Nick Wright, LeBron James, And The Hostility Of Sports Debate In 2018

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On the internet, there are no sacred cows. Bulls, however, are a different story. Any utterance, any criticism, any slight allusion to the idea anyone but Michael Jordan might have an argument for being the greatest basketball player ever is risky. NBA Twitter will come for you. They will have pitchforks. There will be no quarter.

In a world where we can’t agree on anything, the one thing we used to be able to come together and all believe was Jordan as the unassailable GOAT. But LeBron James changed that when he went to seven straight Finals, beat the greatest regular-season team ever after being down 3-1, and put together the most consistent 15-year run in NBA history.

You don’t have to sell Nick Wright on the idea LeBron has approached MJ. To Wright, host of FS1’s First Things First, James is already king. That’s a hill on which Wright is prepared to die, except to him, he’s not in any mortal danger.

“People can say I’m a man on an island, but when it’s all said and done that island is gonna need population control,” Wright says. “We’re gonna need some immigration policy. I’m not wrong … My grandkids are not going to believe that people argued with me about this.”

Fans across the world disagree and aren’t afraid to let Wright know about it. In fact, he says he doesn’t even have to talk about Jordan or LeBron to have people coming at him on Twitter for his take. In some ways, it’s the driving force behind his meteoric rise from radio host in Kansas City, to Houston, to becoming a regular guest on Colin Cowherd’s show, to where he is now, hosting his own morning show with Cris Carter and Jenna Wolfe.

Sports fans, NBA fans in particular, love to hate Wright for touching the third rail: questioning the legacy of Jordan.

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“I think I poke more holes in Michael Jordan’s resume than most people,” Wright says, “but that’s only because most people refuse to ever poke any holes. I’m not out here arguing Jordan is overrated.”

Sitting in his office in the Newscorp building in midtown Manhattan, Wright relays the story of having dinner with Shea Serrano, a New York Times bestselling author and writer at The Ringer. Serrano has become a sort of pied piper for NBA Twitter, his followers dubbed the “FOH Army.” To put it mildly, he has a very different experience on Twitter than Wright, who once showed Serrano some of the tweets he received that day before he had even began tweeting — things like memes of Wright performing “a sexual act” on the future Hall of Fame inductee or a photoshop of LeBron and his three children. Instead of his kids’ heads, though, it’s Wright, Cowherd, and Shannon Sharpe.

Even Wright’s wife can’t post a picture of their family to Instagram without facing the prospect of lewd comments from angry sports fans. This is how far the Jordan cape-wearers will go to respond to Wright’s take. Most agree LeBron is one of the best players ever, yet saying he’s No. 1 incites a visceral response on social media.

As Serrano points out, this isn’t unique to sports or the NBA on social media.

“I think each community (on Twitter) is pretty much the same, generally speaking,” Serrano posits. “They all have these unspoken rules of things you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do, or you’re allowed to say and not allowed to say … It’s not even ‘slander MJ,’ it’s like ‘maybe there’s a guy who is one percent better than him’ and they lose their minds.”

NBA Twitter just happens to have the luxury of all being online together at once. If the games start at 7 p.m., everyone is online by 7:20, where the commentary from someone like Wright can be dismissed en masse for worshiping the — pun very much intended — golden Cav.

Ironically, even critics will agree that sort of group experience online serves to prop up the argument for LeBron.

“We very much would have been like ‘Jordan choked in that moment’ if everyone had been watching the game,” Serrano says of the failed playoff run after MJ’s ill-fated foray into baseball. It seems Jordan fans conveniently forget losing to the Pistons three years in a row in the playoffs or the ball-hog criticisms from earlier in his career.

“That stuff gets erased from Jordan’s legacy too,” Serrano explains. “We never had someone bring that up on Twitter over and over and over.”

Chris Broussard often shares the debate table with Wright on First Things First, and though he believes Jordan belongs over LeBron, he says there’s no question social media and the constant discussions, dissections, and overreactions put more pressure on James than Jordan ever felt.

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“If LeBron misses a game-winner on a Tuesday night in Utah, it’s a huge story,” Broussard says. “Whereas we don’t remember, Jordan didn’t have to deal with that. We don’t remember the games that we didn’t see and the misses we didn’t see.”

Broussard quickly points out with a smile, “I have LeBron second. And I whipped Nick in that debate on his own show.”

Second. Last time I checked, that’s right behind first. So, to steal a Jordan-era pop culture reference, where’s the beef?

Seerat Sohi, a freelancer NBA writer (who’s no stranger to Dime), suggests it’s as simple as low-hanging fruit for those wanting to feel superior. There’s no risk in taking an argument most people believe to such an extreme conclusion.

“The type of people who go on Twitter and need to criticize and just argue for argument’s sake,” Sohi explains, “they’re usually looking for an argument they can’t be wrong about just to lord it over you and say I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m better than you because of it,” Sohi explains.

Hoop writer Josh Eberley sees this increased polarity and negativity constantly on Twitter. He regularly posts polls about Player A vs. Player B, and though the poll inevitably ends up being close, each side believes they’re so right as to render the question moot.

“It almost always ends up as ‘Wow you’re an idiot. How do you not know? Are you serious? So-and-so is way better’ and the poll will be at like 54/46 with 2,000 [votes],” Eberley says.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply be right. One has to be so right that anyone with a different opinion must not only be wrong, but dumb and feel bad for thinking it. Sohi has to deal with it simply by virtue of being a female sportswriter, being made to feel bad simply for daring to offer her take. That type of personal attack isn’t reserved for Twitter trolls and provocateurs online simply hoping to yell something awful loud enough to be heard. Wright’s mentions light up even from other journalists and members of the media.

“Do you know how many writers with verified checkmarks with 700 followers that talk cash sh*t to me?” Wright asks. “I don’t think you can be an acting student and get a verified checkmark.

Wright’s clearly irked at Twitter’s lax verification process for bloggers and journalists. Then he pulls up a pair of tweets from verified Twitter accounts, one a reply that reads, “Can you not masturbate in my mentions,” and a quote tweet asking, “How does LeBron taste?”

There’s a sort of underlying smile Wright flashes as he talks about the reaction of fans that suggests part of him relishes playing the villain, but this isn’t a take for take’s sake. He truly believes LeBron has a better resume than Jordan and in fact has real skin in the game. When Wright was in college, he bet a friend $12,000 LeBron and Amare Stoudemire would combine to win over 5.5 more titles than Yao Ming. But even if he loses the bet, he’s not going to back off his spot, no matter how ugly the reaction from fans.

“I don’t want to back down off something I truly believe just because it would be easier,” Wright says. “I’m sick of arguing with people about this. Everyone thinks I’m wrong. It’s easier for me to just say ‘Eh you guys are right.’ But if I really believe that, I’m not backing down off it.”

Argumentation is Wright’s livelihood. He recognizes there’s an expectation of him to tweet about certain things. He readily admits he had a string of tweets prepared for when James went over 30,000 points and feels the need to stay up to watch late NBA primetime games despite having to be up for a show that starts at 6:30 a.m. on the east coast.

The interaction between social media and traditional media also serves to drive the polarization of our sports culture. Lines between beat writer and opinions blurred, in part because the landscape’s most prominent talking heads — Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Chris Broussard, etc. — all started as beat writers and reporters.

Broussard admits his role in changing the sports media culture and outright states the potentially toxic ways in which debate shows altered the framework of the way we talk about sports.

“Since time immemorial people have debated sports and had their opinions,” Broussard says, “but one thing I’ve noticed is now, just your average person I might meet who knows I work in sports, or even just friends, their opinions are a lot stronger. They’re getting into that debate mode. They want to challenge you. I think that’s a direct correlation from the culture that’s been created by these debate shows.”

Much like Twitter, that type of ravenous 24/7 coverage didn’t exist 10 years ago, much less twenty and thirty years ago. Imagine Jerry West, who lost his first eight Finals appearances, being ripped apart by sports talk radio, Twitter, and debate shows. Bayless, it stands to reason, would have nicknamed the players whose greatness earned him the role as the literal logo of the league “Jerry South” rather than “Mr. Clutch.”

Broussard insists Bayless’ constant ragging on LeBron, starting early in James’ career, left a permanent stain, seeming almost prophetic when the Cavs lost to the Celtics in 2010. When James looked like a deer in headlights in 2011 against the Mavericks in the Finals, Bayless once again got to take a victory lap.

“Before Shannon Sharpe and Nick Wright and Colin,” Broussard says, “I was viewed as a pro-LeBron guy because I’d be on First Take with Skip and he’d be so anti-LeBron. I’d be defending LeBron because I thought his takes were crazy. When I’m on with Nick, I look anti-LeBron because I’m saying Michael Jordan is better, so I look anti-LeBron even though I’m pretty much pro-LeBron.”

This serves as an example of how fickle these arguments can be, and how silly it can all seem at times. The fact we label any journalist pro-LeBron or anti-Lebron is anathema to journalism traditionalists, but as the 24/7 sports news cycle evolved along with social media, seemingly every outlet now expects opinion from even its typically straight news reporters.

Reasonable people can disagree about the measure to which beat reporters and reporters were ever truly objective, but clearly the way in which we now discuss sports (thanks to all the information at our fingertips and the platforms on which they discussions take place) has taken an irrevocable turn. Yet these debate shows and talk radio and sports media outlets thrive, in large part, because LeBron James is the biggest athlete in the world.

“We’ve never seen somebody do what he’s doing: be the No. 1 player in the world at a thing and just be straight up sh*tting on the President,” Serrano says. “Like that’s never, ever happened.”

The very infrastructure that allows us to constantly criticize and tear down the greatest athlete in the world is sustained by his greatness on and off the court. That’s truer for Wright than perhaps anyone in the media. He’s the man whose love for LeBron, and our ability to hate him for it, helped make him famous. Each one made possible by the other.

Wright acknowledges someday he could be like many former players, refusing to acknowledge anyone’s greatness but his guys’, saying “I hope when the next guy comes along that I’m not as stubborn as a lot of the people I encounter.”

By then, it could be Wright taking the place of Bayless defending his corner while the next Nick Wright makes the case for the next LeBron James. Or perhaps Wright will simply be enjoying retirement on the beaches of LeBron Over MJ Island, population TBD.