After winning yet another NBA championship, the conversations comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan have only grown louder and louder.
The people who would be most insightful in that regard would be the people who played alongside the greats and who were in the trenches with them. Those are the sources that could provide the best intel about the two legends because they saw firsthand how both of these guys moved and how they carried themselves on a daily basis.
Only four players in league history were teammates with both Jordan and James: Scott Williams, Larry Hughes, Jerry Stackhouse and Brendan Haywood. HoopsHype was able to connect with all four of them.
“I don’t think it would be fair to give a comparison on them,” Stackhouse, who only played seven games with James in 2010, told HoopsHype. “I played with LeBron at the prime of his career and I played with Michael in the last year of his career. I just think both are unbelievable players. They’re probably one and two in the history of the game. That’s where I’ll leave it.”
Williams, Hughes and Haywood all re-lived some of their fondest basketball memories, recounting the experiences they had while on the same rosters as both MJ and King James.
Please note this interview was very minorly edited for brevity and clarity.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR CONVERSATIONS LIKE WITH MJ?
Scott Williams: After he’d bust my ass in practice, he would say: “Hey, listen, Juanita is cooking spaghetti tonight. Come over for dinner!” We broke some bread and we would watch whatever TNT game may have been on TV that night or we would find a game. Those types of things, for a guy like me who lost his parents a few years before that in Chicago and didn’t know anybody, that was huge for me. It made me feel welcome and part of the squad. He had brotherly love for me. I don’t care what a coach tells you about X’s and O’s. Nothing goes as far as a guy like that showing you that kind of love. That made me want to play extra hard and get this dude where he was trying to go.
Larry Hughes: It was great. It’s not too many times you get to take a plane ride and go on trips and gamble with The Boss. That’s what it was. We were gambling with The Boss. We were doing shooting games at the practice arena from half court with The Boss. It was fun. We all competed. We all had a couple of dollars. We didn’t take it too far. You see him with the cigars. You see that stuff on video. I got to experience that. I can verify that that’s how that guy moves around. It was a fun experience for me.
Scott Williams: Playing cards on the plane, having me over and shooting pool, having garlic bread and spaghetti, maybe a beer or two. Tim Grover and some of his other buddies were over… being in that circle, you felt the true love. Here is a guy who is playing five or 10 blackjack hands with the rookie on a non-guaranteed contract making the league minimum. I felt part of the squad. That was a pretty cool experience. He could have been in the back with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. It was nice that he wanted to feel like he was part of the entire team. Those are the moments you take away from it. We had a camaraderie. We had a bond.
Brendan Haywood: Our relationship was cool just because I went to UNC. I was the Carolina guy so we had that bond going, that Carolina love. But at the same time, I understood the business that I was in. It was weird because MJ was also a front office executive at that time. He was still technically my boss and he was playing on the team. Even though he liked me, I still never got super close to him. That was my boss. But practices were just so competitive. He was always pushing the envelope, gain an edge. Our relationship was more like a teacher and a pupil. He was teaching at all times and I was just trying to take it all in. I wasn’t trying to befriend him but I knew there was so much I could learn from him. I saw his hard work and I saw his dedication. MJ would be there at 8 am even when practice didn’t start until 11 am. That work ethic was insane. I thought I was coming to the gym early. One time, the veterans didn’t have to be there that day. So I asked him why he was there. He said: “The better question is why did I beat you here?” Those were the types of things I learned from being on the same team as the greatest basketball player of all-time.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR CONVERSATIONS LIKE WITH LEBRON?
Brendan Haywood: It was great playing with LeBron because he is one of the best teammates ever. He really wants to have everybody included. He wants to have guys on the same page. He wants to do things off the court to get guys engaged with each other, whether it’s taking guys out to the movies or having a room in the hotel where everybody could down and watch TV, eat, play video games. We knew we couldn’t go out in the city but we were still able to get out of the room. He is just thoughtful like that. He is always thinking about how he can help his teammates and he is the best gift-giver ever. We had all the Beats by Dre headphones. If he had a commercial for it, we had like ten of those. If he did Samsung phones, we all had them. If the new LeBron shoes came out, everybody would get them. He is an incredible, thoughtful teammate. It made guys want to run through a wall for him. It made his teammates work even harder. I think he learned a lot of that from the Heat. Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley taught him how to include everybody but he took it to the next level.
Larry Hughes: We always talked about competition, never backing down and never allowing anyone to see that you are frustrated or not playing to the best of your abilities. We talked about keeping an even keel presence and making sure that your teammates know where you stand. In every situation, as we’ve seen his career play out, LeBron is the leader of the group. I wanted to make sure he knew that early. Like, dude, we’re going to follow you. You just have to make sure your body language and your communication matches up to your game and who you want to be. I think he was a good teammate. He has really enhanced everything that he was as a young kid. It’s coming out now as a veteran in the league.
Scott Williams: LeBron was great. I remember a conversation with him that I’m sure he wouldn’t remember. We weren’t playing particularly well. People were struggling a little bit. We practiced at the practice facility in our arena. It was just the two of us one day. We were riding up in the elevator. He had a dejected look on his face because of the way the season was going. I could tell he needed just a little something to get him through that moment. I told him: “LeBron, you keep doing what you’re doing. Eventually, they’re going to get the players in here around you that will support you and get you to your ultimate goal.” And he lifted his chin up, didn’t say a word and smiled. I could tell that light had flashed in his eyes. By the time we hit the court again, he was energized and ready to go. I’m sure that he will never remember that moment. [Laughs] But I’ll never forget it because as an older player, one of the reasons I was even in Cleveland was to try to fix the locker room. It had kind of a disjointed locker room. I had done that a few years before with Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway. That is one of the reasons I was even brought to Cleveland. I had retired. I was on a beach in Cabo. Then my agent called me and said Cleveland wanted to sign me. The word was out that I helped younger players like I did with Amare Stoudemire when he was a rookie.
Larry Hughes: We spoke about the fact that I played with MJ. But we spoke about many teammates. He was such a big fan of Iverson. He wanted to know everything about Allen. His curiosity about MJ was a little bit different at the time because he had a relationship with Michael so he did not have as many questions. But he was always asking about how AI was able to get his his job done at 6-foot. He also wanted to know what sort of person AI was in the locker room.
Scott Williams: One thing I noticed right away was his thirst for the game. On our way to and from cities, he would pick my brain about different players and ask about different guys that I’ve played with. That ranged from Jordan to Pippen to Dirk Nowitzki and Allen Iverson. The list goes on and on. He wanted to know what those superstars were doing. I remember him asking me questions about James Donaldson. I was surprised a player his age would even know who that was. It was pretty impressive, his extensive knowledge of not only the current players in the NBA but the bygone players as well. He wanted to know a lot of different things about a lot of different guys. What were their strengths? What did they work on? How did they approach the game of basketball?
WHAT WERE YOUR EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF MICHAEL JORDAN?
Brendan Haywood: It was a learning experience. You got to see up-close what made him who he was. He was like 40 years old. He didn’t have anything to prove. But he was still one of the hardest workers. I would watch him teach Bobby Simmons the footwork to score in the mid-post. Everything he did was calculated. Nothing was done by accident. He was reading your lead foot. He understood where to go and how to get you off balance and get to his pull-up jumper and how to get your arm off of him if you were trying to be physical. Watching him, you got to learn a lot. I was amazed. When you were a kid and watching MJ, you think: “Wow. He is really good.” But when you are an adult and you are watching him teach someone else, you see that every single thing that this guy does is calculated. He knows exactly what he is going to do because he has done it over and over again with repetition in practice.
Larry Hughes: For me, growing up, I played basketball because of MJ. When I got a chance to play with him, I watched all of the small things that you don’t get to see when you are a fan. How did he conduct himself with the media? What time did he go to treatment? I learned how consistent he was with the game-planning and understanding how to get the job done even at an older age. He may have lost a step but he was still effective.
For me, growing up, I played basketball because of MJ. When I got a chance to play with him, I watched all of the small things that you don’t get to see when you are a fan.
Scott Williams: One of the things that he liked to do was add aspects to his game. During my first two years in the league, he wanted to improve his low-post and back-to-basket game. We played a lot of 1-on-1 after practices. He would have someone throw the ball to him and he would catch it with a pivot foot on the block. He was working on trying to get around bigger, stronger players knowing that he would have no problem with someone his size. He had to learn to shoot with a hand in his face. I never beat him in one of those one-on-one sessions. Maybe there was one point where I could have had a game-winning basket and he called travel or something like that. [Laughs] He could have grabbed any one of us to do that with him. But he saw me, as an undrafted player and a thirst to get better. I thought it was really cool that he always grabbed me. Maybe it helped that I was a UNC guy as well.
Those types of things made me better. It got me to anticipate getting used to the speed of a faster player. I don’t think people realize how cat-quick he was. It almost left guys flat-footed or slow-footed. He just moved at a speed that was so much faster than anybody else. He was like Allen Iverson but six inches taller in the way that he could move that basketball and put it down one time so fast and then explode. It made people look at his cape from behind. Because of that, I was able to stay in front of my man one-on-one long enough for a double-team to arrive. It helped me defensively, which is what helped keep me around the league for fifteen years.
WHAT WERE YOUR EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF LEBRON?
Scott Williams: I always said I would have been the worst talent scout in the history of the NBA. I missed on a few of my teammates about how well they would go on to great success. But you didn’t have to be brilliant to see that LeBron was going to be a star. LeBron, you could tell early on. He had the raw talent and athletic ability. I got a front-row seat to his development and he was constantly adding new pieces. It was amazing, it was a thrill to watch.
Larry Hughes: As a young player, Bron had a good thought process. He was going to listen and apply the things that made the most sense to him. I can remember LeBron having conversations with a number of teammates on the plane and in the locker room, whether it be veteran guys or guys who were just joining the team. He kept a clean perspective on how everybody saw the game. That really stood out. He was going to be great. All of the physical tools were there. But his mind was above and beyond as well. It was not only how he thought about the game but how he thought about his teammates and how he wanted to understand where everybody was coming from.
Scott Williams: He was always very strong, that’s for sure [Laughs] I remember early days in training camp, I prided myself on my defensive play. I only knew one way to play. I was often playing opposite LeBron during practice. One time he tried to drive down the middle of the lane and I stepped in front, off of my guy, to take a charge. I was clearly in position. He ran into me with a force that I had not felt in quite some time. My first thought was that I hope I didn’t hurt this kid. My next thought was that I hope this kid didn’t hurt me. I was seeing those silver bullets dart across my vision. It stung pretty good. He popped right off the floor and he tried to back me down the other way.
Brendan Haywood: When I was in Dallas, LeBron was thinking about going to Miami. Before he went to the Heat, he was recruiting guys to come to Cleveland. I get a text from a number that I don’t know. It’s LeBron. He says: “What’s up, this is King James.” It was a little weird he called himself King James but I kept going. He told me he was trying to get guys to come to the Cavs. He said he knew that they could not give me what I was going to get in the market. But he wanted to know if I would be willing to take a pay cut to be a part of something special. I wouldn’t have taken a pay cut to play with the ’92 Bulls. Buddy, you’re making $100 million off the court! This is my last hurrah! I hadn’t made enough money in my career to take a pay cut and chase a championship. I’d played so many playoff series against him that I saw him as another player. If you play in the league, you look at guys a little differently. He was younger than I was. I looked at him like he was anybody else.
HOW DID MICHAEL JORDAN IMPACT WINNING FOR YOUR TEAM?
Scott Williams: The competitive part of MJ’s game was off the charts. I always considered myself a competitive person. I don’t think anybody that makes it to the professional level in any sport doesn’t have a degree of competitiveness and a feistiness in them. Nobody had that gear like Michael had that gear. It’s been talked about and written about. But during my rookie year, I played with MJ before he had a championship ring. I’ve never seen a guy so hellbent on every single thing that he did, from the moment that he woke up in the morning. I’m not even talking about when he was at the practice facility. I’m just talking about the whole aspect of his day and his night before he goes his eyes to go to sleep. All he could think about was getting an NBA championship. His intensity was off the charts. It was electric. You could sometimes feel the hair on your arms raise up with how intense things would get at moments in practice. I’m not talking about the games! I’m talking about practice! Our training camps were like playoff basketball. It was almost a sickness with this guy. I don’t think people can comprehend what it was like with MJ.
Brendan Haywood: Mike wanted to cut your heart out. He wanted you to fear him. Mike wanted, defensively and offensively, to dominate you. That’s where they are different. He wanted to talk trash to you. He wanted to let you know that you couldn’t guard him. Some of the days in practice, what MJ was saying to Byron Russell were just flat-out embarrassing. He would just go after this guy! It wasn’t like he didn’t like him. It’s just how he was. They used to compete in practice but Russell was just a gluten for punishment. He would talk trash to MJ every day. But you can’t win that battle. One day, MJ was cooking him and he pulled up and hit a game-winner. He said: “That’s why they call you the human highlight reel. Not because you have any highlights of your own but because you are in all of mine.” That’s GOAT trash talk. That shut it down.
MJ liked you if you were playing well. But he didn’t like you if you weren’t playing well. Look at Kwame Brown. We all grew up idolizing Michael. So when MJ was just going at him, it hurt him, because the criticism was coming from Jordan. He is 19 years old and Michael Jordan is going after him. It’s totally different. Kwame would have had a completely different career path if he was drafted by any other team. He needed to go somewhere and play and make mistakes but just continue to grow on the court.
Scott Williams: I saw him MJ go from no championships to three. He had mellowed some. [Laughs] Not to say that on game day he didn’t have that smoldering beast side of him. But it wasn’t that all-encompassing thing where every time you were around this cat it was like in October 1990. I’d be curious, for the guys who played with him in Washington, what he was like when he was in practices. I don’t know if it was anything like he was when I was in training camp my rookie year.
Larry Hughes: MJ played in the triangle offense. His attention to detail was understanding angles at a high level. If he didn’t operate the triangle, the job didn’t get done. Bron is similar in his ability to remember and break down the plays. When he is able to see those things, whether it is at a timeout or at halftime, he is able to rely on the information that he downloaded to execute what is needed to happen. It is different based on where they were in their careers when I played with them.
Brendan Haywood: We were a team that based our whole offense around a 40-year-old, aging superstar and we were trying to make the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. At the time, I was thinking that I was just out there hooping. But as I got older, that may have been one of the dumbest ways to ever build a team. You should be featuring your young guys, letting them play, take their knocks and lumps and letting them develop.
HOW DID LEBRON IMPACT WINNING?
Brendan Haywood: The thing that they most have in common is that they impact winning. But they go about in totally different ways. That is why it’s so unfair that LeBron is always compared to Mike. He doesn’t play like Mike! He wasn’t trying to fully dominate like Mike! LeBron wants to play an overall floor game. Bron is more like Magic Johnson but with next-level athleticism. That allows him to do incredible things. LeBron wants to get the 8, 9, 10 assists. He wants to get the rebounds. He wants to get his 26, 27 points. He isn’t just worried about scoring, though. He’s not trying to destroy you. He’s not worried about how many buckets he gets.
Scott Williams: This was an odd year. 2020 sucks. Let’s just get it straight. But with the disjointed season, it threw a lot of the teams off of their games. That’s the thing about LeBron and his leadership. When it did start back, he was able to get his team re-energized and re-focused. The players on the floor have the biggest impact on how hard a team is going to play every night. The coaches will draw up the plays but if the guys aren’t locked on, let’s just face it, some of the execution is sloppy. When you have a stud like that who’s got that championship pedigree, and you have a thirsty young player in Anthony Davis who has yet to wear that ring, you can really get everybody on the same page.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES YOU HAVE NOTICED WITH LEBRON?
Larry Hughes: When I played with Bron, he was just a young phenom coming in. He would come down the court and shoot off the screen and roll off one foot for a three-pointer from distance. It was just normal, everyday play for him. But if you’re trying to win championships and you’re trying to reach all of these heights, there is an understanding of how to play the game of basketball. He had all the ability. It was just a factor of what sort of system would LeBron excel in and what sort of direction he would get from a coaching staff. What were his teammates going to be to allow him to play championship basketball? I knew once LeBron got a little bit of structure and coaching, he was going to take off.
Scott Williams: He has added the ability to understand defensives and how they are going to play him. He has added an outside shot, of course. That came pretty quickly during his second year in the league and after. He has improved his overall understanding of how teams were going to play him, how to distribute the ball, his ball-handling skills, how to be a leader in the locker room. Sometimes, in the beginning, he would defer to other players who had been in the league. But he really had that maturation process of growing with his abilities into a leadership role, taking an extension of the coaching staff onto the floor, motivating guys, giving them a thirst to get better at practice. He held guys accountable, whether it was just locking in on game plans and preparation and dedication to offseason training and weightlifting.
Larry Hughes: For me, it’s not just basketball. It’s how he has matured as a man. He is able to speak up for himself. He is able to command a presence and really get the attention he deserves. When I was playing with him, he was a young guy. He had the opportunity to play as well as he did in Cleveland and make an adult decision to further his career and chase his goals and go to Miami. I saw the backlash that he got from that and how he was able to handle and how it has molded him into the person he is today. From my vantage point, that helped him understand that not everybody loved him but not everybody hated him. He had to be who he was and he had to go out and accomplish exactly what he was trying to accomplish. That’s what I’ve seen. He is a force on the court. He is also a force with his voice. I don’t think he would have gotten that if he hadn’t moved to Miami.
Scott Williams: I’ve also seen his activism off the court as well, like the I Promise School. It’s so important how he gives back to the community. His interest in social justice and voting rights are all just very impressive. He has really come into his own. All of that developed after I was out of Cleveland. The message that he sends to so many young people is huge. He is able to help them realize the power of their vote, too.
Brendan Haywood: Early in his career, LeBron wasn’t doing as much in the community. That is because youth is wasted on the young. When you’re young and you’re in the NBA, you’re focused on basketball. As you grow and you become wiser and you understand your responsibility to give back, you start to have an awakening. LeBron had it several years ago. But we never had any conversations about social justice. I didn’t know he was thinking about the I Promise School. As social justice has come to the forefront recently. I really spoke to him more about basketball. So it is incredible to see what he is doing for the community. When it comes to doing things for the community, which the Black community needs, most stars need to follow his lead. He is not afraid to be outspoken. He is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. He is not afraid to invest in the community. We need more people like LeBron to do those types of things. When you have that power and influence, people want to work with you. He is setting an example that I am hoping the younger guys will follow. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He has poured his heart and soul into giving back.
WHAT DO YOU SAY WHEN YOU ARE ASKED ABOUT COMPARISONS?
Brendan Haywood: One of the more interesting things is that I had the GOAT conversation with LeBron. We were on the plane and I told him: “I love you, brother, but I have to go with Mike.” I told him my reasons. I’ve had this conversation with him face-to-face. Six rings. Six MVPs. The guy has had two different three-peats and has never been to a Game 7. He was MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. I played with both of them and what LeBron has slowly but surely turned into from a confidence standpoint, MJ was that the first time he walked in the league. LeBron has gotten so much better at that. He has grown into a guy that close out games. Michael always had that ability. Michael always competed defensively. Both of those guys are incredible competitors. They do things differently. The biggest difference is that MJ is a cold-blooded killer. He is an assassin. LeBron is more respected and loved. He is loved by his teammates and he is respected by his opponents. So when we had the GOAT debate, LeBron was just kind of nodding his head. He didn’t really say much. Mike Miller and James Jones said some things on his behalf. I don’t think LeBron agreed with me. But at that point, he hadn’t beaten Golden State. He didn’t have the ring he just got with the Lakers.
Scott Williams: The thing that I hate the most is that comparisons are being drawn and I don’t care which way you stand on it. They are two absolutely phenomenal players and I hate when someone says that one is the GOAT and one isn’t. It’s almost like a knock on the one that you say is not the GOAT. I don’t really like to get into that game. I’ve been forced into that corner where I’ve had to make that choice a few times and I will say Michael is the greatest of all time, in my opinion, from being in the locker room with both of them. But I didn’t get LeBron at the top of his game. I got him when he was still developing. We’re not as close but I still consider LeBron a friend. As a basketball commentator and as a fan, obviously, I have followed LeBron. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate all that LeBron has done and overcome.
Larry Hughes: LeBron had the same attention to detail that MJ had. He was focused on the things that happened before him and how he could enhance the game that was played before him. He was a student of the game. He understands how basketball players play and how they get their job done. The opportunity to have played with both of those guys was amazing. You see similarities in how they pay attention to detail. It’s film. It’s muscle memory. They had the ability to make adjustments based on what happened.
Brendan Haywood: It’s a fun argument. But it’s so hard to compare different eras. The players are different. The game is different. It isn’t officiated the same way anymore. They had different roles. Some people say LeBron is a better 3-point shooter than Michael. They didn’t shoot like that in the 80s! Larry Bird was taking three 3-pointers per game. Luka takes nine. It’s fun to do. But if we’re being one hundred, it’s probably something that we shouldn’t do.
Scott Williams: The only thing that I will say that is probably a separation is that Michael has had a nastiness and ferocity to his game that LeBron may not possess. LeBron will try to beat you. He definitely wants to beat you. But MJ wants to beat you in a way where you will be embarrassed to go on a ride home with your spouse after the game. He wants everybody in the stands, your friends and your family and your fans, to know that you can’t come close to ever beating him. He wants you to think, when you go to sleep at night, you won’t even dream about beating him. He wants to tear your heart from your chest and show it to you and to everybody that is in the stands. He wants everyone to know when you walk out of the arena that he was the baddest man in a pair of basketball shoes that night. He did that every night! That was about the only difference between Michael and LeBron that made me think that his competitiveness and fuel were a little bit more than what LeBron had and that’s why MJ would never lose in the NBA Finals. He just wouldn’t let it happen. I don’t care who was wearing the other jerseys across from him. You knew that he was the ultimate weapon. It’s not a knock on LeBron. That’s just what separated Michael from everybody else including Magic, Bird, the greats of the greats.
Larry Hughes: MJ is the greatest basketball player of all-time, in my eyes. If we look at the Jumpman symbol, LeBron is right there on his shoe. That’s really how I look at it. He’s not too far behind. If I had to answer then I’d say MJ. But I’m never going to discredit what LeBron is doing. It’s just a different time. I give credit where it’s due.
Brendan Haywood: I think LeBron has been closing the gap on MJ slowly but surely every year. Coming back against the Warriors, that was the best regular-season team in NBA history yet LeBron still won. Then winning the title this year in the bubble. I still have Michael at one but now I have LeBron at two. For years, I had Kareem at two. Now after the title he just won, I’ve got LeBron. There’s still work to be done. Can he catch Michael? It’s a possibility, man. Because for some reason, Father Time isn’t knocking on his door as he knocks on everybody else’s.