin point of the star NBA athlete is probably too much for one man to accomplish, even if he happens to be the GOAT.

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