Author’s note: Since there is a slim chance this I will be watching basketball before 2012, there are no on-the-court issues to discuss. So for this Diss article, I will be tackle an issue that’s been on my mind since I was 10 years old.
Editor’s note: I sat on this article for about a month. It is only now being published. Mea culpa.
I thought the world understood he was a big d-bag when he gave his Hall of Fame speech, and that the New York Times report would only validate this fact. But after reading some of the comments below the article, it appeared that there was still a large and significant legion of Jordan loyalists who would defend his actions – even as a hawkish small market owner – to no end. To these loyalists, MJ could do no wrong, even off the basketball court. Which gets me to the crux of this article.
Arguments are essential to sports. It’s what keeps debate skills from deteriorating, friendships from getting boring, and black barbershops from closing. John Elway or Dan Marino? Agassi or Sampras? Derrick Rose for MVP or Lebron James for MVP? Or my personal fave, Joe Lewis or Rocky Marciano? Arguing about sports is as old as sports itself. In sports, unlike politics, economics, or religion, there are very few taboo subjects. The debate is free, by and large, and the opinions are unfiltered.
Yet, there is one argument that few brave souls ever dare to bring up for fear of being excommunicated from the Holy Roman Basketball Church: that __________ is greater than Michael Jordan.
MJ loyalists, those same ones who defend him and his hard-line BRI stance, would immediately call my question blasphemous, as if I’m Galileo trying to prove that the earth revolves around the sun. Many basketball “experts” are quickly converted to the infallibility of Jordanism, regardless of the fact they cannot determine the proper criteria for choosing an MVP. This is baffling. Why is he so above and beyond everyone else, that he doesn’t even warrant any critiques, ever? Why is there no room to even ARGUE against Jordan as G.O.A.T.?
Media hype has a lot to do with it. When I was a kid, it was always about team basketball. Larry and Magic made it cool to pass the ball. But as I grew older, Michael Jordan shoes, commercials, and posters proliferated pop culture so much that it was impossible to not see Jordan’s face everywhere. Everyone wanted to “Be like Mike.” By the 90s, the NBA, NBC, and ESPN found it VERY profitable to highlight Jordan as the greatest to ever play the game. But how much of this assertion was hype and how much was it reality?
I know, I know: Statistics, awards, rings, all point Jordan’s way. But Wilt Chamberlain had more mind-boggling stats, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has just as many awards, and Bill Russell has almost twice as many rings. Granted, Wilt and Russell played when there only 10 teams in the league, and Kareem played part of his career in the pre-ABA era. But it’s not like Jordan didn’t have a favorable environment to play in. MJ played in a watered-down league during his prime. The 80s was dominated by the Lakers and Celtics, two amazingly talented teams laden with star players , while the 90s, due to three instances of NBA expansion, marked an era where teams were comprised of one or two superheroes and a bunch of limited role players. Think about who the Bulls’ competition was. The Knicks (Ewing and role players), the Blazers (Drexler [who is more of a 2nd banana anyway] and role players), the Suns (Barkley, KJ [great player, but certainly not elite] and role players), the Magic (pre-Lakers Shaq, Penny [worth about that much] and role players), the Pacers (Reggie and role players), the Sonics (Kemp, the Glove, and role players), the Heat (Zo, a declining Tim Hardaway, and role players), and the Jazz (Stockton, Malone, and role players). All of these were great teams, but can you compare them to the Sixers, Lakers, and Celtics of the 80s? I’m not saying that Jordan’s Bulls teams wouldn’t have won titles in the ‘80s. But I doubt they would have won six, let alone four or five.
In 1986, after watching MJ hang 63 points on his Celtics in the Boston Garden, Larry Bird said that Jordan was God in disguise. And, he’s not incorrect: I think Jordan is the best and most clutch individual player, from top to bottom, offensively and defensively, ever. But basketball is a team sport. And to me, team basketball is the essence of the sport, which has been co-opted in the “pass it to Will” era. In a game of one-on-one, Jordan’s the greatest. Hell, even in a game of three-on-three, Jordan’s likely the G.O.A.T. But real basketball is five-on-five, with 2-3 quality role players coming off of the bench. As history has shown repeatedly, you won’t win a championship otherwise.
So, if I had to choose a player to start my NBA franchise with, it would be Magic Johnson. If we pitted Magic and 7 Jacob Greenbergs against Jordan and 7 Jacob Greenbergs, my money’s on Magic. Why? Because nobody extracted more talent, energy, and will from their teammates than Magic. In this day and age, basketball greatness is always emphasized by how many points one scores as opposed to how to get the ball at the right place and time to score. No one lauds Jordan for his ability to make his teammates better, or be a good teammate himself. Just ask Kwame Brown.
So with that in mind, I will let you say all you want about the 1991 Finals, when Jordan’s Bulls beat Magic’s Lakers, but I’d also encourage you to think about where they were at that point in their careers. Magic clearly was at the end of his prime, making his 9th trip to the Finals. After 10 straight years of leading a run-and-gun team that put Steve Nash’s 7-seconds-or-less Suns to shame, Magic’s body had started to betray him. He had already begun to play more like a point-forward, replete with with a post up game and a hook-shot second only to Kareem’s. With Coach Dunleavy completely changing their offense, NBC analysts began calling the Lakers’ game “Slowtime.” Magic was still effective, but not the same as he was earlier in his career. Jordan, on the other hand, was beginning his prime and driven to win his first ring.
Besides the age factor, Jordan didn’t beat Magic, as is commonly thought. Rather, the Bulls beat the Lakers. Top to bottom, the Bulls were the better team. The Lakers’ second best player was a declining James Worthy, who by the way was injured throughout that Finals (somehow this gets lost in all of the Jordan adoration). The Bulls’ second in command was of course, Scottie Pippen, who continues to be one of the most underrated players in NBA history (I wonder why??). After Magic retired, the ’92 Lakers, led by a geriatric Worthy, and role players who had been previously built around Magic, had to win the last game of the year in overtime AGAINST THE CLIPPERS just to make it into the playoffs. After Jordan’s first retirement, the ’94 Bulls, led by MVP-candidate Pippen, came one game short of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would’ve strongly challenged the Indiana Pacers to make it to the Finals. Worthy was never the same without Magic. Pippen was arguably better without Jordan.
Yes, I’m a Laker fan. But before you unfairly accuse me of bias, let’s get one thing straight: although I love my Lakers, I never liked Kobe, the face of the team, and according to some, “the greatest Laker ever.” I don’t like him for all the reasons why you should hate him: his arrogance, his ball-hogging on the court, his unnecessary show-boating, his non-existent pre-nup…this list can go on and on. But you can blame the Michael Jordan corporate hype machine for that. After all, he is just trying to “Be Like Mike.”
Ultimately, I would pick Magic over Jordan to start an NBA team. So does this make Magic the G.O.A.T.? No. All I’m saying is automatically choosing the G.O.A.T. to be the face of your hypothetical franchise is very much up for debate. Like the MVP race, there is no way to clearly define the rules for selecting the Greatest Of All Time. It’s nearly impossible to compare different positions, different teams, and different eras, and come up with a singular figure that stands head and heels above the other greats of their time. To say that’s it’s blasphemous to even argue that MJ might not be the G.O.A.T. is short-sighted and indicative of how Nike, Hanes, McDonald’s, and Gatorade really control our thoughts.
(And to all you MJ loyalists out there…he DID push off on Byron Russell! Get over it!!!)