Searching for greatness… and finding dingers, dopes, and a guy named Webster.
Only time, championships, and Miami Karma will tell whether LeBron James could be the NBA’s “second coming.” But is LeBron even the greatest player right now?
While the Miami Heat warms up to play team villain during 41 coming road games, the NBA itself is suffering from a confused brand of sports schizophrenia: although LeBron James is perhaps the league’s best player, Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s reigning greatest player.
Greatness is defined by legacies, not stat sheets. The Webster’s Dictionary definition suggests words like eminent, grand, or “markedly superior.” But sports legacies need more. If LeBron’s talent could be compared to any particular past player, it might be Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest among a select few like Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Shaq in his prime, and today’s Kobe Bryant—all but Oscar garnering multiple rings. Oscar “The Big-O” Robertson was strong and had size, a powerful scoring machine guard/forward much like LeBron—and he almost never won the title. Robertson did finally win one ring in 1971, but only after 10 years in the league when he was traded to Milwaukee and paired with the imposing young Lew Alcindor (a/k/a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Is LeBron the best basketball player of his era? He probably is. He can shoot the long ball under pressure, drive, dish, rebound, and score. He combines power, speed, skill, and finesse perhaps better than any other active player, including Kobe Bryant—especially the power part. Greatness, though, requires more: championships. Rings mean the player is not only good, but he makes the players around him better, just as Jordan did. But what if the players around him are already better? This is the trap LeBron has set for himself in Miami.
Can LeBron be the “next” Michael? Unlikely—but who, in fact, was the first Michael Jordan? To be the “greatest,” an athlete has to be so good, so different, so special that the essence of his particular sport, and to some degree maybe even the entire sporting world itself, is forever changed.
By today’s standards, the “first” Michael Jordan was probably Babe Ruth who transformed baseball from a Punch-and-Judy small ball game to a home run extravaganza. The last American League home run leader before Ruth was the inimitable Wally Pipp who “crushed” 9 in 1917. Then Ruth, a good hitting pitcher, started swinging from the heels, turning on the ball like a modern free swinger, slamming 29 in 1919, then 54 and 59, eventually swatting 60 near-mythical long balls during the Murderers’ Row year of 1927 when he achieved the ultimate test of greatness—he became an adjective. “Ruthian” is still a term often used to describe the greatest of sports accomplishments.
Muhammad Ali took sports greatness to new levels. Ali was a true outlier who transformed the sport when he introduced a lethal combination of speed and power to the heavyweight ranks and immediately danced, slashed, and jabbed his way to the title in 1964 at age 22. At that time only one heavyweight had ever won the universal championship belt twice (Floyd Patterson), but Ali proceeded to win it not just twice, but three times—the only man to ever do so, and in the process Ali became the ultimate sports adjective: The Greatest.
A few years before Ali came the behemoth Wilt Chamberlain, who once scored 100 points in an NBA game, reinvented basketball as a big man’s game, after which the NBA compulsively pursued the next Chamberlain, which it found when Lew Alcindor came out of UCLA to become—in every sense of the word—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Michael Jordan is in a class by himself; he changed basketball both on the court and off, made hundreds of millions of dollars, turned a fledging shoe company into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut, redefined sports marketing and, by the way, won six NBA titles, could have won more, and then became part of the NBA lexicon where unbelievable feats are often called “Jordan-like.” Consider also Muhammad Ali, who may have done even more: he defied the U.S. Government during the Vietnam days of rage, lost his title but won his subsequent draft dodging case, put international sports on the map with his dramatic championship bout in Zaire, Africa, and gave pride, hope and the courage of defiance to an entire generation of African-Americans if not black peoples worldwide. He risked it all for something that is foreign to many of today’s athletes, called principle, and then clawed it all back, becoming a political activist and genuine world figure, not just a world-class athlete.
The competitive drive of Jordan and Ali was unmatched in professional sports. Ali even stared death in the eye, for when the aging Muhammad Ali took on the imposing champion George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 (where he unveiled his rope-a-dope strategy to lure Foreman into exhaustion), conventional wisdom was not just that Ali would lose, but there was widespread concern that Ali might not escape with his life. Ali would rather die than quit. But did LeBron “quit” on Cleveland? Or did he simply follow his dream, and prerogative, as an NBA free agent?
If “being Michael Jordan” means a quantum leap of sports, not just being good or even the best but winning relentlessly to the point of altering the sport and the sporting world, then the first MJ was indeed Babe Ruth. Wilt Chamberlain may have been another, with Muhammad Ali topping Wilt. The next was Michael himself, while the best current prospects are Tiger Woods if he can right himself, LeBron if he can win, or maybe Kobe who does have multiple rings but is somehow missing the requisite mystique. But until LeBron makes us forget about Michael the way Michael relegated the great Wilt Chamberlain to posterity, or wins a virtual death match like Ali did, or at least dazzles the sporting world with the glitter of at least one championship ring, he might just have to settle for being the best who never won anything, a daunting prospect that may have scared LeBron all the way to Miami.
Yes, LeBron has the promise of greatness and has already managed to become a one-name star like Michael, Magic, Wilt, Shaq, and Kobe, a symbolic feat worthy of LeBron’s immense talent, but he has not yet entered the American lexicon as his own adjective, although the term “villain” is starting to emerge, not exactly a ringing endorsement. Winning in Cleveland, New York, or Chicago might have done the trick for him, but by landing in Miami, LeBron enhanced his title prospects but has inevitably diluted their meaning with the presence of Bosh and Wade. This was either an act of great maturity in knowing himself, or a perhaps visible act of remarkable contrition by giving up on the MJ mystique in exchange for a ring or two. But unless LeBron three-peats and scores over 30 a game, Jordan’s legacy will remain intact. And so will Kobe’s.
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