Babe Ruth’s dominance is not respected by casual fans, nor by sports talking heads who want to whip up some controversy. Jerry West and Rick Barry and Wilt are afterthoughts to the modern sports observer, who refuses to consider that athletes were tough and fast and smart prior to 1990.
This erosion of great athletes’ legacies happens to everyone. Time not only brings retirement. Time throws dirt upon anything that happened yesterday, at least to all of you prisoners of the moment. It’s inevitable. The new generation wants to remove the landmark set by their fathers. The younger always believes the newer way is better. Then, hypocritically, they will roll their eyes at older folks who laud anything time-tested from the past… things that actually did work for the time. There are ditches of extremism on either side of any argument. We discussed this in “3-point cult“.
The same downgrading will happen to Michael Jordan, even though he is still currently, and largely, seen as the best basketball player ever. In fact, it has already begun. Let’s examine some of the criticism aimed at Jordan, now that he is receding into the video clip bin of history.
“Michael Jordan succeeded because had a good team.” We all know that Jordan didn’t win his rings until he had a supporting cast worthy of his fire. For some reason this is a strike against only him.
One popular dart, often thrown, is that when Jordan left the NBA that first time, the Chicago Bulls went from 57 to 55 wins. This is posited as proof that he wasn’t that valuable to a good-without-him team, “because when LeBron leaves teams, they fall apart.” There is some truth to this observation. The problem is that even LeBron never really won until he got better teammates, too. He just helped losing teams improve a lot.
Magic Johnson reportedly came out of college when he did because he knew he’d end up with the Lakers already-loaded team. This reveals Magic as the prototypical architect of LeBron’s “Decision.” Magic angled to get on a team with the better players and no one cares. Larry Bird had companions like McHale, Parish and Dennis Johnson, plus a dedicated front office in Boston. No one puts the good teammate criticism on them. One man can affect a lot in the game of basketball. But to win titles, he needs help.
“Michael Jordan wasn’t really so clutch.” There has been plenty of research to show that Jordan, along with other perceived “money time” players like Kobe, only hit shots taken with the game on the line about a third of the time or less.
It’s not about making the highest percentage of shots. It is the willingness to take those shots at crucial moments. It is the strength to shoulder the blame when the failures come. Not everyone can handle that.
Remember Scottie Pippen in the 1994 playoffs, the year Jordan took off to play baseball? Pippen became frustrated several times during that season, including once refusing to enter a pivotal game because Coach Phil Jackson didn’t call a play for him. In short: He couldn’t handle the burden. No shame, for few of us could. “All of the pressure is on me,” he complained in those days, as it dawned on him what Jordan shouldered.
“Michael Jordan’s statistics in whatever area don’t match up to (fill-in-a-name).” There are already movements to place Steph Curry and LeBron James above MJ. Usually people take some stat or area in which another player equals or exceeds Jordan, and use that to build an overall argument.
We have oceans of analytical information, or better yet mindless trivia, in our time. So it stands to reason you could find a way in which someone beats Jordan at something. Sometimes, we simply want a shiny new toy to stare at and marvel over. And, in true new age fashion, we try to create our own realities, using reams of figures as building blocks. Numbers don’t lie, but people always do.
Notice that some of the arguments begin to overlap. You can’t compare today’s best three-point shooters against Jordan’s numbers, for example, because people weren’t putting up long distance shots at that rate back then. Outside of the Reggie Miller and Dale Ellis types, they clearly weren’t putting in time to improve that area, as they are today. We have now calculated the risk-reward of treys to an exalted level. It is a different game, not necessarily “better” just because guys are more practiced shooters. A technically-perfect singer is not always better or more entertaining than a backwoods country belter who has put her heart and soul into her voice.
How simple can we make this? Jordan, similar to a player like Dwyane Wade, didn’t shoot threes all the time, because he didn’t have to. Why should he? No one could stop him!
“Michael Jordan was cocky.” The best picture of what is in Jordan’s heart came when he gave his Hall of Fame speech. The only surprise was that people were surprised at all, and/or offended by what he said. You think Curry and Bird don’t have people in their pasts who they are vicariously proving wrong?
All great athletes, indeed all who are among the elite in any industry, are generally full of themselves. To reach such platforms, there must be a single focus, an arrogance and confidence that they can compete on the highest level. We know these are not the best qualities for a human being, but for the purposes of big-time competition, they are celebrated. Because we know that this pride of being seen as the best eventually makes our entertainment factor that much more intense. This lust for fame and money and status helps shape a historically great athlete.
One talking head makes a habit of mentioning that Jordan punched Steve Kerr during a practice, as if that has never otherwise happened between teammates. Except many of our brightest sports stars were legendarily vicious. Don’t let Magic Johnson’s smile and backslapping fool you. By all accounts, he was aiming to cut the heart out of the opponent. As a multimillion dollar businessman, there is little question that he needs an element of ruthlessness in that arena, too.
Larry Bird talked so much trash that Dr. J famously lunged at Bird, right there on the basketball court. Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Tom Brady and Drew Brees are presented as self-deprecating. No way is that an accurate rendering. These are the equivalents of company CEOs, and there is a certain image to project. That is all.