There is absolutely no doubt about who is the best basketball player of all time. The accolades come by the dozens. We’re talking about six NBA titles, six MVP awards, 19 All-Star appearances, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, five NBA All-Defensive First Team selections, multiple scoring titles, the owner of various records, a Rookie of the Year and a winning career that stretches as far back as high school. Let’s be real, nobody is or has been better than that kid born in New York City. The accolades speak for themselves; Michael Jordan was . . . actually not the guy I was talking about, and that’s the problem with this conversation, or lack thereof.
When we debate about legacies and the greatest ever – whether we should or shouldn’t doesn’t matter, we do anyway – there is universal consensus in regards to one question. Who is the greatest player of all time? “Michael Jordan!” exclaim the masses in unison, most without any considerations or thinking. That’s a fine response, and probably the correct one if it were possible to even measure such a thing. The problem isn’t the answer, as you could imagine. The problem is the stubbornness, which is nurtured by a dose of ignorance.
Many of the folks explain their reasoning for Jordan being the greatest with some sort of rendition of, “…because he’s Jordan.” Outstanding logic. This dangerously excessive idolization of Jordan is terrifying. Jordan was, essentially, a god that did no wrong, had no flaws, was never inferior to anyone, dominated everything and walked on water. It is almost illegal and certainly blasphemous to put someone else in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Am I doing this right? Well, allow me to commit a sin.
The Most Dominant Amateur Athlete Ever
Lew Alcindor, the kid born in New York City, was the most dominant amateur athlete to ever grace any sport. Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, dominated basketball at the High School level. Alcindor led Power Memorial High School to three straight New York City Catholic championships and one national championship. During his high school stint, he led the team on a 71-game winning streak and finished with an overall record of 95-6. Not bad, right? Well, there’s always room for improvement!
Alcindor, who basically had a scholarship to any and every school with a basketball program in the country, having dominated high school, chose to attend UCLA. Legendary coach John Wooden played a large role in his decision, in particular because both Wooden and Alcindor wanted four years of attendance in order for him to earn his degree. Alcindor did just that, earning a Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and a minor in DOMINANCE.
Alright, that wasn’t his minor, but it could have been. Alcindor was forced to play on UCLA’s freshman team his freshman year due to an NCAA rule. But that didn’t stop Alcindor from showing his greatness, leading the freshman team to a victory over the defending national champions (UCLA’s varsity team) in a scrimmage. The next three years on varsity were a complete joke for the rest of college basketball.
“He got 56 [points] in his debut,” stated Bob Ryan, former columnist for The Boston Globe, in HBO’s documentary Kareem: Minority of One. “That was man-to-man; that’s the last man-to-man he saw in three years.”
One of the rare losses UCLA suffered with Alcindor came against Houston in a matchup called “The Game of the Century.” Alcindor injured his cornea about a week before the game; despite playing with the injury, UCLA came up short by two points. Later that season, in a rematch in the NCAA tournament, UCLA destroyed Houston in the Final Four, blowing them out by 32 with a then healthy Lew Alcindor. UCLA finished with an 88-2 record over the three year stretch with Alcindor, who led UCLA to three consecutive titles, averaging 26.4 points per game and 15.5 rebounds per game on 64% shooting from the floor.
In fact, his dominance was so overwhelming that the NCAA banned dunking from 1967 to 1976, an idea that seems unfathomable today. This blessing in disguise would play a huge factor in Alcindor’s dominance in the pros. Due to the ban, Alcindor had to manufacture a new, efficient way to dominate and that was the birth of the most lethal weapon in basketball: the skyhook. But before we move on to the NBA, let’s recap: Alcindor was the greatest amateur athlete to ever grace the hardwood. You can keep Jordan’s numbers to yourselves.
The NBA’s Most Remembered and Most Forgotten
We all know about Michael Jordan and all basketball enthusiasts know exactly how many rings he has. In fact, counting rings has become our lazy way of comparing legacies and who is better than whom, unless Bill Russell is in the conversation, of course. When it comes to saying player x is better than player y because of rings, Russell somehow doesn’t qualify. Honestly, it’s not only a lazy argument, but it’s also an unintelligent one, given the numerous greats who retired without a ring. But if you want to play the ring game for just one second, let’s not forget that Alcindor, by then going by the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, has just as many rings as Jordan. Six equals six, according to math, so let’s throw the rings out of the window here. But in case you want to entertain this even more, Kareem led the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA championship his second year in the league.
Do you want to talk about dominance? Do you even want to go as far as foolishly measuring dominance by points, as many do? Well, Kareem has Jordan beat by roughly 6000 points. And if you want to play the retirement card on Jordan’s behalf, just know that he never scored more than 3041 points in any single season, which was seven years before his first retirement, thus only really giving him the opportunity of possibly tying Kareem if he hadn’t retired the first time around. But let’s not play the what if game, for speculation is irrelevant here. We’re comparing careers as they were. Perhaps you wish to compare dominance by regular season team performances? You got me there. Jordan did lead the Bulls to a 72-10 record. But if you bring up MVPs, that’s another win for Kareem. All-Star Game appearances: edge goes to Kareem. We all remember Jordan’s greatness, yet we seem to show no respect to that of Kareem’s when we talk about the greatest ever.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a model of consistency, having played for 20 years in the NBA. He possessed the most lethal, unguardable move in the game. He was easily as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal. Yet, as Shaq was physical and intimidating, Kareem had finesse and seemed to effortlessly push the ball to the rim from an unreachable angle with some sort of telekinesis. In fact, Kareem’s greatness even gets lost in discussions about the greatest bigs of all-time, but I digress.
This isn’t an argument for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being the greatest player of all time, although he certainly deserves a lot more credit and respect. I still think that’s a fairly hard question to answer anyway; how do we even measure that? Regardless, this isn’t about Kareem being better than Jordan or anyone. This is about chance and possibility. It’s about having an open mind. Only a fool goes into a debate with their mind set. One can certainly walk away from a debate with more certainty about what one already believed, but if it was a real debate, there has to be a slight chance that, on the contrary, you learn something new, allowing your previous view the chance of slightly, or altogether, changing. It isn’t a debate if your mind is already set, for that’s just a one-way conversation.
The foundation of a debate is bouncing ideas off of each other and taking others' ideas into consideration. You can’t simply spew your opinion and absolutely block off the opinions being thrown at you in response; there is no way or learning or gaining a better understanding that way. This is the essence of the problem with a majority of the people who claim Jordan is the greatest ever. The problem isn’t the claim, but rather the reluctance to consider any other alternative. The day will come and someone will eventually be better. Are we going to put our stubbornness and ignorance aside and open our minds to new possibilities or are we going to continue to observe with our eyes closed?