One GOAT (greatest of all time) has hung up his cleats, for the second and putatively final time, and of Tom Brady’s GOATness there is little dispute. Who indeed challenges a seven-time Super Bowl winner boasting personal stats that jump out of the scorebook? Four-timers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw? Three-timer Troy Aikman? On skill and raw athletic prowess alone, I’d pick two-timer John Elway, but GOATs are not chosen on skill and raw athletic prowess alone.
There are other factors. Panache. Cachet. Ego. Likability. Royal bearing. Presence.
Which brings us to the raging GOAT dispute in the other major American sport, professional basketball (sorry, baseball, but you need to pick up the pace, literally, before we’re talking about you).
As of Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James stands a mere 36 points away from overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points and claiming the title of greatest scorer in NBA history. Transferal of the scoring crown will happen, and that inevitability has cranked up a debate that needs no cranking up in the barrooms and over the airwaves over GOAT status in the wokest of American sports leagues.
Jordan was a high-flying, fluid, athletic poem; his signature moments exude grace and elegance. LeBron is brute force with an ugly jumper.
Of that latter distinction, alas, there is no debate. The NBA boasts a plethora of stars who wear their political proclivities on their sleeves (and on their sneakers). A few seasons back, the league could have installed prie-dieux in front of their benches, so enthusiastically did players drop to their knees in protest at the playing of the national anthem. And still, today, the league refuses to chill its bromance with Communist China, many players denouncing racism in America while reaping huge money from sponsorship deals with clothing companies accused of employing slave labor in China. And big stars regularly plump left-wing causes, sometimes with delicious hypocrisy. Steph Curry, an outside-shooting phenom and vocal wokist, recently went full NIMBY over plans to construct townhouses, some of them … gasp! … affordable units, within 3-point range of his Bay Area mansion.
Abdul-Jabbar and James are among the wokest of NBA superstars, past or present. But the GOAT debate does not pit LeBron versus Kareem, even though the bona fides of the Big Fella are impressive. At 7 feet, 2 inches, mobile, with the single most unstoppable shot in basketball history — the sky hook (thank you, Eddie Doucette, former Milwaukee Bucks announcer and dime-store Chick Hearn, for that coinage) — Abdul-Jabbar is in the minds of many the best ever to lace up the Cons. Plus, although plenty woke, he seems more interested in promoting larger black culture than in dispensing the garden-variety in-your-face toxicity of today’s progressives.
You could even grant to him certain endearing qualities. He’s a good though disagreeable writer, penning the occasional leftist screed for an op-ed page here and there; he was given to discussing literature with his Lakers coach, Shakespeare scholar Paul Westhead; and he even gave a very un-woke-like exhibition of self-deprecation in the movies — in Airplane!, where he let a little kid rag on his purported lack of effort on the floor. In the late ’90s, he spent time on an Indian reservation coaching a season of high school basketball. The gig was in Apache country, 150 miles east of Phoenix; although on the geographical outskirts of the Rezball universe, which is located in the Navajo Nation, he coached in a town of 3,000 that had enough hoops fervor to build a 4,000-seat high school gym.
But he’s a spectator to the current GOAT debate. That discussion is between LeBron James and Michael Jordan (MJ).
James bests MJ in a surfeit of statistical categories, outpacing him significantly in career games played and points, and thoroughly in career rebounds and assists. The seasonal averages — a more reliable guide in this case, as James has played 20 seasons (and counting) to Jordan’s 15 — are even in most categories, and favor Jordan in some. As for hardware, Jordan claimed five MVP trophies to James’s four; won 10 season scoring titles to James’s one; led the league in steals for three seasons, a feat James has never accomplished; and won Defensive Player of the Year once. In championships garnered, however, Jordan has a significant edge: MJ went 6–0 in NBA Finals, never once being extended to a seventh game, while James went 4–6. Also, Jordan won Finals MVP every time he was in one; LeBron captured four in 10 Finals. Add to all that a highlight reel of clutch moments. From his first playoff game winner against Cleveland in 1989 to his hold-the-pose, Finals-winning mid-range jumper against Utah in 1998, MJ was a buzzer-beating maestro. (READ MORE: Retirement 2.0: Will This One Be Permanent?)
On the court, the two are pretty even. It’s the intangibles — the aesthetics — that tip the scale in my mind.
First off, style of play favors His Airness. Jordan was a high-flying, fluid, athletic poem; his signature moments exude grace and elegance. LeBron is brute force with an ugly jumper.
Plus, Jordan put his mark on basketball forever with his individual tastes. He was the first to wear baggy shorts; players pre-MJ shoehorned their rear ends into tight-fitting, short shorts. He was the first to go voluntarily bald, pioneering the shaved head so ubiquitous among pros today, and his signature facial expression was sui generis — the protruding tongue. As for shoes, he made sneakers a status symbol, and Nike became Nike on the back of the Air Jordan, the most popular sneaker of all time. And while other players could hardly lift their heads from the heft of the gold chains around their necks, MJ went with understated bling, a single hooped earring. Speaking of fashion, as seen on the ESPN 10-part series The Last Dance, Jordan clad himself in impeccable suits pre- and postgame, so distinct from the runway monstrosities sported by the current crop of NBA “clothes horses.”
But, moreover, although he had to be conscious of politics — and has on occasion aligned with the left — Jordan took pains not to shove it in our faces. “Republicans buy sneakers, too” is his famous rejoinder to questions about his political silence.
Compared to the voluble James, who dons message clothing and is forever spouting off over race or the police, Jordan by his silence nudges sports back into terrain many Americans wish it would have never left: an escape from a world fraught with division over culture and politics.