James Better than Jordan, but Neither the Best

May 07, 2013 -- 10:35am


Now that LeBron James has won his 4th MVP award in five years the debate is hotter than ever: Who’s the greatest player in NBA history, James or Michael Jordan?

I’ll admit that it pains me as a Tar Heel to say it, but I give the edge to James. He’s two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Jordan. Their physical skills – jumping, speed, quickness – are comparable. Ditto for their basketball skills.

But here’s where I differ from nearly everyone else: I don’t think either is the greatest NBA player ever. I think that distinction goes to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Certainly he is the most valuable player ever – and, yes, I’m well aware of Bill Russell’s career.

Abdul-Jabbar was a 7-foot-2 athlete who could play basketball at the highest level. He was a dominant scorer, rebounder and defender and a superb team player.

If he’d been a little more selfish, revealed more personality and was better liked we wouldn’t even being having this discussion.

It is accurate to say that for much of his career he was among the most disliked, hated even, players in the NBA. He was quiet and considered aloof. When he converted to Islam after two seasons in the NBA – changing his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – he came vilified by many observers and fans. He was among the first athletes to change his name, following in the then unpopular steps of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.

It is also natural to dismiss 7-footers from talk of greatest players. “If he was 6-6, no one would have ever heard of him,” often is how the criticism goes.

But he was 7-2 and he was athletic and he put up the numbers and won the championships (6) along with the individual awards. He was named MVP in five of his first eight seasons.

He so dominated in college at UCLA that dunking was made illegal but he still led the Bruins to three straight titles and an 88-game winning streak. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and turned them into NBA champions in two years. He was the centerpiece in the Lakers dominating the 1980s by winning five titles.

James still has half of his career to play out. When he’s finished, maybe he’ll deserve to be called the greatest ever. Until then that distinction, in my opinion, belongs to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You had to see him play to truly appreciate how great he was.

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