As sport fans, we’re a bit obsessed with labeling which athletes should be called “The Greatest.” I assume it’s an obsession that goes back to the beginning of time. It’s not a singular activity for sport fans, but we’re probably the most passionate debaters. It often bothers me, and this probably says more about me than anything else, that there’s never been an agreed upon criteria. Not that there is in most other avenues of life, but we have so many statistics and recorded historical events to reference. It’s pretty easy to find out how many rebounds player X had, but not so easy to find out how many objections your favorite lawyer had sustained.
When it comes to the most popular three American sports, Michael Jordan is the most widely accepted answer for the Greatest of All-Time, or the G.O.A.T. And I don’t think that’s an untrue statement. It took me longer to get there than most people I knew growing up. Like most fans, the years I cared the most came during junior high and high school. For most of those years, I was a devoted member in the Church of Magic Johnson. I first realized the err of my ways during Jordan’s first retirement. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all. So I’m not here to say that Jordan is overrated. But I do believe his six titles are over-weighted.
Six Championships is an amazingly impressive accomplishment, no matter the sport. There’s no debate here. A good or very good player can get lucky and win one, see: Orel Hershiser. Some great ones have played illustrious careers, and never even really sniff one, see: Barry Sanders. Being the main or one of the main, contributors to six titles is remarkable. The guys deserve to be in these kinds of conversations. Sorry, Steve Kerr.
But you also won’t win that many without some level of luck. There are all kinds of different situations, beyond a single player’s control, that have to break just right for a player to be a part of dynasty. For starters, you need the right coach, the right teammates, and the right opponents. Michael Jordan hit the jackpot with his coach, Phil Jackson. Jackson, who for so long was viewed as the lucky one, the coach who just happens to only coach great players, and there’s some truth to that. He needed a little bit of luck too, but eleven rings aren’t an accident. Having Scottie Pippen play Robin to Jordan’s Bat-Man was another stroke of luck. Pippen, the 5th pick in the 1987 draft by the Seattle Supersonics, out of the tiny University of Central Arkansas. Seattle had established players in the same positions that Pippen could play (Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel) so they worked out a trade with Chicago for a center they could have drafted, Olden Polynice and some other draft picks were swapped. Just your standard draft day deal.
So that was a little bit of luck and some smart’s on the part of the Bulls. I happen to think, that Jordan was luckiest when it came to his opponents. Jordan’s Bulls had some legendary battles with the Isaiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons in the late 80’s. Three years in a row, the Piston’s knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs. They went on to win the NBA title the last two years. Then what happened? Thomas began to breakdown, playing in only 48 of 82 games that year. From winning his last title at 29 years of age, he was out of the league at 32.
Jordan gets his first title in 1991. Defeating the previously mentioned, one time G.O.A.T, Magic Johnson. No luck there, right? Defeating a 5-Time champion, who had one two of the last four titles? Well, not exactly. The Lakers were lead by first year coach, Mike Dunleavy, who replaced Hall of Famer Pat Riley who had stepped down after winning Coach of the Year in 1990 amid rumors of anger issues. Dunleavy is still a household name, who went on to coach 17 seasons. But he’s never been a very successful coach, and after all of those years, he is more than a 100 games under .500. And Dunleavy only won three more playoff series after 1991. The Lakers also suffered significant injuries to James Worthy and Byron Scott. That’s not to say, had they stayed healthy, that the Lakers would have beaten the Bulls. The finals appeared to be the first of possibly multiple NBA Final match-ups, between two goliaths, ended up as a one-time event. Magic Johnson, tragically, retired after the ’91 season after being diagnosed with HIV.
Then in 1992, the Bulls met up with the Portland Trailblazers in the Finals. Portland was a formidable foe, with playoff experience, and the second best shooting guard in the game in Clyde Drexler. However, it again appeared that the foundation was in place for the Bulls to perhaps have a rival in the Western Conference. But Drexler got hurt, and they soon broke up the team. So instead, the Bulls met up with the Phoenix Suns, led by MVP Charles Barkley. The Bulls won their third straight title.
And then…and then Michael Jordan retired. By this time, there’s not much question as to who the G.O.A.T is. Jordan retired with three titles, the NBA record career scoring average of 32 points per game, three MVP awards, and seven scoring titles. He was also just 29 years old.
Jordan only missed a year and a half before his famous return. Still not yet back in basketball shape, the Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs by the Orlando Magic. And everything seemed to point to a budding dynasty for the Magic. They had an unstoppable force in Shaquille O’Neal, who was only 22, and a guard being compared to both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, in Anfernee Hardaway, who was just 23. Orlando lost to the Rockets in the Finals, their second consecutive title.
1995-96 was Jordan’s first full year back, and the Bulls were historically great. Winning a record 72 games, and only losing one game on their way to the title. But the budding dynasty in Orlando wasn’t to be. Shaq left for LA after the ’96 season.
The Bulls went on to win the next two titles as well, before Jordan walked away again. In both of those series, they defeated the Utah Jazz. The league had suddenly aged. The mid early to mid-90’s marked an era of young, uber-talented players who never figured it out. Hardaway, Shaq, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, JR Rider, Jamal Mashburn, Nick Van Exel, Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman were the post children for careers that could have been so much better. Egos blew up multiple nucleuses’, like the Mavericks and Magic. What does that have to do with Michael Jordan? Maybe nothing. Maybe more. Maybe the style of play from this new generation was so influenced by Jordan, that they all tried so hard to score 30 points a game and get their shoe deals, and so the game suffered. So instead of a decade of great teams, only three different franchises won titles between 1989 and 1998. While five franchises won titles in the next 10 years.
But part of being great, is taking advantage of the breaks you get. Maybe Jordan was so great, that he couldn’t have a single nemesis during his prime. Not the way Magic had Bird, or Russell had Wilt, or Wilt and Kareem. Perhaps his rival natural rival, turned out to be the saddest turn of luck in all of Jordan’s career. A contemporary, drafted by an iconic franchise who tragically died after a drug overdose. Did Jordan miss out on his greatest challenge, the night Len Bias died? Of course, this has nothing to do with Jordan’s place in history. Before Bias, and since, there have been plenty of highly regarded college players who never realized their supposed potential.