I've gotta run out to this thing in the Bronx, so I figured I'd post this thing I wrote a little while ago on whether Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever. I think it asks more questions than it answers, but I never thought there was a "correct" answer to begin with. See what you think.
Not that he planned it, but Michael Jordan had the luxury of peaking when interest in professional basketball absolutely exploded. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson laid down the foundation, and he built the mansion. Jordan’s personality, his game, his style--all were expertly tailored for his time. For a while, at least, he was the most famous individual on the planet. He had a fresh pair of shoes every game, millions of dollars before he even knew what to do with them. The right players were assembled around him, the right coach was brought in, and everyone's talent was maximized. His on-court and off-court personas were meshed perfectly, thanks to Nike, Wieden & Kennedy, Spike Lee and, of course, Michael himself. Michael Jordan would have been a star in any era—but in ours, he went way beyond.
What is greatness? How is it defined? Is it just numbers? If that was the case, you'd need to look to Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson. One averaged 54 and 20 for a season, the other damn near averaged a triple-double for a decade. Is it intangibles? Winning? If that's the case, you might want to turn to Bill Russell. He earned 11 rings and essentially invented modern defense. His outlet passes and blocks triggered a fast-break offense that often ended in someone else getting the bucket. He wasn't just a hall-of-famer, he made countless others into hall-of-famers as well. The ability to play several positions? That would be Magic Johnson.
You can certainly make a sound argument that Jordan was the greatest ever. He's got the numbers to back it up, from scoring titles to defensive awards to championship rings. Forget about Spike and Mike—even without the unprecedented publicity push, Jordan was a transcendent player who could have dominated in any era. But it’s far too easy for us to be blinded by recent memory—who actually remembers seeing Oscar, Bill, Wilt, Earl Monroe? Meanwhile, we all saw Mike on TNT, on ABC, on NBC, on IMax. We bought his shoes, we wanted to be like Mike. Is it any wonder we put him before others?
Even his astounding longevity is at least partially due to the era in which he played. Modern athletes have professional trainers, multi-million dollar shoe research labs, nutritionists, five-star hotels and the best medical care the world has ever known. X-ray machines in the locker rooms, massage therapists at their beck and call, private jets. Meanwhile Bill Russell was turned away from ordinary hotels because of the color of his skin. Couldn't eat in restaurants, flew in cramped quarters, gutted out injuries. Played in canvas hightops in cold arenas on deadwood floors. A serious knee injury now might knock you out for a year—back then it probably meant your career. And if you did come back, you were never the same again.
Who's best? Nobody will ever truly know. And that's the triple truth, Ruth.