Let out the Air: deflating Michael Jordan

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To start, I’d like to congratulate LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the rest of the Miami Heat for doing something that only a few generations ago would have been unthinkable: making the world root passionately for an unstoppable German. That said, as the Dallas Maverick’s star Dirk Nowitzki celebrates his first NBA Championship and revels in confirming his place as one of the league’s greats it’s also worth taking a moment to think of Robert “Tractor” Traylor. Traylor was drafted in 1998 and immediately traded for fellow draft pick Dirk (Traylor was drafted higher, so Pat Garrity was thrown in to balance the scales).

Dirk went on to become a certain Hall of Famer with both a regular season and NBA Finals MVP on his mantle who, somewhat disturbingly, is still improving after 13 years in the league.

Traylor was out of the NBA by 2005 — trade afterthought Garrity lasted until 2008 — and went on to play in Turkey, Italy, Mexico, and finally Puerto Rico. A star at the University of Michigan before turning pro, in 2003 he was officially stripped of his college honors by the NCAA after it was revealed he took money from a booster. (A friend of mine tutored Traylor during his Wolverine days, describing him as a deeply sweet man who may have valued athletics over academics, as when asked what topic he wanted to write a major paper about Traylor replied with a single word: “Dinosaurs.”) Traylor struggled with weight issues, damaging both his pro career and likely his overall health, as he suffered a fatal heart attack this year.

To recap 2011: Dirk reaches unexpected heights, “Tractor” dies at 34, reminding us all that life is full of surprises, most of them tragic and horrifying. (Just ask Anthony Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who reportedly dated George Clooney and John Cusack only to have been knocked up by…yeah.) (Though there’s still a chance Clooney and/or Cusack will show up at her door and say, “Huma, please take me/us back and let us raise your Weiner child,” which is why you should never give up hope, no matter how many reporters from the New York Post are camped out on your doorstep.)

Now for Jordan.

I was in Beijing in 2008 and visited the 798 district, which took decommissioned military factories and turned them into art studios and galleries. While in the district, I stumbled upon a building with no windows and a massive “2” on one door and an equally massive “3” on the other. I went inside and discovered it was a shrine to Michael Jordan. People quietly strode through and looked at memorabilia (replicas of his six championship trophies were particularly popular) and watched videos of select highlights. The most striking thing about it: while the building was financed by Nike, it didn’t sell any merchandise.

I went to see Chairman Mao’s preserved corpse in Tiananmen Square the next day and that featured a massive gift shop.

To recap: the tribute to an American sneaker pimp quiet and commerce-free, the salute to one of capitalism’s most determined enemies tourist trap.

And this drove home to me something I already knew: unless Clyde Drexler has a mausoleum in Shanghai I somehow missed, Michael Jordan is the most beloved basketball player ever. And that makes sense: after all, Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time.

Note that this does not say “might be the greatest” or “is among the greatest” or any other wussy phrasing to allow for a little bit of wiggle room.

It’s a fact, now and always: accept it. (It’s just easier not to question it — ask Scottie Pippen.)

Except I’m starting to have my doubts. Let’s take two sample players.

Player one wins a title in college, six in the pros (six with his first team, none with his second), is college player of the year once, is the NBA MVP five times, won NBA Rookie of the Year, collects ten NBA scoring titles (as well as leading the NBA in steals three times), twice wins Olympic gold medals, and retires with 32,292 points (third all time). He is six times the NBA Finals MVP and never the Outstanding Player of an NCAA tournament.

Player two wins three titles in college, six titles in the pros (one with his first team, five with his second), reaches the Finals an additional five times, is college player of the year twice, is the NBA MVP six times, won NBA Rookie of the Year, collects two NBA scoring titles (as well as leading the NBA in blocks per game four times and rebounds per game and field goal percentage once), declines the opportunity to play in the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of African-Americans and, due to rules at the time, is never again eligible, and retires with 38,387 points (first all time). He is twice the MVP of the NBA Finals and three times the Outstanding Player of an NCAA tournament.

Player one is the greatest of all time. This is Michael Jordan.

Player two is generally considered to be the third best at his position and he occasionally drops lower on the list. This is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Post-retirement hasn’t been kind to Kareem’s standing. The Los Angeles Lakers, for whom he played most of his career, built statues of one player who joined the team before him (Jerry West) and one who joined the team after (Magic Johnson), though not one of Kareem himself.

They also have a statue of Chick Hearn, the team announcer.

Michael Jordan received a statue immediately following the first of his three retirements, with the result he spent his final three seasons with the Chicago Bulls playing in a stadium that had his statue out front, then occasionally came back to visit it after he retired again and returned as a Washington Wizard.

It’s time it is said: this is crap.

Kareem’s achievements often aren’t downplayed so much as ignored. The titles were all the work of Magic’s supreme skill as a point guard for the Lakers. Which makes total sense, except that Magic didn’t play with Kareem at UCLA when he won those three college titles, nor did he play with him during his time with Milwaukee, when the Bucks won the only championship in their franchise history. (The Bucks’ other star was the legendary Oscar Robertson, who won precisely zero NBA titles during the time away from Kareem.)

(Incidentally, Magic Johnson played three seasons after Kareem retired. He went title-less during this time, retiring with five NBA championships and one from his college days, which if you’re counting is a smaller haul than Kareem’s on both counts.)

This is not to downplay the importance of Magic or Kareem’s other teammates on his college and two pro squads, but to note that the former Lew Alcindor played for three different teams and each of the three just happened to experience the most successful period in its history while he was there: during Kareem’s three varsity seasons UCLA went 88-2 with three titles, he brought Milwaukee a title and another Finals appearance (they’ve never even reached the Finals before or after him), and Kareem’s five Laker titles came in a nine-year period, while Kobe Bryant’s five came over 11 and were interrupted by the Lakers being knocked out of the first round in consecutive seasons during the brief window he played without a Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol.

Kareem seemed to have played some role in this team success, as he won two player of the year awards at UCLA (as well as being named the top player of the tournament three times), three MVPs with the Bucks (and an NBA Finals MVP as well), and three MVPs with the Lakers (and one more NBA Finals MVP to boot).

And, again, he remains the all time leading scorer in NBA history and did it over a career that spanned a golden age of centers, as it started with him battling Wilt Chamberlain and ended with him facing Hakeem Olajuwon.

(Regarding the three centers often ranked above Kareem: Kareem’s free throw percentage was a solid .719 for his career and actually went up during the playoffs, while Bill Russell shot an abysmal .561 and Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal were even worse, meaning you may not pick Kareem as the best of the lot, but he is the only one you’d feel comfortable passing the ball to late in a tight game.)

This isn’t to say that Kareem was a better player than Jordan — although their careers overlapped for six seasons in the NBA, during which Kareem collected three rings and Jordan zero — but is it insane to suggest, “Hey, maybe when we discuss the greatest of all time…we should mention this Kareem guy?”

At this point I feel the need to address a big part of Jordan’s mystique: it’s not just that he won six titles, but that he won them with so little help, a sentiment sportswriters held then (witness him going six for six on Finals MVPs) and hold even more strongly now, with the result that praising him inevitably involves crapping on his teammates. I’d argue these players — including Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen for all six titles and Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman for the last three — would actually be a pretty good team without him.

What do I base this on? Primarily the fact that they were a pretty good team without him. We got to see them try to exist without Jordan after his first retirement. This collection of scrubs, unexpectedly dealing with the loss of the greatest player of all time in his prime, actually made the playoffs, won a round, and then had a seven-game loss to the New York Knicks (if not for a controversial foul call, they would have advanced).

Were they better with Mike? Yup.

Were they awful without him? Based on their performance, they were a top eight team and damn near top four. (Whereas the Dallas Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki would be the Tex-Mex version of the Cleveland Cavaliers without LeBron James.)

Jordan was the man, but he wasn’t alone.

So why is Jordan worshipped and Kareem the guy wondering when he’s going to get a frickin’ statue already? I suspect some of it’s a personality thing. For many people, off the court Kareem wasn’t that appealing. After all, he was a Muslim — something that always wins fans in America — but it was worse than that: he was a Muslim intellectual. America came around to the charms of Muhammad Ali, but this was a man who, as documented in the film Muhammad and Larry about his bout with Larry Holmes, seemed happiest performing magic tricks for children instead of doing his running at training camp. And let’s be honest: it’s hard to view a guy as a threat to the American way of life when you just watched him pull a quarter out of a kid’s ear.

Whereas the most animated I’ve ever seen Kareem was in an interview discussing his former Laker coach Paul Westhead when he noted how much the two of them enjoyed talking about literature. (Apparently not a Camus buff himself, Magic Johnson later successfully pressed Laker owner Jerry Buss to have Westhead fired.)

A bigger problem was Kareem on the court. Honestly, how many skyhooks can you watch before you say, “Hey, try something else!”? Kareem’s greatness was based largely on him being very, very tall and fully exploiting this, whether with the high arcing shot on offense or snuffing attempts by smaller players on defense, all in a way that minimized the damage to his own body and enabled him to play so many games (he played at least 62 in each of his 20 seasons).

Was he dominant? He sure was.

Was it exciting to watch? Hell, no. (Go on, see how much skyhooking you can watch on youtube before you start searching for that clip where the dog’s having sex with the other dog and suddenly vomits.) (If you haven’t seen it, yes, it is delightful.) And this wasn’t helped by the fact that Kareem, no matter how well he was playing or determined he was to win, invariably looked like he was thinking, “What am I doing here? I should be writing books about jazz.”

(Yes, jazz is one of the many subjects he has written about since retirement, though to the disappointment of the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor not yet dinosaurs.)

Whereas on the court Jordan couldn’t have stopped himself from generating highlights if he wanted to (and off the court kept his mouth shut about everything except the latest item he endorsed).

There’s only one category in which Jordan dominates Kareem: fun. It was thrilling to watch him MJ hit six threes in a half against Portland (Kareem made one during his entire career — if you’re a seven-footer it doesn’t make sense to be drifting away from the hoop to shoot threes, unless of course your name rhymes with “Nirk Dowitzki”) or dunk on a much taller defender (at 7’2”, Kareem was the much taller defender). And fun, as stats guru Bill James will tell you, is objectively an indefensible reason for saying one player’s better than another.

But I have to admit: I’d rather watch Jordan too. (Indeed, if given a chance between watching Kareem or Wilt in his prime, I’d go for the guy who might score 100 points and haul down 50 rebounds.) And while we’d all hold Jordan in different esteem if he’d never won a title, honestly, by about the time he won title four my respect had maxed out (nor did I start deducting status points during those two playoff free Wizards seasons — and yes, it is amusing that Jordan’s crappy crappy Bulls teammates could make the playoffs without him but he flubbed it without them).

Face it: Jordan was like the ridiculously hot person you strike up a conversation with at the bar who becomes an instant infatuation. You still have some questions about them — Do they have a job? Are they married? Are they sweating so much because it’s warm in here or is that a sign of a medical condition? — but frankly, if they can provide halfway decent answers (no current job but have been shrewdly investing unemployment benefits, the divorce is final within six months, it is a medical condition but not contagious), that’s more than good enough for you to proclaim them The One.

And you’ll keep proclaiming that even as you meet other appealing suitors or even learn some unpleasant things about them (like that they were unfaithful in past relationships or used a #1 overall draft pick on Kwame Brown).

I think Jordan’s accomplishments as a player can be matched (indeed, many of them have been exceeded, just ask Bill Russell and his 11 championship rings), but suspect the style with which he accomplished them won’t ever be equaled.

And if this causes us to downgrade Jordan from undeniably the greatest to unquestionably the most thrilling, it seems to me he can handle the demotion.

That said, I still think Kareem deserves the statue already, and even if he never gets it I hope he can take some solace knowing this: his fight with Bruce Lee in Game of Death is infinitely better than anything in Space Jam.

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One Response to “Let out the Air: deflating Michael Jordan”

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at the 2004 National Book Festival.

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