[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]
On two layers to the best basketball player debate, and an unexpected twist.
In many ways, the debate over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time seems to come down to a very familiar refrain: championships vs. stats. That’s the same metric that has often been used to adjudicate another famous basketball debate (Russell vs. Chamberlain), as well as some of the more famous ones in football (Montana vs. Marino and Brady vs. Manning). It’s a particularly compelling sports debate because it extends the focus from just the two individual players in question to broader arguments about whether team victories or individual achievement are more effective measures of greatness—of course the ultimate goal in team sports is to win a title, but how much can any individual contribute to that, and how much should we penalize those whose teams just weren’t quite good enough? Plus, LeBron has made it to a ton more championship series than Jordan and just hasn’t quite won them all—if he had gotten those few extra bounces and won them all, would we even be having this debate? Are Jordan’s stats comparable enough that he would stay in the conversation regardless? And so on (and so on and so on…).
There’s another possible side to the greatest basketball player debate, though: the character and communal presence of each man. I wrote about Jordan’s relative lack of community engagement here, and about LeBron’s impressive activism here (which has only increased in recent years with his opening of a wonderful new school and his voting rights activism). Obviously activism isn’t the only measure of character, but in this case it does seem to line up pretty well with that side of the two men as well: Jordan was notoriously nasty and petty as a player, gave one of the most arrogant and vindictive Hall of Fame speeches ever, and has spent much of his retirement gambling like he’s in a Scorcese film; while LeBron has married his childhood sweetheart, given back to his community at every turn, and basically turned the other cheek to ridiculous levels of vitriol and hatred from fans almost everywhere other than his own cities. Obviously activism and character are separate from athletic performance—but once we introduce championships into the mix, we’ve already moved beyond the individual accomplishments of players in any case, so I see no reason not to think about whether other factors might contribute to how we measure overall greatness.
And once we start considering other such factors, the whole debate has the potential to take a surprising twist. After all, neither Jordan (#5) nor LeBron (currently #3) are at the top of the all-time NBA scoring list; that honor goes to the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And if we’re talking about social and cultural presence and impact, I don’t know that any professional athlete can compare with Kareem—from his early days in film to his ongoing career as a writer and novelist, and especially to his consistently thoughtful and impressive contributions to public debates, Abdul-Jabbar has left his imprint on American popular culture, politics, and society in numerous ways over the last five decades. That’s not enough to ensure all-time greatness of course, but again, Abdul-Jabbar is also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and was unquestionably one of the greatest players by any number of such measures. So at the very least, I’d say that his combination of on-the-court greatness, championship contributions, and social presence and activism puts Abdul-Jabbar on the very short list of all-time greats, and perhaps should make him, rather than MJ, LeBron’s fiercest competitor for the throne.
Last bball story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?