GOAT comparisons should be about appreciation, not depreciation
The conversation is all too familiar on sports talk shows, comment sections and blogs — who’s the NBA’s GOAT?
The debate — rather, heated dialogue — was always flawed because it compared different players in different eras. With the recent passing of Kobe Bryant, that debate feels especially trite.
It is sad that it took Kobe’s death to turn a triangle of zealotry between his fans, Michael Jordan fans and LeBron James fans into a ring of respect. The dialogues that have followed should be the start of a new approach to such a complex conversation.
Honestly, I grew up a Michael Jordan fan. I have two picture-perfect clear memories of my Jordan fandom, and they’re not of the iconic shot he hit in Utah. The first is the day my youngest brother, Denzel, was born. He was born on February 13, 1998, the same day that Michael Jordan hit a buzzer-beater to beat the Atlanta Hawks. I remember being in the hospital and watching the game, and MJ hit that shot close to the time my kid brother was born.
The second memory is another buzzer beater that happened in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals. You know the shot. Bryon Russell reached, MJ hit him with a hesitation move, pulled up and called game. I was in the den of my childhood home when he hit that shot. I ran and screamed into the kitchen like a roaring missile. I’ll never forget the incredulous (and clearly irked) look on my dad’s face, like, “Hell wrong with you, son?”
Those memories fueled my zealotry. As Kobe was poised to win his fourth and fifth rings, I harbored resentment for him because he inched ever so close to MJ’s championship total.
That number, six, represents a flawed standard — a moving goalpost. Jordan’s six championships aren’t the most in NBA history, but in combination with the mystique and marketing of Michael Jordan, we made it the ultimate standard.
And sure, MJ never lost in the Finals, but the media and the public has spent so much time trivializing the achievements of Kobe and LeBron because of that flawed standard. It wasn’t always like that, because we hold the accomplishments of players who didn’t win championships — players like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Patrick Ewing — in high regard.
Media and sports talk shows are complicit in this as well. How many times has the “GOAT debate” been incessantly rehashed during a slow news cycle, or on the cusp of a record-breaking achievement?
The intent is understood, but it unnecessarily diminishes the greatness of the game’s predecessors. The GOATs have acknowledged that such comparisons really are like comparing apples and oranges.
“We play in different eras,” Jordan said recently when asked if either him or LeBron was “the GOAT.”
“I know it’s a natural tendency to compare eras to eras and it’s going to continue to happen.”
When LeBron passed Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in Philadelphia last Saturday, the city truly lived up to its nickname of Brotherly Love. The mutual respect and admiration was apparent. Less than a week later, that display is sad and soul-wrenching, with only a single solace — LeBron was able to give Kobe his flowers while he lived.
In the days after Kobe’s passing, the “GOAT debate” was put on hiatus with a phrase — “don’t debate, appreciate.” There was a caricature of Jordan with his arms around Kobe and LeBron.
We don’t have to entirely do away with the debate. We just need to approach it in a way that edifies the greats and doesn’t tear them down.
I never thought the debate would end; but then, I never imagined a world without Kobe Bryant. His life is a lesson to us all on so many levels. In this case, it’s a challenge for us to appreciate greatness without bias.