Michael Jordan is an Icon. Michael Jordan was everything in the 1990’s and his impact on sports and sports culture was so great that teenagers in 2013 are still lining up 3 days in advance in front of Expressions and Footlocker, just for the privilege to plunk down $200 dollars for a pair of his “retro” sneakers. But, is “His Airness” the greatest basketball player of all time? I guess it depends on who you ask, it seems like people are almost scared to give an answer other than Michael Jordan. Sometimes it feels like an obligation to say, “Oh yea man Mike was the greatest ever.” If you utter any other name but Jordan you are struck down and gazed upon as if you have three heads and should immediately be put in a strait jacket. Before you can even rebut, people will scream, “but he has 6 rings”. Ok, that’s an astounding achievement and no one is trying to take away from his legacy, but Bill Russell has 11 rings, including 8 in a row and is 21-0 in game 7’s? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has 6 rings and, another 4 finals appearance. Then the crowd will say, “But he’s 6 for 6 in the finals though.” That’s another stellar feat, but should we penalize guys who lost in the finals, when MJ lost in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd rounds? Would you rather make it to the finals or fail in the semis? People actually hold it against LeBron James that he lost in the finals as a 22 year old in his 4th NBA season? Part of the problem in the sports discourse in this country is that people feel that you have to impugn other athletes in order to lift their favorite player up. It’s simply not necessary to knock someone else’s résumé if you feel like yours is of the highest standard.
Bill Russell, simply put is the greatest winner in the history of professional team sports. The man won 11 championships, including 8 in a row, and NEVER lost a game 7. Let that sink in for a moment. Russell was essentially, a 6-9 Center who dominated the game with athletic ability, timing and a superior basketball IQ. The man mastered the art of blocking shots and keeping the ball inbounds, as to make sure that his team procured the basketball. The man was a defensive wizard who led his team to 11 championships in his 13 seasons in the NBA, the definition of a winner who sacrificed his own desires in order to become the ultimate champion. Russell had career averages 15.1 points per game and 22.5 rebounds per game, his block numbers would be off the charts but the stat wasn’t kept during his era(1956-1969). Russell did all of this while playing in era where the external pressures of being a prominent black athlete were immense, dealing with unbridled racism in one of the most racist city’s in America(Boston), and the burden of sharing in the struggle for progress by African-American’s throughout the country. As the saying in those days went, “Start only 2 black players at home, 3 on the road, and 4 if you’re trailing in the 4th quarter.” Whenever you hear people talking about Bill Russell they are always talking about the “secret” and what does it all really mean? It means that Bill Russell developed that rare balance of being a great teammate on and off the court, knowing when he had to sacrifice his personal glory for the good of the team, and having the ability to know when it was time to takeover or make a few key plays to keep his teams head above water. Does all this make Bill Russell the greatest of all time? Not sure, but it put him in the discussion.
Lew Alcindor AKA Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has perhaps the greatest basketball Résumé of all time. 3 New York State High School Basketball Championships, 3 NCAA Basketball Championships(only 3 because freshman weren’t eligible to play), and 6 NBA Championships. Perhaps his greatest and least talked about achievement was the fact that his size, agility and ability forced the NCAA to ban the slam dunk! Imagine that, you’re so dominant that the league that you play in has to outlaw your go to move, what would you do? Well Kareem developed the most unstoppable weapon in the history of basketball, the Sky Hook, which was an un-blockable shot. Not only did Mr. Abdul-Jabbar win 3 straight NCAA championships, but his freshman team beat the varsity squad that ended up winning the NCAA championship. He averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game as a rookie, and followed that up by winning the MVP,NBA Finals MVP and the lone championship for the lowly Milwaukee Bucks franchise. Kareem won 6 NBA MVP awards but something that gets overlooked is the fact that he won the 1971 Finals MVP and the 1985 Finals MVP. It’s insane that he won finals MVP 14 years apart, and at the age of 37 he gave the Lakers 26 points, 9 rebound and 5 assists per game. The man nicknamed, “The surest 2 points in NBA History”, dominated the NBA with sophistication, elegance and had a quiet fire that burned deep within him that didn’t allow him to connect with the mainstream. He was a quiet leader who possessed extreme intelligence, which gave him the foresight to develop a move that would carry him in the second half of his career, and he also was one of the first athletes to emphasize extreme stretching as a key part of his daily routine and used yoga and karate as part of his workout regimen . It seems he was always being overshadowed by the outsized personalities of a smiling Magic Johnson or a smoldering Oscar Robertson. Jabbar is 3rd all-time in rebounds, 3rd all-time in blocks, but blocks weren’t tracked the first 4, and most athletic years of his career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points, grabbed 17,440 rebounds, blocked 3,189 shots, assisted on 5,660 baskets, stole the ball 1,160 times, and made first team All-NBA at the age of 39 in 1986. Think that deserves some consideration for being the greatest basketball player of all-time?
Do we have to talk about Michael Jordan’s numbers? It seems like they get brought up every 5 seconds on ESPN due to the careers of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Let’s talk about the intangibles that Jordan possessed, his absolute bloodlust to not only destroy his adversaries, but break their spirit like a whiffle ball bat over his knee. During his prime Jordan put the fear of God into his opponents, he was almost like the Predator, he might not be directly involved in the action but as a player you knew he was out there, waiting, watching, stalking, and lurking. Even the greatest of players in the 1990’s knew Jordan was coming for them, coming for their team, coming for that ultimate prize, the NBA championship. Oh, Magic Johnson, the player of the 1980s? Guess what it’s the 90’s now. Clyde Drexler, the second best shooting guard in the NBA during Jordan’s prime started getting comparisons to MJ before the 1992 finals. Not only did “his Airness” destroy him in the finals, but during practices for the Olympics that summer, Jordan abused him to the point where players and coaches had to pull him aside and ask him to stop. Charles Barkley was the 1993 MVP and everyone thought it was “his time” to win a championship, everyone except for Michael Jordan, who torched him to the tune of 41 points per game in those finals. The NBA is different now, it’s a new era, Penny and Shaq are set to dominate the NBA. Guess Mr. Jordan didn’t get the memo. Not only did the Bulls win 72 games on their way to the NBA championship, but they swept Shaq and Penny out of the playoffs unceremoniously. Oh, you want to give Karl Malone the MVP trophy even though my team won 69 games? Don’t worry, I’ll show you and him who the king truly is in the finals, pass the champagne please. Michael Jordan was supremely talented, but it was his indomitable will to put the work in when no one was watching that truly separated him from his contemporaries.
Who is the greatest basketball player of all time? Is it the ultimate winner Bill Russell? Is it the graceful yet serene 7-footer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or could it be the super competitor Michael Jeffrey Jordan? It’s so difficult to compare players because of positions and eras because the game changes athletically and stylistically. But, if you look at the “basketball résumé” of these great players it’s so hard to choose. If I were to say who the greatest basketball player of all-time is, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Just of the strength of his longevity, sheer numbers and his legendry body of work before coming into the league. His 38,387 points compared to Jordan’s 32,292 points is a wide margin, even though it’s not strictly about numbers. Kareem has 6 rings, Michael has 6 rings and Russell has 11. I give Kareem and MJ the nod over Russell because of their numbers and career accolades. I feel that a lot of times we get caught up in the marketing of the NBA and I feel that Michael Jordan’s marketing and the way he was covered by the media has a lot to do with why he is lionized as the greatest player of all-time. I also think that Kareem’s intelligence, the era in which he played, the lack of popularity of the NBA during the 1970’s(even the 1980 NBA Finals was shown on a “tape delay” after the 11 O’clock news), and the fact that he was a black Muslim all played a very large part as to why he isn’t as revered as other NBA legends. Kareem has 10 NBA finals appearances, which factored in with the numbers and accolades gives Kareem the slight edge of MJ. You cannot go wrong with any choice, but Kareem reigns supreme.