We’ve almost beaten basketball’s Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) debate to death. Everyone has an angle that only fuels the argument towards more fiery takes, so much so that a man once allegedly assaulted his roommate in a disagreement over whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.
But few have the perspective of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man who held the title for a time before memories faded and mythologies formed, and even fewer have so reasoned a take on the matter.
Here’s how Abdul-Jabbar described the G.O.A.T. debate to The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears:
“These G.O.A.T. discussions are fun distractions while sitting around waiting for the pizza to be served. But they’re on a par with ‘Which super power would you want most: flight or invisibility?’ Whether I’m included or not in anyone’s list doesn’t matter. I played my hardest and I helped my teammates. That’s the most important thing I walked away with.
“The reason there is no such thing as the G.O.A.T. is because every player plays under unique circumstances. We played different positions, under different rules, with different teammates, with different coaches. Every player has to adapt to their circumstances and find a way to excel. This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one.”
This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one. Damn, does Kareem have a way with words. That is both the crux of the debate and why it is so silly, and Abdul-Jabbar beautifully stated what so many of us have tried to tackle less eloquently: Arguing Jordan vs. LeBron is almost impossible, because they play differently in different eras, and to do so also requires comparing the impact Scottie Pippen, Dwyane Wade, Phil Jackson, Erik Spoelstra and everybody else in their careers had on the two of them.
How about the G.O.T.E. debate instead?
As LeBron himself said of Jordan 18 months ago, “He was much more of a scorer. He did a lot of post work at that point in time. But our games are just different. His body is different, my body is different than his. At that age, you recognize his dominance, but there’s no similarities in our game. At all.”
Maybe it’s better to take a cue from Abdul-Jabbar and instead think of players in terms of G.O.T.E. (Greatest Of Their Era). Bill Russell owned the 1960s. Kareem took the mantle in the ’70s. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson battled for supremacy in the ’80s. Jordan dominated the ’90s. Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant duked it out in the 2000s. And LeBron has owned this decade.
But the G.O.A.T. debate is still more fun
We can wonder what Russell might have looked like in today’s NBA, how different Bird’s career would be in the small-ball era, why Jordan benefited from hand-checking and how the heck anyone would stop LeBron in the 1950s, but without a time machine, we have no answers to these questions.
That also removes all the fun out of the G.O.A.T. debate, because there can be only one Greatest Of All Time. I think Jordan is the greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen. You get the feeling Jordan feels the same way about himself. Even LeBron concedes he’s chasing “the ghost” of Jordan. And that might be because he started playing basketball after Kareem retired. But we can argue about this all day.
Just keep the alleged assaults to yourself. Like Kareem, I much prefer you buy me a pizza.
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