Of course, these tournaments are fun yet silly, and they’re pretty worthless if they don’t inspire significant grumbling. There’s nothing definitive about them, but they are a window into whose legacies are being maintained and whose need more diligent upkeep. For a great one to transcend time, they must survive the generational mud wrestling that occurs when the young, middle-aged and old start talking about sports and greatness.
In general, there is no right or wrong in these debates, as long as people are being reasonable in weighing the facts. So that makes for an endless argument. It’s almost impossible to compare eras, and it’s a greater challenge to agree on criteria for our judgments. Every form of the GOAT discussion — in sports, music, movies, presidents, anything — devolves into this fascinating, frustrating and boundary-less look at our vague value systems.
But it is clear Abdul-Jabbar’s claim to the Greatest Of All Time throne is no longer being emphasized enough. The ESPN tournament — in which Michael Jordan beat Larry Bird in the final — represents powerful anecdotal evidence because the network is so popular. But it’s more than that. The current Jordan vs. LeBron James debate is drowning out all other legitimate GOAT candidates. Before getting to Kareem, you have to navigate the Jordan obsession, the recency bias that aids LeBron, the fascination with the NBA-altering rivalry of Magic Johnson and Bird, Bill Russell’s 11 rings, Wilt Chamberlain’s incomparable feats and possibly the Kobe Bryant tragedy, which figures to add extra emotion to the evaluation of his already robust legend.
The game will continue to grow and evolve, so more GOAT candidates will enter the discussion and drop the current ones from top-of-mind status. And that’s where Abdul-Jabbar’s importance to basketball must be preserved. It has been 31 years since his retirement, and that feels like a long time ago, especially because March lasted 30 years. But for a historical figure, it is too short an amount of time to see such a slippage in recognition. Luckily, there is no better time to spell out Kareem’s GOAT case than now, with the sports world stuck on pause and only memories to keep us entertained.
There are dozens of reasons not to sleep on Abdul-Jabbar, but let’s narrow the list to five defining aspects of his greatness: longevity, records, social impact, mastery of the skyhook (making him owner of the sport’s most unstoppable signature move) and influence on three levels of basketball.
For many who lived the entirety of his career, Abdul-Jabbar, who turns 73 on Thursday, is the greatest high school, college and NBA player they have ever seen. Some transcendent players, such as Jordan, were considered late bloomers. Some, such as James, skipped a level. Abdul-Jabbar captured the nation’s imagination as a teen and continued to fulfill his promise incrementally for more than 20 years. When he retired from the NBA in 1989, he had scored 38,387 points, a record that may be unbreakable if James doesn’t last long enough to catch him.
As the 1985-86 season ended, Abdul-Jabbar was 39 and still averaging 23.4 points. That was his 17th of 20 NBA seasons. We have marveled this season at what James has accomplished in Year 17, but as a preps-to-pros prodigy, he is four years younger than Kareem was. He didn’t go 88-2 and win three titles in college.
Although Chamberlain, his former rival, used to needle Abdul-Jabbar for playing too long, it is more than fair to proclaim that no superstar remained as consistent and relevant for as long as Abdul-Jabbar. It helped that he had Johnson, James Worthy, Coach Pat Riley and a loaded Los Angeles Lakers squad supporting him. His partnership with Johnson helped him win five of his six NBA titles, but because they are the greatest superstar duo ever (Don’t @ me! I will argue this to the grave — and win!), it unjustly diminishes their singular greatness in the minds of many. But the scope of his career — arrived in the NBA the season after Russell retired, tussled with Chamberlain, won five championships in the glorious 1980s, exited just as Jordan was about to fully take over — is remarkable. He remains the league’s only six-time MVP. He was a 19-time all-star, made 15 all-NBA teams and appeared on 11 all-defensive teams.
His activism has been just as impressive, from his 1968 Olympics boycott to his support of Muhammad Ali to all of his thoughtful writing and social commentary. President Obama honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. There are many things about celebrity that Jordan, Magic, LeBron and others may comprehend better than the guarded 7-foot-2 center, but they cannot compete with Abdul-Jabbar’s willingness to think independently and sacrifice fame for his beliefs.
With ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls debuting this month, we are going to be inundated with reminders of his greatness. When the NBA resumes, James’s pursuit of a fourth championship and the all-time scoring record (he needs 4,301 points to pass Abdul-Jabbar) will resume as the NBA’s most dominant story line. There are obvious personality reasons for our fascination with Jordan and James, and for most people’s tastes, big men don’t inspire as much awe as highflying wing players. But the GOAT conversation is much broader than those two, and Abdul-Jabbar should be much higher on the list.
Perhaps he came too soon. His most dominant NBA years were during the 1970s, the NBA’s most difficult and drug-infested era. Perhaps the best parts of his game were too subtle, and his personality came across as too aloof. Or perhaps the problem is with us, not him, and perhaps we should be more deliberate and less reactionary in assessing greatness.
When you put together every aspect of sports stardom and the positive potential of fame, it all adds up to a flattering conclusion: Abdul-Jabbar epitomizes a GOAT. He may not be your favorite GOAT, but you can’t have a credible herd without including him and placing him prominently. Put on your goggles and check the receipts.
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