Drawing lines: Ambition vs. delusion (feat. Jordan Crawford!)

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In the slim chance that you hadn’t heard, Jordan Crawford, per Michael Lee of the Washington Post, said one of those things NBA players just aren’t supposed to say:

“I don’t tell nobody, but I feel like I can be better than Michael Jordan,” Crawford said, without the slightest hint of sarcasm. “When I’m done playing, I don’t want people to say, Michael Jordan is the best player. I want that to be me. That’s how I am. That’s how I was built.”

Um, what? You realize people will look at you sideways and think you’re crazy for saying that, right?

“Yeah, I know that, I definitely know that. But I’m not settling for anything less,” Crawford said. “I feel like I’m better than him, anyway. My mom is going to say I’m better than him.”

Heresy against His Airness isn’t very well tolerated in the NBA realm, as evidenced by the fact that even hinting that the greatest player in the game today had a chance at surpassing Jordan earned Scottie Pippen a public roasting. Jordan the owner, Jordan the executive, and even Jordan the person are fair game, but to invoke his name in basketball discussions as anything but the player absolute is perceived as the highest offense against the game. Even treating his level as attainable is blasphemous; Jordan is up on his pedestal, and the basketball faithful work tirelessly to ensure his comfort and stability.

Crawford crossed that line, and given his rookie performance, that was a pretty silly decision to make. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports contextualized Crawford’s comment with comparison (and contrast) to musicians invoking The Beatles; self-analogizing with either great is met with much guffawing, and rightfully so. But what really drives Dwyer’s point home is the distinction between the ridiculousness of Crawford’s claim and the motivation for the claim itself:

Crawford? He probably doesn’t share as humble a perspective, but what do you want the kid to say? Do you prefer he doesn’t gun for the top, on record? Do we not want his mother to think of him as the greatest thing to hit the hardwood since, well, Him?

Anyone who takes pot shots at Crawford today is just having fun with the guy, and that’s more than fine. Actually, that’s necessary. I mean, better than Jordan?

Beyond that, though? Dream big, Jordan Crawford. And let the history fall where it may.

That’s what struck me about Crawford’s quote: after being given a chance to explain, he clarifies feeling like he can better than Jordan as a want to be better than Jordan. When he’s done playing, he doesn’t want people to say that Michael Jordan is the best player. He wants that to be him. That’s how he is. That’s how he was built.

That quote is particularly engrossing because of the name invoked, but really, was Crawford’s claim all that different from John Wall saying he wants to be the best point guard ever? Wall’s goal is more sensible, sure, but would we react differently if his ambition was manifest in him saying he wanted to be better than Magic Johnson,John Stockton, or any number of historically great point guards? Talented players have taken aim for “the best to ever play the game,” (or the best to ever play their given position) publicly before, but only when such lofty goals include specific players does the internet kerfuffle begin. What is it that we think those words — “best to ever play the game,” — mean, and why do they seem to mean less when Jordan isn’t denoted specifically?

There’s obviously a difference between Crawford targeting greatness and Wall doing the same, but is that the source of the (deserved) response snark aimed at Crawford, or are we picking nits over rhetoric?