Someday, we'll have to acknowledge that Michael Jordan is not the Greatest of All Time.
Michael Jordan is in all likelihood the best player to have ever played in the NBA and the game of basketball as a whole. But there’s a subtle implication to the phrase “Greatest of All Time” that says much more. It says “greatest ever and forever and ever”, literally the time behind us and the time ahead of us. After all, it’s not like time takes a break every nanosecond to extend itself. "All Time" is the same in 1950 as it is in 2050. This might be a cute semantic argument ("Greatest So Far" and "Greatest, Past and Present" don't lend well to acronyms), except that in the case of Jordan, it belies a serious belief that most of us share. Let's examine.
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A while ago, I asked a simple question on Twitter: “If LeBron James wins 8 titles in a row, averaging Jordanesque numbers and winning 8 Finals MVPs, would you consider him the greatest?” Most of the responses tried to establish to me that this was impossible, because LeBron lacked this or that, or somehow couldn’t do everything that MJ did. But that was never the question. The question was, in essence: “Is it possible that MJ isn’t the Greatest of All Time?” Some answered with a "yes", some answered with a rather strong “no” because of the different eras, and all the other arguments thrown out there to discredit any chance of LeBron being greater. Jordanism is the official religion of the current NBA fan: Jordan is our measuring stick, our ideal. What Jordan did on a nightly basis and on the biggest stage is hard for us to shake off. We can't simply find a new perfect player. Jordan was a special player and the world fell in love with his otherworldly fire and his otherworldly drive.
It's going to be hard to move on. I’m sure it was also hard for anyone who believed Bill Russell was the GOAT ante-Jordan. Look, nearly everyone reading this is probably from a generation that experienced Jordan more or less first hand. Whether it was at a game, on TV, or through Space Jam, we know Jordan. We’ve been indoctrinated into the church built in his name, a church that didn’t simply ignore his flaws, it turned them into positives. His egomania was turned into his drive to win, his impulsiveness into competitiveness. We are programmed to love Jordan, and we are programmed to believe that he’s the ultimate basketball player. And right now, even as Jordan's flaws have become impossible to ignore and have hurt some of the more idyllic parts of his legacy, we're pretty confident in the ultimate basketball player part. We were there.
But what if we’re confronted with someone better? With so much young talent in the league, looking at MJ's career arc makes you realize that everything may be just ahead of us. In the end, LeBron might end up with 8 titles. He’s not even at the peak of his ability yet, after all. He might actually hit 70 in those games where he just hints at it. He might look like the MVP for four consecutive sweeps of opponents that have no answer to his dominance on the block or through the lane or galloping past futile opposition in transition. The way he's going, he might just end up posting and guarding centers sometimes just for the challenge. Have you watched him recently? He's on a totally different plane offensively, and his use of energy and his shot selection have never been better. He may just end up answering all of us and set his sights on history.
Or maybe he won't. But maybe Durant will figure out how to use his springboard mechanics to become even more unstoppable. Maybe Rose's speed and dedication will culminate in an unimaginable ceiling. Maybe one of those once-in-a-generation superhumans will pass through Kentucky and find the highest competition lacking and in time may even pull history towards them.
Whatever the case, a time may come in 8 or 30 years when someone greater than Jordan comes along. And if it happens, the people that never experienced Jordan will tell you that their new acquaintance is the greatest they've ever known, and they'll say it with the same clarity that we now reserve for Jordan. I don't want to be like one of the old guys trying to convince you that Bill Russell was better than Jordan, or assuring everyone that Gordie Howe was better than Gretzky. Do you? Do you want to be caught up in this sort of sentimental tunnel-mindedness while an athlete of the highest order - through power yet unseen - pushes the deepest truths of the past into the spotlight and shines as bright, or even brighter yet?
Time won't end in December. No, Virginia. Michael Jordan is not the Greatest of All Time. It’s very likely that one day someone will eclipse him. Yes, it's blasphemous, but it's also the wonderful nature of an active sport where our holy book - our body of evidence - is always expanding, is always marching forward into new territory. Right now, Michael Jordan is our basketball god, and it would be hard to accept a new religion. But everything needs an update now and then, and that includes our mindsets. So take some comfort from this knowledge, as I have: when the new Greatness happens, you’ll be there to see it.