Esteem for Kareem
While the talk basketball’s GOAT focuses on Jordan and James, Abdul-Jabbar was an iconic revolutionary
With the New Orleans Saints having wrapped up a first-round playoff bye before the NFL’s regular season last week, there has been a relative lack of national media coverage and reporting on the Black & Gold. That break has allowed members of the Who Dat Nation time to enjoy the holiday season and explore other sports stories around the country during the dearth of Saints news and speculation. One of the most intriguing news items to come out this week was LeBron James declaring on ESPN+ series “More Than an Athlete” that defeating the NBA-record 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 league Finals after his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, was down three games to one made him “the greatest player of all time.”
While some may have nodded in agreement, there were many more who rolled their eyes at the claim.
LeBron is great. He’s been a phenomenon since he was in high school, where he picked up the moniker “King” James. He was able to skip college and jump straight to the NBA, where he has been a force since his first tip off. He’s had a fantastic career winning multiple championships. He’s even done amazing things in regard to helping others receive an education off of the court. But let’s pump the breaks on calling him the greatest.
Arguing who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) is a subjective matter. As the idiom goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While there are objective statistical markers, comparing players from different eras makes it difficult to compare athletes on a level field. That holds true for every sport. In football, is it Montana, Brady, Manning, Brees, Elway, Graham, Baugh? In baseball, is it Cobb, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Mays, Bonds? In golf, is it Jones, Palmer, Nicklaus, Woods? In soccer, is it Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Messi, or Ronaldo? As for basketball, is it Pettit, Chamberlain, Russell, West, Maravich, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jordon, James?
Is there a correct answer?
I don’t believe there is. It’s a matter of opinion fueled by different beliefs of what makes one player’s attributes, accomplishments and circumstances superior to another’s. It makes for fun discussions and sometimes heated arguments. I often say that if I were to start a football team and was able to pick any player in history, Elway would be my first pick. Sure, he didn’t go to as many Super Bowls as Brady or win as many as Montana or have as many yards as Brees or been as cerebral as Manning, but he made his team a winner. And he was the best combination of passer and runner of the lot.
But I digress, this article is about James’ claim. It seems the argument about basketball’s GOAT discussion has devolved into a binary argument of Jordan or James. I believe Jordan was the better player and has the better claim, but I still don’t know if he was the best ever. Sure he was great. He didn’t lose a finals series in six appearances, and he took a break from playing basketball in the middle of his career to chase his dream of playing professional baseball. But there is no doubt that much of his charismatic image and reputation were aided through the marketing efforts of companies like Nike, Gatorade, and the NBA and events like the dunk contest during All-Star weekend.
As good as the arguments for both Jordan and James are, it seems too many are focused on the here and now or, at best, most recent era and forgetting about the NBA’s rich history. In 2009, when Chicago-based journalist Michael Wilbon asked Jordan if he was the GOAT, the legend said, ““If you ask me, I would never say that I am the greatest player. That’s because I never played against all the people that represented the league prior to Michael Jordan.”
Despite his amazing success in high school, college and professionally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name is often, inexplicably, omitted in the argument as basketball’s GOAT. The 7’2” center led his New York City high school team to 71 consecutive wins. He played college ball at UCLA at a time when freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity level. In his three collegiate seasons, he led the Bruins to an 88-2 overall record, three consecutive national championships and won tournament MVP each time, was a three-time First Team All-American, two-time Player of the Year and was the first-ever Naismith College Player of the Year. After college, he was the No. 1 overall draft choice for both the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and the ABA’s New Jersey Nets. In his 20 years as a professional with the Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, he was a record six-time NBA MVP, record 19-time NBA All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection, and 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. His teams made the playoffs 18 times and the finals 10 times. He won six championships and was voted NBA Finals MVP twice.
When he retired in 1989, he was the NBA's all-time leader in points scored (38,387), games played (1,560), minutes played (57,446), field goals made (15,837), field goal attempts (28,307), blocked shots (3,189), defensive rebounds (9,394), and career wins (1,074). He averaged average 36.8 minutes per game and still holds the record for career points (1,459 more than his closest competitor) and wins and is third all-time in rebounds and blocked shots.
While other players have had iconic moments, Abdul-Jabbar had an iconic shot. He could shoot his signature, seemingly unblockable skyhook with precision both right and left handed. No other player in the sport’s history is a closely aligned with a style of shot as he is.
His talent helped him land acting roles on the silver and small screens, most notably as co-pilot Roger Murdock in the 1980 film “Airplane!”
In 1996, he was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
In 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named him a cultural ambassador for the United States.
Four years later, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So why is Abdul-Jabbar seemingly left out of the GOAT debate? I believe much of it has to do with personal decisions involving politics and religion that he made away from basketball court and a less than warm relationship with news media due to their coverage of him. He was outspoken in his push for civil rights. In the summer of 1968, he converted to Islam and did not try out for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team in protest of the inequality blacks suffered in the United States. In 1971, at age 24, he changed his name from Lew Alcindor to the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Despite his career numbers, it seems he has been punished for his beliefs and his willingness to act upon them. Fifty years after Abdul-Jabbar entered the NBA, outspoken professional athletes, like the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (or anyone, for that matter) who dare challenge the mainstream status quo are marginalized in popular society to the point that it can impact their ability for a tryout, much less playing time.
While stats are not the be-all end-all, most points and most wins are significant indicators of a player’s greatness. Abdul-Jabbar play was effective and play was transformative on both ends of the court. While I believe it’s impossible to definitively declare a player the greatest of all time, there is no doubt that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name should not only be included, but also mentioned at or near the top of any discussion about the best to ever play the game.