Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY


June 7, 2013

Greatness comes from many boxes

GLASGOW — The debates are classic — Who is the greatest rock guitarist of all time? Who has been the best president? What is the greatest college basketball team of all time? Who is the best NBA player ever?

My son and I only ever discuss one of these things and it’s not what president was best.

The other day we were on the road, driving somewhere I don’t recall, while on the radio two experts were discussing whether LeBron James was as good as Michael Jordan. They were weighing whether James is as great as Jordan or if he needed to win six championships to get there.

To my son I say, “James is not the second coming of Jordan, he is the second coming of ‘Magic’ Johnson. Kobe Bryant is the second coming of Jordan.”

Frankly, though, neither statement is wholly true and the reason is very simple. James and Bryant were more widely recognized by the time they were 17 than either Jordan or Johnson were when they were 19 or 20 and entering the National Basketball Association. Both had witnessed success in college. Johnson led Michigan State to an NCAA national title in the game that has been cited as the one to really put basketball on the popular map nationwide. He left college after his sophomore year, which was considered very early in 1979. He again proved his ability to change the game when he played center as a rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers in place of injured hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and led the team to an NBA championship. It was the beginning of one of the greatest professional basketball careers and whatever hype that surrounded it was earned.

Jordan’s career followed a similar scenario. He helped his university, North Carolina, win a national title with a jump shot (a play that defined his career) and carried that identification as a clutch winner. (Most people forget the shots he didn’t make, but those are not replays anyone would want to watch anyway. They also forget that he missed most of his second pro season with a foot injury and there was some question whether he would pan out as an NBA prospect.)

To me, Johnson entered the league and changed it. He sparked the idea that a point guard could be a big man and that they could play on the perimeter, run the floor and handle the basketball. Before Johnson, most guys who were 6’9” were to be post players. He inspired many bigger guys to decide they wanted to be the ones running the offense (think Jalen Rose). He, along with Larry Bird at that time, made it cool to dish assists to a teammate. In my neighborhood, every one of us wanted to be able to pass the ball, especially in spectacular ways.

Johnson played in eight NBA Finals and won five titles. His individual run is second only to Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in the late 1950s and 1960s. (Of course, prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Los Angeles Lakers were known more for the Finals futility. They lost seven times in nine seasons to the Celtics in the 1960s.)

Like Johnson, James transcends the normal idea of what a basketball player is supposed to be. He’s an incredible athlete, especially at his size, and, despite being required to be a scorer, seems more comfortable setting up his teammates. I have always believed his coaches have asked him to play the game the wrong way because he can score at will. Johnson was allowed to dribble the ball into the post, backing down his defender, then was able to make a decision whether to pass or score. The rules have changed so that a player is no longer allowed to do that and the way the game is played at the professional level has changed.

James has led a team to the NBA Finals four times, including in 2007 at Cleveland when his supporting cast included Mo, Larry and Curly. The Cavs lost in four games to the team James and the Miami Heat are matched up with this year, the San Antonio Spurs. Cleveland’s franchise, unlike the Lakers, is not known for its prolonged success. If James had been so lucky as to be drafted by Boston or by LAL, his career might have taken a different path. He might already be wearing around a handful of title rings. (This is part of what makes it so hard to compare great players. The circumstance by which they enter the league has a lot to do with how we fans view them. James has caught a lot of heat for taking his considerable talents to South Beach, but even if he wins only one title while playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the move was the right one for his career. It was obvious the people running the Cavaliers had no clue how to build a title-contending team.)

This brings us to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. It’s obvious both Johnson and James have the ability to make the players around them better than each one’s individual talent. The same can’t be said for Bryant and Jordan, I believe. They are both players who must have their chances to score first and need teammates who can do other things, such as rebound, shoot outside shots, or defend. I don’t think it is a surprise that both had the most success while playing for the same coach — Phil Jackson.

As a coach, he was able to convince each to do what they do best, score, but also to play defense and trust their teammates.

Jordan won six titles while playing for Jackson with the Chicago Bulls. (Jordan’s first few seasons, with the exception of the one he missed due to injury, were spectacular on an individual level, but team success was fleeting. The Bulls organization was also not known for being a winning one before the trio of Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippin came together.)

After a second three-peat, Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1998. Jackson took a year off, then went to Los Angeles to mentor Bryant and coach the Lakers. There, along with Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant and Jackson won three-consecutive titles. (To be fair, Jackson being able to get O’Neal and Bryant to play together turned out to be the most amazing coaching job ever. Both of those players were “me” first kind of guys, as has been revealed in the years since that team eroded and put an end to what could have been a run close to what the Celtics accomplished with 11 titles in 13 seasons.) The Lakers made it back to the Finals four more times with Bryant and Jackson. O’Neal was with the team when it lost to Detroit in 2003, but left for Miami after that season. The Lakers went to the Finals three straight seasons from 2008-10 and won twice.

Let us recap what we have learned. Jordan won six titles, all with Jackson as coach and Pippin as sidekick. He may have won more if not for skipping a season and a half to play baseball.

Bryant, still playing, has won five titles and been to the NBA Finals seven times. Jackson was coach for all seven trips, but his sidekick, O’Neal, only played for four of the teams.

James, so far, has been to the Finals four times with two different coaches and two different teams. If they win this season, he will have two rings, but both will be with Wade and Bosh playing. It’s too early to see if he can win a title in a different environment.

To me, Johnson proved to be the greatest winner. He won titles with different coaches and different other top players on the team. (Though, technically, he never won without Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Cooper. He made a trip to the Finals without them, in 1991, and the Lakers lost in five games to Jordan’s Bulls.)

It’s possible that James will leave the Heat at some point and go to another team. With his size, strength and ability to handle the basketball, even when he becomes less athletic because of age, he will still have the skills to be successful. Don’t be surprised if he wins titles, or at least reaches the Finals, with a whole different cast of characters. Would that make him the greatest player ever?

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