What does it mean to be the greatest of all time? To be the best you have to have been dominant. I don’t mean for a few years — I am talking about to your generation as a whole. When you peak as an athlete, you shut it down for your generation.
The NBA is a beacon of tradition and historical feats. Greats all have signatures to their games that make them memorable to generations of fans. We can remember Bill Russell holding it down with blocked shots in the paint. Kareem wowed us with the sky hook. Julius Erving made us think twice about flight by taking off with the basketball above his head from outside the paint. Magic and Bird arrived on the scene in the early ’80s showcasing flash and fundamentals that kept us wanting more.
The NBA belonged to a few good men who were at the end of their playing careers when Magic and Larry came to the NBA. When Magic and Larry came into the league, they had instant success. There were greats in the NBA, but none of them took center stage very often when they came to town. Both guys were dominant, but even they can’t boast being the Greatest of All Time. They had flaws in their runs to greatness. In fact, being the G.O.A.T. really comes down to two individuals. Those guys are Bill Russell and Michael Jordan.
I know you are thinking why in the heck would he include Bill Russell in the conversation with Michael Jordan? Has he lost his mind? Not by a long shot. Russell and Jordan have one thing that none of the superstars of today can boast. When they peaked, they shut it down. They both denied a generation of great ballplayers a chance to get a ring. Russell won 11 rings. That’s crazy. He won 10 out of 11 when his career peaked. Who else can say that? Let me help you … No one! That’s denying a championship to a lot of great competition.
Jordan didn’t start winning championships out of the gate, but there was a lineage of great players in place finishing their legacies. When Jordan arrived on the scene, Magic, Bird and Isaiah were battling for supremacy. During that time, the young Jordan was figuring out the game and making a name for himself as a high flyer and scorer. That being said, there was no one from Jordan’s class doing work and making a name or legacy for himse.f while he was developing as a player.
When Mike hit his stride against the Lakers in 1991, he shut it down. He denied titles to Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, John Stockton and a few other greats who came in around the same time. The only player of note to get a championship in the Jordan years was Hakeem Olajuwon. Ironically, Hakeem got his when Mike decided to try his hand at baseball after the death of his father. Hakeem should send Mike a thank-you card for that as well.
Greatness like Russell and Jordan may never be equaled today. LeBron and Kobe have both surrendered championships during their prime years. Granted, Kobe had to deal with Tim Duncan during most of his tenure, and LeBron joined forces with his elite competition. They both have had great careers. However, they didn’t shut others out. Magic, Bird and Isaiah all surrendered championships in their prime years. That’s not what G.O.A.T.s do. In fact, when you size things up, they all fall short in a big way.
Today, the argument of Greatest of All Time is always controversial. One person’s opinion may be jaded by accomplishments and individual accolades while others may look at team accomplishments. When looking at the big picture, which by the way includes both, the perspective lays out a blueprint of determining what it takes to be the G.O.A.T.
So when we look at that basketball Mount Rushmore that everyone wants to re-create, there are two faces that should be fixtures. Bill Russell and Michael Jordan should definitely be chiseled. The other two spots can be debated, and every argument will probably be a good one, just not as good as the one that Russell and Jordan will have.