Once upon a time, Michael Jordan had a reputation.
As was chronicled in “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s must-watch 10-episode series about the greatest basketball player of all time, for the first six-plus years of his NBA career Jordan was known mostly as a me-first scoring machine, the kind of superstar who collected every individual accolade possible, but whose team won never won its last game of the season.
Does that sound familiar, baseball fans? Any superstar’s name swim up and hook ya?
In his first seven regular seasons, MJ averaged 32.6 points per game, won two NBA MVP awards — three Sporting News MVP awards — five scoring titles, the Rookie of the Year, an All-Star Game MVP award and a Defensive Player of the Year award. He did things in those years that hardly seemed possible for a normal human.
But his seasons always ended in disappointment. His first three years in the league, Jordan’s Bulls were knocked out in the first round. His fourth year, the Bulls made the Eastern Conference semifinals. His fifth and sixth years, the Eastern Conference finals.
Every year, though, ended without a championship. His legacy as an NBA superstar was one big “Yeah, but …” heading into the 1990-91 Eastern Conference finals.
“Up until that point, it was the stigma that Michael Jordan, all he does is win scoring titles, he never wins championships,” MJ said in Episode 4 of “The Last Dance,” which aired Sunday night. “That was my chance to get in the category of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.”
As you know, that was the year Jordan’s Bulls finally muscled past the Pistons in the conference finals, then blitzed past the Lakers in the Finals to claim the championship.
It was the first of six titles Jordan’s Bulls would win, and it seems silly now, looking back, that anyone ever could have possibly even remotely thought that Jordan didn’t have what it took to lead a team to a title. He was clearly the best player in his sport, fueled by natural talent and driven by an inner motivation to stop at nothing to succeed.
It wasn’t that he was incapable of winning a title, just that he hadn’t yet. And remember what the hoops GOAT said when producers asked him about it?
“(It) ate at me,” he said, his face saying more than his words. “It did. It did.”
Jordan didn’t win his first title until he was 28 years old. He won six from 28 to 35, even with taking a year off in the middle to play baseball.
Mike Trout is 28 years old. He’s the best player in his sport. He’s won three AL MVP awards, and his “worst” career finish in the MVP voting is fourth place, and that was the year he only played 114 games. He’s done things in his first eight full seasons that hardly seem possible for a normal human.
Like Michael Jordan at 28, Mike Trout’s final legacy has yet to be written.
Now, don’t get ahead of me. I’m not saying that Trout’s Angels are primed to win six World Series titles in the next eight years. Basketball’s a much different sport than baseball, obviously. One player can make a much larger impact in a game on the basketball court than any baseball player can make on a daily bases on the diamond. Jordan could touch the basketball on every possession, but Trout can only make an offensive impact every nine batters.
Here’s what I am saying: Attempts to write Mike Trout’s lasting legacy at Age 28 are foolish.
Like Jordan, Trout is going to need more help from his teammates. On the basketball court, Jordan could lift his team into the playoffs — it helps that more teams make the NBA playoffs than the MLB postseason — but until his teammates stepped up their game, Jordan’s legacy wasn’t complete. At some point, Trout is going to need some type of consistent excellence from the pitchers on his staff — consistent health from the hurlers would be a nice first step — if the Angels are going to get into and win regularly in October.
And, yes, Trout’s first October wasn’t great. He went 1-for-12 with a home run as the Angels were swept by the Royals. But he was only 23 years old. His legacy wasn’t fully written yet then, just like it still isn’t written at 28.
Just ask MJ. “At last,” he said, thinking back on that first title, “I fit somewhere in the category of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.”
Just because Trout doesn’t yet have the October pedigree of Derek Jeter, Buster Posey or David Ortiz doesn’t mean he won’t when ESPN finally airs its 10-part documentary on him in 2049.