With the word “legacy” being tossed about in these NBA Finals like it’s the only reason for living, I got to thinking of those players who set the legacy-bar in the pro game.
Those memorables who’ve became the standard by which every aspiring superstar will eventually come to be measured.
Aspirants in these Finals would be the reigning MVP LeBron James, ring-holder Dwyane Wade and their up-start opponent, NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant.
And then there’s Russ Westbrook. An asset when he plays Scottie Pippen, second fiddle to OKC’s version of Michael Jordan, Mr. Durant. And if Russ hits the right notes at the right times, like Scottie, he just might get his ticket punched to Springfield, too (HOF).
Why just five all-time greatest hoopsters? Ever since Letterman made the top-ten list a national pastime it’s been run into the ground (ESPN). And those top-100 lists were tiresome & tacky from the start (NFLN). Besides, picking the top five is a slam-dunk. After that, it gets a bit dicey.
5) Michael Jordan
Everyone’s #1 in the 40 & under group. I won’t get on that bandwagon. Mike comes in at #5. Cons: he never faced greatness in the Finals. Competition matters, a lot. Bulls beat a past-prime LA (‘91), Blazers (‘92), Suns (‘93), Sonics (‘96) and Jazz (1997-98). Then there’s Phil. Mike was more than a tweak away before Jackson arrived. The NPR coach is a basketball genius and deserves a share of the credit, winning in NY, Chicago and LA.
Pros: Two, back-to-back-to-back championship runs, an armful of MVPs and an unquenchable thirst for winning once he got a taste for it, all put him in this select group.
4) Larry Bird
Being half of the second greatest match-up in history gives you cachet. Three NBA titles (‘87 got away) and three MVPs gives you substance. Some would say his being the best white player of the past 35 years worked a bias (Thomas), but Bird was no ‘great white (hype) hope.’ He had the shooting touch of Oscar Robertson, passing skills of Bob Cousy and rebounded like Dennis Rodman. And all these results with a chronic bad back, in the most competitive decade in NBA history, the 1980s. Before that back went out and Phil arrived in Chicago, head-to-head, Bird & Boston always had Jordan’s number, even when he put up 60 points.
3) Wilt Chamberlain
If the prize for ‘greatest player ever’ were awarded solely on talent, Chamberlain would get the nod easy. But as it stands today, titles have become the litmus test for greatness. He claimed the prize twice, first as a 76er, besting Boston along the way (’67), then in LA (’72). Coaching was the crux early on but when it finally coalesced in Philly, change came again. Though his shipment to LA formed a super trifecta (Baylor / West), all were winding down. Wilt’s best remembered for his individual feats, persona and battles with Bill. He may’ve been his own worst enemy, albeit in a time of great culture clash. Had his earlier career benefited from the team-stability enjoyed by the other four greats, Wilt the Stilt may’ve had a ring for every finger.
2) Bill Russell
Still #1 for fans-over-fifty, Bill’s the safe choice, given his ring-laden hands (11). Makes you wonder how Jordan can get the votes (6). Bill’s one of the great ‘might have beens’ (for St. Louis): drafted by Hawks (’56). Wilt-supporters (fans) always point to Bill’s team-talent as the winning-edge. With the likes of Sam Jones, Bob Cousy and Hondo Havlicek, it’s a fair point. But in their day, key battles were waged & won down low, in the paint, giants fighting for dominance. And no player (coach ‘66-69), then or since, has dripped more determination onto the hardwood than Mr. Russell.
1) Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Change is good, at least that‘s what we‘re told. I’m not a big fan, no one really is, but in this case, it’s apropos. It’s time Earvin was moved into the top spot. If Bill was Mr. determination, Magic was, well, magical. Nobody seemed to love the game…the GAME of basketball more than Earvin Johnson. America first saw that big smile when he ran the court as a Spartan and for the next 10 years it would light-up the NBA, receding only when he faced nemesis Bird and finally with his shocking AIDS announcement (’91).
Bill doubles-up Magic on titles and MVPs but the gold-standard (rings) is weighted by its karat-count: competition. Russell v Chamberlain was the battle-royal for posterity, but Magic and Lakers faced a more formidable field than did the 60s Celtics. The 80s had four great teams: Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and Pistons, with Bulls, Rockets & Bucks close behind. It’s why the introduction of professionalism into the Olympics (Dream Team) has been nothing more than a marketing money-grab and a farce.
Taking the O’Brien Trophy in his first NBA season (’79-80), subbing for Kareem in ‘87 (hook-shot heard ‘round the world) and even getting his weary Lakers back to the Finals one last time in ’91, all put Mr. Johnson on the highest pedestal. Congrats, Earvin.
As oddly loud as the sport pages have been recently with whining on the Bradley v Pacquiao decision (even Manny’s judge had it close @ 115-113), they’ve been as oddly quiet on the recent passing of another ‘greatest’ in sport. On June 11th it was announced Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson had died of a heart condition at the age of 60.
The undefeated, classy fighter settled for ‘greatest amateur,’ choosing to never turn pro after winning three Olympic heavyweight gold medallions, his first coming at Munich in 1972. By remaining loyal to Fidel Castro and Cuba, Teofilo created another big ‘might have been’: the Stevenson v Ali super-fight. And it would’ve been tremendous. The bad rap on TS: an unproven record. But those critics never saw him fight and then, in his era, the Olympics were the proving ground for prominence, catapulting names like Clay (Ali), Frazier, Foreman and Leonard. Fans of boxing history will remember Teofilo Stevenson.
Ahead of the Curve
Photo credit: Steve Lipofsky / Basketballphoto.com / Magic Johnson & Larry Bird / 5-30-85 / WC
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.