On Sunday, which is the same day as the NBA All-Star game, Michael Jordan turned 50 years old. The milestone birthday of what is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time has led to a lot of attention: reminisces of his greatest moments; 50 reasons why we’ll never forget him; Sports Illustrated 100 best Jordan pictures his best playoff moments; etc…, etc…,etc…
I don’t know if Jordan is the best player of all time or even the best player ever at the time he retired. Could anyone be a greater player than Wilt Chamberlain? Wilt averaged 50 points a game in 1962, 45 points in 1963 and over 30 points a game in his first seven seasons, and never averaged LESS than 18 rebounds a game. The knock on Chamberlain was always that even though he was a dominant player his teams couldn’t get past the Boston Celtics in the playoffs except in 1967. This has led some people to claim that Bill Russell is the greatest player of all time since he was the Celtics center for 11 championships including two as a player AND coach. Jordan recently expressed his preference for Kobe Bryant over LeBron James because five (meaning Bryant’s five championships) beats one (the title James won last year). By that standard, Russell is the greatest player of all time and I wonder if Jordan would pick seven time NBA champion Robert Horry over himself because seven beats six even though Horry was not the star on any of his seven championship teams. And I haven’t even mentioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leading scorer who was as unstoppable as any offensive player ever was and also led the league in rebounds and blocked shots a number of times.
Kobe Bryant was the best player in the NBA from the mid-2000s until the end of the last decade but I never thought of him as the best player ever. Bryant could finish his career with the all-time scoring record, thanks to having been durable throughout his NBA career which started as soon as he got out of high school, giving him a four year head start on Abdul-Jabbar. James is clearly the best player in today’s NBA and after having led the Heat to the championship last year, his game has elevated to new heights. It appears to me that the Heat are just gliding through the season and waiting for the playoffs to start. The only team I can see having a chance of beating them are the Knicks and that is only IF they can recover their early season form and IF center Tyson Chandler can control the lane and IF big men Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace can come back from the injured list to provide backup support. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh healthy on the Heat roster, they will only be beaten by teams that have better players at the center and point guard spots and to me only the Knicks have that combination with Chandler(and his backups) and the duo of Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton to be able to play to their strengths and the Heat’s weaknesses. I don’t give the Knicks much of a chance to dethrone the Heat, just a less miniscule chance than all the other teams.
Even though Michael Jordan turning 50 led to a lot of attention for him, I continue to be stunned when his 1995-1996 Bulls all-time best record of 72-10 is ignored by the basketball press. As of the All-Star break, the San Antonio Spurs had the best record in the league at 42-12 so the record is already safe for another year. It is a rare occurrence when a team has less than ten losses at the halfway mark of the season. The Bulls record has stood for 17 years and in those 17 years the record was only seriously challenged by the 1996-1997 Bulls, who went 68-10 before losing three of their last four games. If you don’t think 17 years is a lot of time for this record, remember that the prior mark of 69-13 set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers lasted only seven years longer.
As great as Jordan and Chamberlain were and James and Bryant are, I like to think that Julius Erving was the greatest player of all time. This may be because as a youngster, I was a New York Nets fan of the ABA (American Basketball Association) and unlike the modern era of cable TV and pay per view sports, the Nets game were on free TV at least twice a week. I found out how great Erving was when he led an average Virginia Squires team to the playoffs and almost single handedly defeated the Rick Barry led Nets team in the 1972 playoffs. Erving could shoot and drive and pass and play defense and could demoralize a team with his sky high dunks. When Barry left the Nets to go back to the NBA, they bought Erving from the bankrupt Squires and I got to see how great Erving was on a nightly basis. He could pass and rebound and do whatever was needed to win and led the Nets to two championships in his three years with the team. The 1974 or 1976 Nets had excellent personnel in addition to Erving with big men like Sven Nater, Billy Paultz, and Larry Kenon to go along with guards Brian Taylor and John Williamson and would have not have been underdogs to the NBA champion Celtics in either year. Because the ABA was barely covered by the sports media of the time, Erving and the Nets were unknown to the casual sports fan.
In 1976, the ABA merged into the NBA and the Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to get the money to pay the NBA initiation fee. The Nets became a laughingstock and the 76ers became instant title contenders. But instead of being a rock star like Michael Jordan, Julius Erving was the villain to Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers and Larry Bird's Celtics. The sport fans of the 1970’s just weren’t ready for the best player in basketball to be a high-flying black man in a giant afro playing ‘street ball’. Erving’s first NBA appearance in 1976 was only 8 years removed from Tommie Smith and John Carlos being stripped of their Olympic medals for giving a ‘black power’ salute from the medal stand, Muhammad Ali being denied the right to fight because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and many sports writers still insisted on calling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ‘Lew Alcindor’ years after he legally changed his name (and now no one blinks when Ron Artest changes his name to ‘Metta World-Peace’ and Chad Johnson becomes ‘Chad Ochocinco’). Erving became more popular with casual fans only when he got to the end of his career (with a more conservative haircut) but in the late 70's Magic Johnson was a much more palatable superstar with his plain American name, short haircut, media savvy and constant smile but even he got to play the villain as the ringleader of ‘Showtime’ against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics ‘purer’ (and whiter?) brand of basketball. Given another few years the public was not only ready to accept the clean-cut Jordan (he wasn’t even wearing earrings then) but they were able to make his Nike sneakers (athletic shoes…basketball shoes) an industry unto themselves and as he won his 6 championships (around a 2 year retirement) he became the personification of winning and the new champion of the fans of the old-school who had a hard time getting used to the next generation of basketball stars like Shawn Kemp and Allen Iverson who came to the NBA loaded with an assortment of love childs, gun possession and drug convictions, and tattoos. I don’t know if Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, but of the few players in that discussion, he was the best at being in the right place at the right time.