For those who might be unfamiliar, GOAT is an acronym for “Greatest of All Time.”
Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan performing open-heart surgery on the Utah Jazz.
I know you remember the shot. (How could you forget?) Jordan standing there with literally picture-perfect form.
It’s a moment frozen in time.
Or, are we the ones frozen?
We have made the “Jordan Standard” an impossible one.
That’s not to say he isn’t arguably the best basketball player ever — his stats and accomplishments provide an exceptional argument.
Still, at what point do we at least admit that we’re stuck in a moment?
To quote Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, is it the shoes? Twenty years later, Jordan brand sneakers are still flying off of the shelves.
Is it the Black Cat’s compulsive competitiveness? America loves a winner. We prioritize winning over everything.
Or is it a mix of mystique, marketing and media?
Enter LeBron Raymone James.
He was hailed as “The Chosen One” before he played a second in the NBA.
He lived up to the hype, but then came an opponent greater than hype — the “Standard.”
We hated Bron because he didn’t always take the last shot. We hated him because he made The Decision.
In a way, we hated him because he wasn’t Jordan.
James overcame those obstacles the same way he overcame the odds of a single-parent upbringing in Akron, Ohio — and those 73-win Golden State Warriors.
His stats and accomplishments made him one half of the question that we can’t stop asking — or hearing:
LeBron vs. Jordan — who’s the GOAT?
It may have been an honest question at first. Now, it’s a bonafide ratings booster, not to mention, a go-to discussion for talking heads and social media.
It can be fun at times. This spectacle has inspired GOAT NFL tight ends to (shamelessly) wear GOAT masks to honor LeBron, all while enduring criticisms from journalists who don’t skip a beat when it comes to LeBron slander.
Ultimately, though, it is a question that threatens the very fabric of NBA legacy. Why?
Because we are unable to appreciate greatness both in the present AND the distant past.
The missing GOATs
The truth of the matter is this — no matter what your favorite sports show or your friends tell you, Jordan and LeBron aren’t the only GOATs.
The “Jordan Standard,” at its core, is a championship standard. For many folks, six is the magic number.
Here’s the thing about that standard: there are two legends in NBA history who have either matched or exceeded that number.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played with both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, won his first title in his second year and won six championships, the same as Jordan.
Meanwhile, Bill Russell won 11 titles in a 13-year span with the Boston Celtics.
If we’re going to use the “Jordan Standard” as a barometer of GOAT status, then we can no longer leave Abdul-Jabbar and Russell out of the conversation.
But why did we leave them out in the first place?
The Price Of Activism
When it comes to statistics and achievements, it’s hard to look past the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor.
A three-time national champion at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar not only won six MVP awards, he also left the NBA as its all-time leading scorer.
So why isn’t he considered the GOAT? Could it have something to do with the fact that he converted to Islam after he won his first title?
“Because of my fame as a professional basketball player and because so few Americans knew anything about Islam back in the ‘70s, there was a lot of angry backlash,” Abdul-Jabbar expressed in a book he co-authored, Becoming Kareem. “People did not want me messing with their idea of who I was or what I represented to them. To many, by changing my religion and name, I was no longer the typical American kid playing a typical American sport, embodying typical American values.”
Russell won big in a town that neglected his achievements and activism for decades. The Celtic great marched on Washington in 1963, as he was personally invited by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Both Russell and Abdul-Jabbar stood up for Muhammad Ali at the “Ali Summit” in Cleveland in 1967. Ali famously refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, and both of the NBA giants stood alongside the boxing heavyweight champion of the world.
Here’s the thing about activism, though: it’s hard to market, especially when it has a Black face.
That is the very burden of responsibility that Colin Kaepernick is dealing with now, and sometimes, the price of activism is being shunned by sports leagues and discredited by the media.
The Decision II
No, I’m not talking about LeBron’s pending free agency. I’m talking about the decision we have to make as fans.
In the last two decades, we have allowed Jordan’s shadow to remain over the NBA, for better and for worse. The tragedy of that shadow is ironic, because we’ve allowed singular greatness to blind us to the greatness of the NBA as a whole.
Believe it or not, there is a solution. We’ve allowed ourselves to be limited by either Jordan, or the endless Jordan vs. LeBron debate. It’s time to look past those limits.
We can’t limit ourselves to biased sports memes.
We can’t limit ourselves to sports media talking points. Remember, it’s called “programming” for a reason.
We can’t limit ourselves to becoming prisoners of the moment. Legacy is best defined through a body of work, and is defined at worst through a game-by-game analysis.
There’s a saying that today is a gift — that’s why we call it the present.
Well, there’s a greater gift when it comes to GOAT talk — the ability to appreciate the moment, even as sports become almost as polarizing as politics.
There’s only one way to describe being able to appreciate the present as it’s happening, with context: