Michael Jordan got himself elected into the basketball Hall of Fame. Imagine that.
It rekindles a debate over whether MJ is the best player who ever laced up a sneaker.
I’ll give Jordan this: he’s the best player I ever saw—who stuck his tongue out while he played.
Beyond that, I’m not so sure.
I’m older than most of the Internet squonks who chatter on the Web about sports. I am, at age 45, on the cusp of being outside the main demographic of Internet users—that coveted 18-to-45-year-old person.
So, it’s natural that whenever one of the younger squonks touts Jordan as the best ever, they don’t have much of a response when I ask them if they’ve heard of Oscar Robertson. Or Elgin Baylor. Or heck, George Mikan.
But they do recall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Wilt Chamberlain. Not all that well or with all that much respect, but they’ve heard of those guys, at least.
I’ll bottom line you here: if given a blank roster with 12 slots to fill, which player, throughout history, would you select as your No. 1 draft choice?
You’d be a fool to start such a team with Jordan.
Stick Abdul-Jabbar in the middle, and NOW you’re talking.
Nobody scored more points in NBA history than Kareem, though I’m not foolish enough to say that’s reason enough to pick him as the greatest player ever.
After all, Jordan retired a few times and thus may have made up most, if not all, of the 6,000+ points deficit he has with Jabbar. But Kareem scored his 38,387 points without the benefit of three-pointers.
So it is fact: Kareem is the highest-scoring player in league history. And it sorta has to do with the fact that once he got the ball, you really couldn’t stop him.
Remember the sky hook?
Alcindor/Kareem, about to school Wilt
Kareem entered the league in 1969, a 7'2" beanpole from the streets of New York who went across the country to play for John Wooden at UCLA.
Finally, someone in the league that even the seven-footer Chamberlain had to look up to.
The Milwaukee Bucks were a typical NBA expansion team in 1968-69; read: awful. They won 27 games, lost 55.
Then they drafted Kareem No. 1 in ‘69.
The Bucks won 56 games with the rookie Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, playing center for them and confounding opponents who had no real clue how to defend him. Chamberlain was pretty unstoppable, too. Wilt averaged 50 points per game one season, scoring an even 100 in one contest alone.
But Wilt wasn’t very mobile, nor did he have the moves Alcindor possessed. One of Wilt’s former coaches, Butch van Breda Kolff, said that if the basketball court was made of grass, Wilt would have worn out a one square foot patch.
Kareem had the sky hook, about as unstoppable of a shot as you’ll ever see. He could rebound and pass. It was essential, playing for Wooden, that big men be able to pass. Bill Walton, following Kareem at UCLA, was another great passing center.
This might be an apples and oranges thing, though—comparing the guard Jordan to the center Jabbar. But it’s always apples and oranges when you’re going in search of the best player ever in any sport.
Jordan was fantastic. No question. Just because a player isn’t No. 1 overall in history, doesn’t mean he can’t play.
I just don’t think that Jordan, at 6'6", could have led the ‘69 Bucks to a 30-win improvement, as the 7'2" Jabbar did.
The NBA is a tall man’s game, just like it's always been. Size and talent in the middle has been essential, for the most part, for every championship team that’s ever played.
I could spend some time arguing that The Big O, Robertson, was as good or better than Jordan, in Oscar’s prime. In 1961-62, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists. A triple double—average. And in two other seasons, Robertson came decimal points away from doing it again.
Oh, and he shot 48.5 percent for his career and about 84 percent from the free throw line.
But I’ll stick with Kareem if I’m starting a team from scratch. The Big O and MJ have to have someone to pass to, after all. May as well be the best player who’s ever graced an NBA hardwood.