How valid is a Sidney Crosby-Michael Jordan comparison?

Sidney Crosby Michael Jordan comparison The Last Dance
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During this sports-starved pandemic, “The Last Dance” inspired a flood of Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls-related takes. For those of us who cover other sports, it’s almost inevitable to make comparisons to Michael Jordan, and Sidney Crosby ranks as a fairly obvious choice.

Just because it’s inevitable, and will leave some people rolling their eyes, doesn’t mean it isn’t … well, a lot of fun.

But is the Crosby – Jordan comparison valid?

Current Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi made the comparison on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central. When asked by David Amber, Recchi cites Crosby’s work ethic. He also states that while Crosby is competitive, he isn’t quite as confrontational as the apparently often-abrasive Jordan was:

Recchi estimates that new teammates take as much as a month to get used to the Penguins’ rigorous practices. Crosby’s competitiveness is a big part of that.

[More: Crosby’s preferred playoff format.]

The basics of Jordan – Crosby

When people compare stars across sports and eras, they often paint with a broad brush. Let’s zoom out before we zoom in, then.

In making a Crosby – Jordan comparison, scale is important:

  • Crosby’s hockey famous, while Jordan is and was a global icon. Also, if people aren’t saying a leader in a field is the “Michael Jordan of ____,” then they’d be using Wayne Gretzky’s name instead of Crosby. That’s not totally Sid’s fault, but it’s true.
  • Crosby piled up plenty of individual accolades, for sure. Jordan just piled up a lot more. (Crosby’s injuries surely had something to do with that.)
  • Both won multiple titles, including repeat championships. Sure, Jordan has more rings (six to three), but both paired individual dominance with team dominance.
  • They both experienced some handshake drama during their careers.
  • Each player created iconic moments, including winning Olympic gold.

“The Golden Goal” is Crosby’s answer to some of Jordan’s best buzzer-beaters:

As unfair as it’s always felt to Scottie Pippen and Evgeni Malkin, you could also say each “Batman” had their “Robin.”

Recchi stated that Crosby isn’t as “confrontational” as Jordan. That might be true, again, in a sense of scale. Even by the demanding standards star players often set, it seems like MJ was on another level.

Naturally, Crosby also hasn’t faced the off-ice drama that hounded the hyper-famous Jordan. (If Crosby made a midnight casino run, would we even find out?)

But there’s no doubt that Crosby can be a downright nasty competitor, yapping at opponents. During his earlier seasons, it made him especially polarizing to many hockey fans.

And, honestly, we only know so much about Crosby. Sure, it seems like he’s wholesome — consider the cheeky hotel room shenanigans from that HBO 24/7 series — but we aren’t witnessing hours of unaired footage of Crosby, behind the scenes.

You don’t need a documentary to see that Crosby is driven in many of the same ways Jordan was, though.

Sneaky strength

Stylistically, you can point to some key differences between Crosby and Jordan. For one thing, Crosby leans toward playmaking, while Jordan’s isolation shooting changed the NBA. (Don’t get me wrong, Crosby can shoot and Jordan most definitely could pass. I’m mainly talking about “first instincts.”)

When you drill down into what made/makes them great, one interesting thing is how they could exert their will.

In watching footage of Crosby and Jordan over the years, it’s striking how abundantly clear how hard they work. To be clear, each star produced some of the flashiest highlights we’ve seen in their sports. Yet, connoisseurs can dig into the details of their games to find even more to appreciate.

Some Jordan clips are secondhand exhausting. Crosby’s ability to possess the puck and overwhelm opponents can often be a delirious sight.

This wasn’t even the sequence I was initially searching for, yet …

Back in late April, P.K. Subban told Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean that strength is what separates Crosby. Subban would know, too, given his multiple playoff battles with Crosby.

Jordan possessed the strength to overpower opponents, particularly as his career went on. Part of that came down to adding 15 lbs. of muscle to combat the Pistons’ “Jordan Rules.” The other part boils down to doing whatever it took to win.

Crosby and Jordan evolve their games

Michael Jordan eventually needed to accept that he couldn’t always be “Air Jordan.” So, as he got bulkier and older, Jordan morphed into a dominant post player.

Much has been made about Crosby improving his face-off skills over the years, and it’s worth mentioning again. But that’s just a part of how Crosby’s found different ways to be dominant during his career.

Despite a predilection for passing, Crosby’s been willing to be more of a sniper at times, too.

Another testament to their will and skill was how proficient both Jordan and Crosby became defensively. It’s unclear if Crosby will ever reach Jordan’s defensive level. Doc Rivers called Jordan “the best superstar defender in the history” of the NBA, after all.

That said, momentum has been building for a Crosby Selke Trophy nod for some time, especially last season.

Final thoughts

Crosby isn’t famous like Jordan. Any GOAT arguments involving Crosby might feel a bit bold considering Gretzky’s impact.

And while Crosby faced mid-career turmoil with his concussion issues, he didn’t face the drama, personal tragedy, and bizarre sojourns that Jordan experienced. In other words, don’t expect Crosby to chase Major League Baseball dreams anytime soon.

… Although:

Personally, I think it’s a fun exercise to explore similarities and differences. How do you feel about the Crosby – Jordan comparison? Is there a better NHL parallel for MJ?

More: PHT picks what could be a hockey documentary version of “The Last Dance.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.