Without real sports, the No. 1 sporting event of the last few months has been the 10-part Chicago Bulls series “The Last Dance.” Now that we’ve seen at least parts of it, the debate continues (in some people’s minds) over whether Lebron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time. And sure, I know many more don’t like Kobe Bryant — but you can’t ignore his numbers or championships either.
I think Jordan is the greatest, but I also see how those in older generations may pick Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. Many in a younger generation, like my son, would pick LeBron.
THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST:
I’m sure if Abdul-Jabbar, Russel, Robertson and Chamberlain had played during what we might call the “modern era” with the same strength and conditioning coaches, they would have been huge successes. But they in the modern era they would also be competing against a vastly expanded pool of competition, including international dynamos like current NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo who weren’t part of the equation in the 1960s. Limited competition meant players like Russell and Chamberlain didn’t have to develop their outside shots, as they would have needed to if playing in the 2020s.
Then there’s the American equation by itself. Consider that in 1962, when Robertson became the first player to average a triple double, the population of America was 186.5 million Americans. Today, it’s 330 million. So, if just looking at the numbers of potential American NBA players, the competition of the older schoolers was almost half of the competition that Jordan, LeBron and Kobe had to compete against.
When Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons as a Celtic there were 13 teams in the league. And, did he ever play against a 6’9” guard who was just one inch shorter than him? Nope!
THAT BRINGS US TO THIS, THE MODERN DAY ERA:
LeBron: He’s averaged 25.7 points per game in his career, 7.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists. He’s won 4 NBA championships alongside his hand-picked team that included Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. There’s no doubt that he is a freakishly talented 6’8” basketball player who can run the floor, play defense, block shots, rebound, take it to the rim or shoot from downtown, doing all the tangible things necessary to be considered the greatest of all time.
However, basketball is more than the tangible. And LeBron is not Michael Jordan.
Kobe came straight out of high school, before the “one and done” rule was in effect. He won 5 NBA Championships (along with Shaquille O’Neil for three of them). He averaged 25 points per game over his career, along with 5.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists.
A lot of people don’t like Kobe for various reasons, but they can’t deny his basketball talent. His stats weren’t as good as LeBron’s but he did win 5 titles.
However, he’s not Michael Jordan.
MJ: Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his carer. More importantly, he led his team to 3 NBA championships, took a foray into baseball for nearly two years (this didn’t work out well for the Bulls), came back and led them to 3 more titles. He brought it every night and was afraid of nobody.
Like LeBron needed D-Wade and Bosh in Miami, or Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Jordan needed Hamburg, AR native Scottie Pippen — a 6’7″ small forward all-timer who could control games in his own right. Other than Pip, he had Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr to rely on. And, with all due respect to them, they were all role players in Jordan’s world. They would all have been decent NBA Players in their own rights, but Jordan made them better.
Dennis Rodman (crazier than a $hit house rat) had already been a great player in Detroit. He contributed significantly as a hard-nosed rebounder who would take no prisoners. Rodman and the rest lived in Jordan’s vortex. They accepted it because he was the unquestioned leader of his teams in Chicago.
Even the best need a supporting cast.
HERE’S THE DEAL:
I saw Mike Jordan in Pine Bluff when Eddie Sutton’s Hogs played MJ’s Tar Heels. Razorback Charles Ballentine hit that contest’s game winner back in 1984. I didn’t even know who MJ was at the time. Still, it was clear that there was one guy out on the floor who was so much more physically gifted than anyone else in the arena it was stupid.
Mike Jordan became Michael Jordan with the help of ESPN going world wide and Nike pulling the contracts from several track athletes so they that they could pay him. In the aftermath of his starring role on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, Jordan transformed the sport into a global enterprise and now we see kids from all of the world getting recruited to play college basketball or getting drafted. ESPN had something to show to the world, and it was a human highlight reel played worldwide while he was wearing Nikes.
Yes, others have flown just as high and dunked just as impressively. Think Dominique Wilkins, Shawn Kemp, Vince Carter and Russell Westbrook.
Unlike those awesome dunkers, though, Jordan was a high flying winner of championships with rings to show for it.
If LeBron wants to be considered the greatest, he’s still got some work to do before he retires. Given LeBron assuming the GOAT status seems like a fantasy right now, it’s fitting that his next step will likely start in Disney World.