UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Measures of excellence, & the GOAT 

With the news the NBA has renamed the league MVP Award after Michael Jordan, discussions of greatness, and who is the greatest basketball player of all time – or “the GOAT” – will ensue all over again. However, I might suggest the conversation is already over. For, when the MVP trophy is literally named after you, it’s safe to say you are the MVP-est of MVPs. Or as NBA Commissioner David Stern said when awarding Jordan his second of five MVP awards: “You are simply the standard by which basketball excellence is measured.” 

When an individual sets the standard for excellence, he is by default the greatest of all time; any achievements after that basically seem derivative. Of course, comparisons between eras are always difficult. In today’s NBA where there is no hand-checking, traveling and carrying are just standards of dribbling, and flopping has become a way of life to gain an advantage, not to mention a cheap path to the free-throw line to pad scoring totals, the two potentials GOATs of the NBA – Michael Jordan and Lebron James – actually played noticeably different games.

While some sports fans may argue the statistical measuring sticks for basketball prowess from points to assists to rebounds to longevity lean in favor of Lebron James, or other players to come later, I’m skeptical that discussions of excellence will ever be about anyone other than Michesl Jordan. Straight numbers can go both ways, and interested fans can read endless commentary aligning all relevant numbers for both players. In those articles, the conclusion is generally that superiority is subjective and too close to call. However, “greatness” in terms of overall impact on and dominance over the game, as well as the general assessment by players, coaches, commentators, and fans, always end with Michael Jordan being the marker by which all others, including Lebron James, are judged. 

The concept of greatness, or especially the measure of “greatest-ness” is obviously a rather subjective and relative idea. Excellence and pinnacles of achievement have always been highly valued by societies and cultures. As humans we simply stand in awe and respect of individuals who push the boundaries to unimagined heights. And, the interest goes beyond athletics. The same argument can be made about artists, especially in terms of innovation and game-changing practice. In many people’s view, Pablo Picasso is probably the greatest artist of all time, the GOArtisT if you will – because of his vast and diverse achievements over a lifetime. When any individual is responsible for so many incredible innovative game-changing achievements, the others coming later simply can’t truly pass them. Others may achieve equally great success, and many have, but it won’t be better. 

A similar standard of comparison can be applied to objective rationalist areas as well, such as science and mathematics. In the exciting news out of the energy world, the scientists who recently achieved landmark developments in pursuit of fusion energy are astoundingly brilliant people. Their achievements will go down in history as truly legendary. But are they greater than Einstein or Feynman or Turing? I have a hard time supporting any claim like that. And, of course, the innovative nature of these scientists and thinkers must give nod to previous visionaries such as Isaac Newton or Galileo or Pythagoras or Euclid. 

And the GOAT discussions arise in all sports – On the PGA, is it Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods?  Where do we place two-sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? And with Argentina’s thrilling victory in Sunday’s World Cup, does Lionel Messi stake a claim to being the best soccer player of all time? It’s not really about any singular achievement, but about standards of excellence beyond all the rest. For that reason, in the world of sports, Jim Thorpe will always be the greatest athlete in history, in my view. 

So, back to basketball and the MVP. I believe the “standard by which excellence is measured” is the reasonable gauge for the GOAT. Basically, the comparisons will always start and end with MJ. And it’s not because he was the first. The gauge and comparison isn’t Bill Russell. It’s not Magic or Bird or Wilt or Kareem or Dr. J. And fifty years from now it won’t be anyone else. It won’t be Lebron. It’s not Lebron now, and it won’t ever be. The discussion of all GOATs in the NBA past, present, and future will always go back to “Is he better than Jordan?” Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com