Greatness in the NBA is more of an art than science. It requires the artist to master four techniques: performance, presence, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection.
I’ve been thinking about greatness a lot since posting the weekend podcast for the Wages of Wins Network’s 50 Greatest NBA Players of All-Time on Sunday. I wanted to post a lot of thoughts on greatness, but Teresa Edwards summed them all up for me in the excellent speech she gave during her induction into the Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Here is an excerpt from her speech that defines what greatness on a basketball court is all about:
“When I woke up, a funny thing happened to me. I thought about Dr. J, Julius Erving...I almost killed myself trying to do everything this man did. Oh yeah, Doc, it was you that drove me from a little girl. You were my greatness.”
That line from Edwards’ speech hit me like a bolt of lightning because it reminded me of something Dr. J said during an episode of the NBA Roundtable Show that aired on January 14, 2011, titled “The Legends Journey:”
“Lou Carnesecca used to talk about, with certain athletes, it’s like taking a blank canvas and when that player performs they’re actually painting a picture. That’s what comes to mind for me. When you watch them play, there’s the arena and there’s what this guy’s doing. There’s a handful of guys who painted pictures for people. And those pictures made indelible impressions that they will have the rest of their lives.”
-Julius “the Doctor” Erving
Dr. J painted pictures for Edwards that made indelible impressions on her and she could carry with her on her journey to becoming the most prolific American player in Olympic basketball history. She played on five Olympic basketball teams, scored over 2,000 points for Team USA and it started with Dr. J inspiring her to be great.
The story of Edwards and Dr. J is what greatness on a basketball court is all about. Greatness doesn’t just live in the box scores or the record books. Greatness lives on in the memories of the fans and its historians.
That’s why my remix of the 50 Greatest NBA Players focused on the stats, All-Star selections and all-NBA team selections for current, or future, Hall-of-Famers. The stats reflect what the player accomplished on the court. The All-Star selections reflect how the fans and coaches felt about the player. The all-NBA team selections reflect how the media felt about the player. The Hall of Fame reflects the opinion of the game’s historians.
That’s also why last weekend's podcast ended with Dwyane Wade being chosen over Mark Jackson as one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players of All-Time. Jackson may be third on the all-time assist list, but he was never the artist on the court that Wade is now or Dr. J was then. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might say, Jackson was more of a grinder.
What's the most important criteria for greatness in the NBA?
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published the following quote from Spoelstra about grinders and artists a week before the “Legends Journey” episode of NBA Roundtable Showcase aired:
"You have the grinders," Spoelstra said, "and then you have the artists... They have a creativity, they have a flair," he said. "And their greatness is in that creativity and out of the box. So you have to allow them to be a little bit of who they can be and not restrict them."
For the truly great players, their greatness should be a universal truth. The numbers, fans, media and historians should all agree they were truly great. Their greatness lives forever in the records of history and the hearts of the historians because they took the game places people didn’t think it could go.
In “The Legends Journey," Dr, J said:
“I wanted to undertake the challenge of daring to be great. It’s like, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. No risk, no reward.’ So I would hold that in my heart that I was not going to be afraid to dare to be great and do something that maybe nobody had ever seen before.”
Walton: "Bill Russell, you were a completely different player and completely different person than everyone that came before you. When you were coming up, who did you look at and say, “Okay, that’s how I want to play.
Russell: There wasn’t any person.
Walton: There was nobody. So how did you learn how to do this?
Russell: Trial and error. You see, what you do is, you try to win the games. You try to figure out what you have and, 'How can I take what I have and win games with it?'”
Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier called it “individual expression.” The individual expression of players like Russell and Dr. J inspired fans like Edwards to become the next generation of great players.
Collectively, they will inspire future Hall-of-Famers as teammates fighting to establish a dynasty. Individually, they will inspire future great players with their presence on the court.
Russell explained the importance of presence in “The Legends Journey.”
“I thought that what distinguished a great player was his presence. When he goes onto the court, his presence dominates the atmosphere. It’s like, you’re at the game and Doc’s playing, everybody in the building’s watching him warm up.”
Aside from performance and presence, the great players also need perseverance. Walton and Russell gave a perfect example in “The Legends Journey."
Walton: "I was plagued, still am, with structural, congenital defects in my feet. By the end, they told me I never should’ve played basketball.
Russell: So you took a disability, couple of ‘em, and made a good career out of it with what you had to work with. See, that’s the most important thing—what you have to work with and what you do with that."
Everyone knows about Wade’s injury history. He established himself as the greatest shooting guard in the NBA after winning the title and Finals MVP in 2006, then lost his spot to injuries and a free fall to a 15-67 record, and literally had to rebuild himself into the game’s best two-guard.
Walton and Russell addressed physical perseverance, but Dr. J had some great quotes about the mental perseverance required to be great:
"I always thought that I wanted to win without boasting and lose without crying. And if you chew on that one, you chew on that one, it’s going to keep you in a good place that helps you maintain your sanity while all the madness is going on around you."
"I certainly didn’t feel at the end of the season, being the second-best team, that it was all over. I felt, actually, more determined about coming back the next year because I felt we could probably get back there again."
No NBA player was surrounded by more madness than LeBron last season. It takes a mindset like the one Dr. J described to keep an even keel in the midst of all that.
Many members of the Heat $#!t List want to criticize LeBron for losing his first two NBA Finals, but Dr. J lost his first three. Like Dr. J in the 1970s and 80s, LeBron knows his team has the ability to get back again and again. Losing to the Mavs only made him more determined.
Performance. Presence. Perseverance. They are the hallmarks of greatness that lead to the finishing touch for all great players: Perfection. Whether it’s induction into the Hall of Fame, an NBA title or an Olympic gold medal. Perfection always follows greatness.
Edwards’ Hall of Fame speech was no different. After she praised the greatness of Dr. J, she said:
“And then came my perfection. My god. I've never seen a man like that in my life...he became my perfection...the only thing greater than Michael was God to me."
Michael Jordan. The ultimate standard for the modern NBA player. It won’t be easy for Wade and LeBron to meet that standard, but I believe they’re up for the challenge.