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Living Legends

These six titans are living icons of the sports world
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

(continued from page 2)

MICHAEL JORDAN

There is not now, never was and never will be another basketball player like Michael Jordan. Just as the term IQ stands for "intelligence quotient," we can coin a term "AQ" and let it stand for athletic quotient. The way I see it, AQ would stand for the sum of the attributes that make up athletic talent—speed and quickness, agility and jumping, size and strength, and even mental attributes such as sequential thinking and poise. If that be allowed, then it can be said that no hardwood savant has ever possessed a higher AQ than Michael Jordan.

The early medieval philosopher St. Anselm defined God as the "greatest conceivable being." Jordan is not the greatest conceivable player, but he is the greatest actual player. He is basketball's preeminent player since the merger of the BAA and NBL formed the NBA in 1948, the most outsized talent since the game's invention in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.

Jordan's high AQ reminds us of what Bob Cousy once said about him. Other great players had weaknesses, Boston's cagey guard explained, but Jordan had "no weakness." Consider: It's been more than a decade since Jordan secured a sixth title for Chicago in 1998, and since that time people rarely bother to make an argument for Jordan's supremacy. In 1999, a panel of sports journalists (appointed by ESPN) voted him the athlete of the century. So his No. 1 stature is considered obvious. But shouldn't we make a case for Jordan? Among sophisticated observers Ruth is considered the greatest baseball player, but we still gather evidence for him: namely, his 94-46 record as a pitcher, followed by a record-setting offensive career and the amazing degree to which he dominated the statistical legacy of the game. So shouldn't we do the same for Jordan, especially since some commentators have been pretty chirpy about recent challengers for the No. 1 ranking?

Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are the two most mentioned as Jordan's rivals. But Bryant and James own pieces of Jordan's game without possessing the whole. Like Jordan, they can both create around the hoop and Bryant is a frightening streak shooter. But the record shows that neither possesses the defensive skills or the perimeter game of Jordan. Jordan owns the highest ever points per game average (30.1), compared with Bryant's (25) and James's (27). Both trail Jordan's 50 percent career field-goal percentage, which was even higher when he was younger. He also led the Bulls to six titles, and copped nine All-Defensive first-team defensive awards.

In addition, when a Jordan-led squad made the finals, they won—six of six. Byrant saw his Lakers knocked off by the Pistons in five games in 2004 and by the Celtics in six in 2008. Jordan took his game higher in the postseason, bagging MVPs in six finals, shooting 49 percent, while tallying an all-time best 33.4 points per game, Bryant has won but one finals MVP, and his 46 percent accuracy and 25.5 points per game are well off Jordan's markers. In his six seasons, James' postseason average is 29 points, but his accuracy goes down to 45 percent.

As great as James is, at times he seems to be three-quarters greatness and the remaining quarter finely orchestrated marketing. The 23 on his uniform number is his homage to Jordan, as is his pregame ritual of making a fog of talc— something that Jordan did to toy with the late Red Kerr in Chicago nearly two decades ago. So what has he done that Jordan hasn't? He has been hyped to Saturn and back. Yet in six seasons—and in Bryant's 13—both have done what Jordan never did: played poorly in postseason exits.

Jordan was glorious, even in defeat, but in the 2007 finals versus San Antonio James shot a miserable 36 percent (32-90) as his team was swept. Bryant shot only 53 for 131 (40 percent) against Boston in the 2008 finals. Try finding a similar poor performance in Jordan's body of work. Even while the Chicago Bulls were losing to the Pistons, Chuck Daley proclaimed, "Jordan is embarrassing the league." To curtail the embarrassment, Daley devised the "Jordan Rules," a set of roughhousing tactics to bang Jordan around. It never stopped him.

That appellation "The Next Michael Jordan" is a badge of honor, yet even great ones such as Bryant and James have not deserved it. Jordan remains the gold standard—better even than Oscar and Wilt and Kareem. Pat Riley once claimed that teams that lost to the Bulls in the '90s could look back with "an excuse" as to why they had lost. That excuse was Jordan. At his best, Jordan looked as if he were playing in a different gear than the other nine players on the floor.

PELE


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