Lebron James to replace M.J.?

The National Basketball Association is grasping at straws.

The league is halfway through the regular season and two of the biggest stories so far have been an underachieving defending champion and an 18-year-old phenom yet to play in a professional game.

With such a dearth of highlights, the NBA has fallen back on its tried-and-true marketing strategy: elevating Michael Jordan to God-like status and hoping the jerseys and merchandise fly off the shelves.

After Jordan’s retirement in 1998, commissioner David Stern and his cohorts searched like mad for a player to replace him. Tim Duncan didn’t work. Allen Iverson didn’t work. Shaq and Kobe could have worked, but they were too busy bickering. So Jordan returned in 2001 to give the league a two-year reprieve from the marketing nightmare.

Now we come to Jordan’s latest retirement party. Unfortunately, this time around, the tribute to His Airness just doesn’t seem as poignant. The hoopla surrounding his All Star Game appearance Sunday night seemed fabricated and over-the-top. It was certainly a classy move by Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and, ultimately, Vince Carter to offer their starting spots to Jordan. However, with the theme of the All Star Weekend being a throw-back to the 1970s, it almost felt like Iverson, McGrady and Carter were showing deference to a relic of a different era rather than a current superstar.

Yes, Michael Jordan is the best player in NBA history. Yes, he carried the league on his back for almost two decades. And yes, he single-handedly caused the globalization of the NBA. But right now, he is not the best in the league and players like rookie sensation Yao Ming are doing more for the sport’s international reputation.

The league already celebrated Jordan’s achievements during farewell tours one and two. His number was retired, his statue was erected, and his praises were sung by commentators, sportswriters, players and coaches alike. His championship-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998 marked the end of the Golden Age of Jordan and he left the game as a hero and legend.

Since joining the Washington Wizards’ roster, Jordan has added few honors to his list of achievements. (Does anyone actually care that his 20 points Sunday night made him the most prolific scorer in All Star Game history?)

Currently holding the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, the Wizards are still a mediocre team in a mediocre conference. And while Jordan still draws fans to arenas around the country, all his highlights are qualified as being reminiscent of his younger self.

The video montages, Mariah Carey’s serenade and player tributes at the All Star Game are the NBA’s last-ditch effort to capitalize on the Jordan legacy. Jordan’s 2001 return allowed the league to procrastinate for two years, but it still hasn’t found an answer to a Jordan-less NBA. The emphasis on Jordan’s retirement and Lebron James’ pending career suggest league officials may market James’ arrival as a passing of the torch. But if Jordan is the greatest in NBA history, how likely is it that a second player of his caliber would follow immediately upon his exit?

The NBA had best come up with a better strategy than simply finding a new star to be like Mike.

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