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This column originally ran in the print edition of The Japan Times on Jan. 22, 1999, approximately nine months before Wilt Chamberlain died.


Well, it’s been a week now since Michael Jordan checked out of the NBA for what looks like the last time. Despite his departure, the league and its 29 teams will begin an abbreviated season on Feb. 5.

The way some would have you think though, the NBA should have just closed its doors forever.

Hardly.

The league has seen many great players come and go during its 52-year history and has always carried on. Filling the void left by Jordan’s departure will be no small feat, but in time a new superstar will rise above the pack to carry the NBA torch into the 21st century.

But that’s not what we’re addressing today. This column is about greatness and how it is defined. Suffice it to say that my opinion varies from that of many I have heard or read in the past week.

In fact, if I hear or read one more person say “Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player ever” I think I’m going to be ill.

In my book, Jordan’s greatness is unquestioned. Perhaps the best money player of all time, when the chips were down, you wanted the ball in his hands, and more importantly, he wanted it.

Jordan finished his career as the third-leading scorer in NBA history with 29,277 points.

His six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, five Most Valuable Player Awards and the highest lifetime scoring average in NBA history at 31.5 points per game all speak volumes of Jordan’s impact on the game. Not to mention the style and class that made him such a great ambassador for the NBA.

But I’m not buying into this conclusion by various media and fans in general that he is hands down the greatest player ever, It just doesn’t wash. I had the good fortune to be an executive in the NBA for five years back during the halcyon days of the mid-to-late 1980’s, when the league enjoyed incredible growth in popularity both in the United States and around the world.

During that time, I saw some of the best playing at their peak night in and night out.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bernard King, Moses Malone and Jordan, just to name a few.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that I’ve seen more NBA games in person than anybody else in Japan has.

Now, when Jordan came in to the league in 1984, it was obvious he was something special. After being harnessed during his days as a collegian at North Carolina under coach Dean Smith, it was pretty clear that Jordan couldn’t wait to get on the big stage where he would have more opportunities to show his stuff.

He didn’t disappoint when he got the chance either. I can still remember the electricity that ran through the league during his rookie year because of him.

The fact of the matter is, though, that the league changed a lot during Jordan’s tenure. In terms of the skill level, I’m not sure it was for the better either.

In his first few seasons, when the league was at its highest level ever, Jordan put up big numbers, but his team couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs.

Several factors combined to help propel Jordan, who raised his game every season, and the Bulls to the championship level.

First, many great players retired, including several of the aforementioned.

At the same time, the NBA was in the process of expansion and added four new teams (1988-1989), which meant that 48 players who couldn’t cut it a couple of years earlier, were now on NBA rosters.

Thirdly, Scottie Pippen arrived on the scene in Chicago and brought Jordan some much-needed support.

The league has since added two more teams (in 1995) and now has 60 more players than it did just over a decade ago.

The bottom line is this — as several star players faded away through retirement or injury, they were replaced by players of lesser skills. This trend has continued until the present day.

In the past several seasons, players who couldn’t make it in the NBA and had to settle for playing in Europe, have returned and seen significant playing time.
I remember wincing when I heard the Toronto Raptors had signed John Long a couple of seasons ago to come off the bench at guard for them at age 40. In the old days, that type of thing just couldn’t happen. Usually by that age, former pros were shooting hoops in a hackers’ league at the YMCA, not suiting up to go against guys 20 years younger than them.

I take it for granted that most of our readers have never heard of John Long. Oh, he was a pretty good player in his day, which was about 15 years ago.
But he had no right being in the NBA at the age of 40.

It all goes back to the point of Jordan excelling against inferior opposition. Now granted, that’s not his fault. He took it to everybody he ever went up against, but that alone does not make him the greatest ever to play the game.

When I interviewed Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time career-scoring leader with 38,387 points, in 1995, he made an interesting observation to back my theory.

“In terms of physical skills, the players in the league now probably have more than ever, but the knowledge of the game has declined. These guys are all caught up in making the highlight reels with these dunks.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The thought in the old days of a high school player coming into the NBA was a fantasy. In fact, up until a few years ago it had happened only a handful of times. Now it’s an annual occurrence.

Ten years ago, these kids would have had better chances at being ballboys. Now they’re suiting up and making big bucks.

So you say, if Jordan wasn’t the greatest player ever, who was? Well, he’s been retied for 25 years now, but still holds many of the game’s major records. The amazing thing is, a great many fans of the NBA, especially the younger generations, have never even heard of him.

I’m talking about the man who still holds the NBA single-game rebounding record with 55, not to mention the league’s highest regular-season scoring average ever at 50.4 points per game.

Wilt Chamberlain was his name. He stood 7-1 (216 cm) and was the biggest force the game has ever seen. He only played on two NBA championship teams in his 14 seasons with the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, but that doesn’t detract one bit from him being hands down the greatest ever to take to the hardwood in the NBA.

None of Wilt’s records mentioned here have even been approached and seem certain to stand through eternity. Now that, my friends, is greatness defined. Jordan’s career-high for a single game was 69 points.

Wilt had 59 at halftime of his 100-point game on March 2, 1962.

He also still has the second- (78 points) and third-highest (73 points) scoring games in NBA history.

Wilt averaged 30.4 points per game during his NBA career and even led the league in assists one year. He is still the second-leading scorer in NBA history with 31,419 career points.

You want to talk about competition. Check this out.

In 1963, Wilt averaged 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds per game for the Warriors in San Francisco. His reward for those astounding numbers — All-NBA Second Team.

Can you imagine somebody with those stats not being a unanimous First Team pick these days?

Before I wrote this column, I mentioned to it to a colleague of mine, who said “I don’t think you can compare players from different eras.” Fair enough.

However, my reply drove home my point.

“Then why are all these people running around saying Jordan is the greatest ever?”

How is greatness defined?

Is it in terms of championships? If that is the case, then Bill Russell should be the “greatest ever” for the 11 NBA titles he won during 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics.

How about making the other players on your team better?

Did anybody ever do that better than Magic or Bird? Probably not. Does that make them the greatest?

What happened in my opinion, is that as Jordan continued to raise his game, while the overall level of the league fell, all of the so-called experts started saying “Boy, he’s great isn’t he?”

Then that suddenly became “He’s the greatest ever, isn’t he?” It just kind of snowballed and became a stock observation, without considering the level of the competition.

NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry made a very astute analysis of the issue last week following Jordan’s retirement.

Said Barry, “I keep hearing he (Jordan) is the greatest and that upsets me. It’s not fair to other players. You can’t compare a two-guard (shooting guard) to a center.

“There are five different and distinct positions. He’s the greatest two-guard player I ever saw and the most exciting player.”

I’ll agree with Barry that Jordan is the best shooting guard in NBA history and one of the top five players ever. But that’s where it stops for me.

Wilt revolutionized the game. Jordan just brought more creativity to it.

Even though several NBA legends said last week that they thought Jordan was the greatest, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of comments from one — Chamberlain.

Which brings me back to his answer to that very question a few months ago in a magazine interview.

Said Wilt, “If Michael knows anything about the history of the game, he’ll know he’s not the best ever.”

Amen.

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