There are basketball players, and then there are athletes who transcend the game itself. Almost superhuman in their abilities and talents, a few players have reached this level of greatness. Names like Russell, Chamberlain, Bird, and Magic belong on this list. Basically, we have to imagine whatever the opposite of Javale McGee is–that, by definition, is greatness.
In the modern era, greatness meant Jordan. Children across schoolyards in the 1990’s all yearned to wear Air Jordans. He released clothing, starred in a movie with space aliens that featured a soundtrack by Seal, and won six rings in the process. Michael Jordan was so prolific, we even forgave him for quitting basketball in his prime to go hit ground balls to low level minor league talent as a White Sox prospect. (I’m using the word “prospect” quite loosely here.)
Growing up in Atlanta, I remember what it was like when Jordan and the Chicago Bulls came to town. Jordan wasn’t just a basketball player; he was an athletic deity. Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching Mutombo and Blaylock. I have always been, and always will be a Hawks fan. We’re an endangered species. Whatever, I couldn’t get mad when Jordan came to town and destroyed my team.
There were a few radar blips in the post-Jordan world. People wanted North Carolina alum Vince Carter to have next, but he was all Gatorade folklore. For a moment, Carter’s cousin Tracy McGrady could have ascended to the throne but his knees and ankles were made from damp coffee filters, and his weird eye freaked everyone out. Only one name stuck: Kobe.
If we really want to define what greatness means, it’s the first-name basis we begin to address these players by. Kobe Bryant isn’t Kobe Bryant–he has always just been Kobe. His Lakers teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, only needed one name as well. Even though his free throw shooting was severely impacted by Taco Neck Syndrome, and he made the worst movie of… no, second worst, well, no… the third worst… (I mean, Dennis Rodman was truly awful.)–look, Shaq was perhaps the best center of all time. His movies and rap albums were riskier than sharing needles with a sore-covered hooker in 1984. But I digress–let’s talk about dirty needles.
When it comes to dirty needles, nothing compares to the euphoric highs offered by a pusher known as Phil Jackson. “Slim Phil”, as he came to be known on the street, pushed that sweet, clean Triangle O. The Triangle could take you to new highs, and everyone in the Association knew it.
This is where I am prepared to disqualify Kobe and Jordan, in one fell swoop. They were sharing Phil’s dirty needles. If greatness is measured in championships, Kobe and Jordan can both hang their hat on five and six, respectively. However, their 11 total rings are shared by Jackson. Jordan put up eye-popping statistics in his years before playing for Jackson, but he never won a ring. The same goes for Kobe. Kobe is arguably the most gifted pure scorer to ever player in purple and gold. (As a matter of personal opinion, I think Magic was a more valuable player.) However, he didn’t win until Jackson came to town. We can see just how much Kobe needs Phil to win. I mean, I could totally bring up the Rudy Tomjanovich experiment, but let’s just bask in the ineptitude of Mike D’Antoni for a moment.
Despite their gifts as scorers, and supreme defensive skills, Kobe and Jordan could never be champions without the Triangle Offense. I can say with full confidence, if Dominique Wilkins had played for Jackson, he would have at least three rings, and we would all collectively remember “The Human Highlight” reel as more than just a freak athlete.
…and then there is LeBron, our other anointed, one name savior. He was programmed into an impossible hype machine, and he delivered. He was drafted into an American city analogous with being the botched circumcision of the rust belt–Cleveland. When he left Cleveland, America was mad. But I can’t say I blame him at all.
Wait, seriously though, think about this for a moment. In Cleveland, LeBron had the borderline schizophrenic Delonte West banging his mom, and Antawn Jamison hiding somewhere near the scorers table. That’s what Dan Gilbert thought would win a championship.
LeBron James is hard to measure purely on statistics. At 6’8″, 260 pounds, he’s a superhuman athlete unlike anyone else in the NBA. He is capable of playing every position on the floor at an elite level. Kobe and Jordan could never boast that. You can feel confident about LeBron going heads up with anyone from breezy bumble bee point-man Chris Paul, to a colossus like Dwight Howard, and every player in between. Jordan’s playing weight was 218 pounds. LeBron’s playing weight is just a shade under 260. Being 40 pounds heavier makes a huge difference. Ask my ex-girlfriend.
Comparing the two gets even more convoluted, and takes on an almost Twilight-esque note. Get your hashtags ready for #TeamJordan and #TeamJames.
“But wait, something about championships. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Straw man! Michael Jordan was the greatest! How can you even think otherwise?! SOMETHING FURIOUSLY WRITTEN IN CAPS LOCK!”
Jordan was also surrounded by great teammates. Scottie Pippen will go down in history as a better player than Dwyane Wade, but just barely. Dennis Rodman was the best pure rebounder of all time, and belongs in the discussion for the best defensive player of all-time. In 1996, Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman all made the All-NBA Defensive First Team–the only time three teammates have ever done this. Jordan’s supporting cast was memorable enough to sell an off-Broadway musical about Australians, Croatians, and we’ll say a diner.
When Jordan left to play baseball, the Bulls didn’t nosedive. In fact, they were one blown call away from being in the NBA Finals without him. When LeBron left Cleveland, they went from having the league’s best record, to having the league’s worst record.
In the LeBron versus Jordan debate, Jordan only holds the edge in championships–and LeBron has the remainder of his prime to prove his greatness. One last headliner on the board: Scalabrine.
After being drafted by the New Jersey Nets, Brian Scalabrine put an entire team on his back, and led the Nets to the NBA Finals in his rookie year. During his playoff run as a rookie, Scalabrine averaged 0.3 PPG, and 0.5 rebounds. This is where people like Skip Bayless are right: basketball isn’t about numbers (unless it’s the final score)–it’s about heart. “The White Mamba,” aka “The Vanilla Godzilla,” aka aka “Hurricane Ginger” DOMINATED when it counted most–in the last few minutes of fourth quarter blowouts, when the game could possibly be on the line if everyone else fucked up.
It took Jordan seven seasons to get his first title. It took James eight. For Scalabrine, it only took six–after the Boston Celtics defeated the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. Some people might point out, “Well, Scalabrine never actually logged any minutes in any of those six games.” That’s where fans get basketball totally wrong: It’s a team game, about intangibles hard to describe. When Kevin Garnett came out of the game earlier in the playoffs, it was Scalabrine’s time to shine for perhaps six-to-eight minutes. Those six-to-eight minutes per night are what saved Garnett’s body, and allowed him to play a maximum number of minutes against the Lakers. So, in essence, Scalabrine won those rings for his team.
Need further evidence that Scalabrine was the greatest of all time? Let’s go to the highlights.