Over the years, I have heard countless people, players, analysts, etc. basically bow down and hand the title of single greatest player in NBA history to the same man. Though a lot of the older players may put up a fight, the general consensus is that Michael Jordan was the greatest player ever. He's even been handed the title "greatest athlete of the 20th century" by media outlets such as ESPN. It has also been the subject of quite a few throwdowns as of late, which, in turn, is the impetus behind this very blog. This has always baffled me. Granted, I've always had a problem with Jordan, in part, I'm sure, due to Chicago knocking my beloved Lakers out of the ‘91 NBA Finals (which, I still stand by the argument that if the Lakers had been healthy, and not dealing with injuries to their leading scorer, Byron Scott, and leading rebounder, James Worthy, the series would have ended up differently). I have also always contended that he was product of a media savvy David Stern (explain later if you‘re willing to bear with me). There are holes in my blind hatred. For some reason, maybe it's my devotion to Nike, but I've always had a soft spot for Jordan shoes, and, to a slightly lesser extent, some of the clothing. I own my fair share of shoes from the Jordan line (truthfully, it's more than my fair share), and haven't slowed much in my buying. All of this to the amazement of my family and friends, but I digress.
Back to Jordan and his skills. I‘ll start with my questions about him being such a great athlete. Michael Jordan retired from basketball in 1993 to make a run at playing baseball. It was purely a business move by the Chicago White Sox and owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who continued to honor Jordan's basketball contract while he was away chasing his "dream". Michael had a stint with the Double-A Birmingham Barons that proved to be MUCH more than he could chew, and washed out. He's a regular at golf courses around the country, and has never been described (at least to my knowledge), as anything better than an average player. So why is it that his name is ALWAYS thrown around in the topic of "great athletes"? Did he do something that I don't know about? Did he succeed as a two-sport athlete in the way that Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, or, to a lesser but still impressive extent, Brian Jordan (no relation) did? All of those guys played in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Was he as dominant across the board in track, football, baseball and basketball like Jim Thorpe? Was he the greatest player of his generation, and a stud college athlete in sports OTHER than his chosen trade like Wilt Chamberlain, John Elway or Jim Brown? If not, and I don't believe he was, why is he regarded as a better athlete than ANY of those guys? I don't care that Brian Jordan wasn't an All-Pro defensive back (though he was pretty good), or that he was pretty good baseball player when he decided to concentrate solely on one sport. The fact remains that he was able to play both at the highest level, something Jordan was never able to do. Was he a great basketball player? Yes. How does that sole quality define him as a greater athlete than any of the guys that I mentioned?
On to Michael Jordan, the basketball player. I have plenty of reason to hate the guy (aside from the aforementioned Lakers part). In my mind, he was an incredibly selfish teammate. Gambling for hours the night before games, fist-fighting teammates in practice, and leaving to play baseball during one of the most successful periods for any team in NBA history. Though he had the right to make his own decisions, and do what he felt was right, it was still selfish of him to leave his players high-and-dry the way that he did. The guy had enough talent and ability to make up for lack of rest or concentration and play well, but how do we know that he wasn't out until all hours of the night before he went out and had a bad game? What would he have done, knowing what we know about his desire to win, if, say Steve Kerr were out that way and not putting everything that he had out on the court to the best of his ability because of his "lifestyle"? In a very Bonds-esque fashion, Jordan had his own PRIVATE region of the locker room in Chicago, yet isn't vilified in the same way for it. He (though I won‘t blame him entirely as he wasn‘t alone, but was the main cog) made an attempt to disband the NBA Players Union, a move that would have cost former players and teammates money, but making it easier for him to get more. Great teammate? Hardly.
As far as the on-court persona goes, he was a great player, and easily one of the fifty greatest of all-time. He did a lot of things well, though you could argue that he was a product of the league elevating stars to the point that they are given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to play, much in the same way that ALL star players are (see Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, Pedro Martinez, Peyton Manning, etc.), but he wasn't the single greatest anything in league history. Was he the greatest scorer ever? Not with guys like Wilt averaging 50 per. Was he the greatest defender ever? Not with guys like Bill Russell around. Was he the best passer ever? Rebounder? Not even close. He did a lot of things well, but was his all-around game as wide-ranged as say Magic Johnson (who could play all 5 positions at an All Star level)or Oscar Robinson (who AVERAGED a triple-double for an entire season)? I don't think so.
Jordan also gets credit for the boom in the popularity of the NBA, when, in truth, the credit should primarily go to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who brought the spotlight from the college game to the NBA in 1979 with the rivalry they had. The NBA was in a severe drought and was seeing the ratings and attendance drop significantly until they arrived onto the scene. Jordan added to the popularity (which, I again will talk about if you stick with me), but is far from responsible for that. He proved that he wasn't able to solely carry a team (as evident by his team‘s lack of playoff success) until he was paired with a VERY underrated helping hand. Look back at those seasons. Why were they successful? First of all, they were aided by the aging stars that dominated the 80's. Magic, Bird, Moses Malone, Isaih Thomas and the "Bad Boys" were all coming to the end of their careers, which benefited NOBODY more than the Bulls. They also had a great nucleus. The Bulls always had rebounding, dead-on three-point shooting and GREAT defense, all of which were provided, primarily, by guys NOT named Jordan during their reign.
So how did we get here? I'll give you my theory. David Stern. Stern is nothing if not a smart businessman. He knew that he was sitting on something that could make his "brand" even more profitable than it had grown to be. He had a star on the East Coast (Larry Bird), had a star on the West Coast (Magic Johnson), and needed to do something to get the middle of the country more involved. In comes a young Michael Jordan. A flashy, athletic and highly talented youngster from one of the biggest college basketball programs in the country, and he goes to the 3rd largest market in the country. Things couldn't have worked out any better for the league hype-machine. Jordan was a good looking, athletic player who could who could be the face of a league for years to come. Right guy, right place, right time. He was everywhere, hyped as the next great thing, yet wasn't winning anything. That's where the league helped out a bit (see Bryon Russell). Stern knew that, with more Jordan came more money. What better way to enter the "Jordan Era" than to have his Bulls unseat the kings of the 80's, the Los Angeles Lakers? In return for the money making machine that was booming, the league, and to a lesser extent the media, didn't dwell as much on his short-comings until the latter part of his career, and even then he wasn't brought down in the same way other star athletes are. They didn't harp on his scandalous love life, gambling problems, or the fact that, when approached by an African-American politician and Mayor of Charlotte about help unseating a racist and out-of-touch Senator (Jesse Helms), Jordan declined because "Republicans buy shoes, too". Truth be told, Jordan had NO social impact on our world from anything other than a marketing and basketball standpoint.
All of that being said, most of the youth today only regurgitate what has been pounded into their brains by the media and others. Do you think the average 20-year-old really knows much about the history of basketball? But I'll bet if you asked them who the greatest player ever was 75-80% of them would tell you it was Mike, even though his greatest years were played when they would have no cognitive recollection of his play. It has been pounded into our brains for 20+ years to the point that people say that there will never be another. No, there will never be another guy who scores 50 a game. There will never be another to average a triple-double. Another Jordan? A mid-6' player who can defend and score? They are all over the league, just without as much hype.