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Ball Don't Lie

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s nasty open letter to Scottie Pippen

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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It's a tricky situation, navigating all these barroom hypothetical arguments about who's done what and who was the best at whatever. But there are some things people are missing, when it comes to Scottie Pippen's continued annihilation of the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's patronizing tsk-tsk'ing of Pippen after the former Bull dared compare LeBron James' potential legacy to that of Michael Jordan's.

As you no doubt know, last week Pippen called his former teammate Michael Jordan "the greatest scorer to ever play the game," before going on to point out that LeBron James "may be the greatest player to ever play the game." Not, "LeBron James has already caught up to and/or passed Michael Jordan in terms of accomplishments," but that he may someday be the greatest ever. Pippen's right. No player with James' skills and athleticism has ever graced the NBA. If he doesn't retire as the best, then something will have gone wrong.

And though endless people took horrified offense at the thought of James and the sainted Jordan being referred to in the same breath, Kareem took umbrage at the first part of Pippen's statement in an open letter to his Hall of Fame counterpart. That he was the greatest scorer ever when, how dare you, Kareem scored more points than anyone in NBA history.

Kareem couches this personal offense with one buried mention (signing his open letter to Pippen with "Affectionately, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA's All-Time Leading Scorer"; Jordan holds the NBA's best per-game scoring average) after several paragraphs spent building up the accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Kareem wants to know why Jordan never averaged 50 in a season, nor dropped a hundred in a game, like Wilt did. He wants to know why Jordan never managed 11 rings, as Russell did.

He also kind of wants to be a jerk about it.

"You obviously never saw Wilt Chamberlain play who undoubtedly was the greatest scorer this game has ever known. When did MJ ever average 50.4 points per game plus 25.7 rebounds? (Wilt in the 1962 season when blocked shot statistics were not kept). We will never accurately know how many shots Wilt blocked. Oh, by the way in 1967 and 68, Wilt was a league leader in assists. Did MJ ever score 100 points in a game? How many times did MJ score more than 60 points in a game? MJ led the league in scoring in consecutive seasons for 10 years but he did this in an NBA that eventually expanded into 30 teams vs. when Wilt played and there were only 8 teams."

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After rattling off this series of statistics, Abdul-Jabbar chides Pippen "to do a little homework before crowning Michael or LeBron with the title of best ever," before reminding (?) Pippen that "the ring is the thing, and everything else is just statistics." So, erm, why even bring up Chamberlain? Because Robert Horry and Steve Kerr have way more rings than Wilt, and everything else is just statistics, right?

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Worst of all is Kareem's revisionist role as Wilt Chamberlain's John the Baptist. The two never liked each other (and Kareem possibly still holds some enmity with the late Chamberlain, referring to him in this open letter by Wilt's long-hated nickname, "Stilt."), and Kareem isn't too far removed from penning the infamous, "To Wilt Chumperlame" open letter from his book My Turn. In it, Kareem offered this doozy:

"People will remember that I worked with my teammates and helped us win. You will be remembered as a whining crybaby and a quitter, stats and all."

Stats that, 21 years later, Kareem can't get enough of. Stats that, even with Jordan flashing six rings to Wilt's two, are enough in Kareem's eyes to hold Wilt in higher regard over MJ.

Stats that, as we've known for years, can't really be trusted.

Because not only were Chamberlain and Russell playing a different game back then, acting as modern era athletes (hell, both Wilt and Russell to a lesser extent would be modern-era dominant all-world athletes even today) in an ancient game, but they were playing a different game amongst a different game.

There were often 30 or 40 more possessions per game back then, as shots caromed off the rim (on average) 60 percent of the time, and teams endlessly raced up and down the court as a result. It was a cherry-picking time for stats even amongst the guys who didn't have Wilt and Russell's athletic gifts, modern timing, and smarts. But for those two? With that package? It's you against a 5-year-old on a Nerf hoop, and you're allowed to shoot from wherever you want.

But that's not really the point here, is it? Kareem, obviously, is arguing on his own behalf. A classic passive/aggressive move that sees him arguing with a stats-based stance for players who scored less, rebounded less, and blocked fewer shots than Kareem.

And of course Abdul-Jabbar isn't going to point out the difference in competition and pace in his argument, or point out how the game grew significantly in the 1970s. It's the reason he averaged nearly 10 points per game fewer in his athletic prime in the late 1970s (before Magic Johnson came by, mind you, to take a bunch of shots) then he did at the young age of 24 while in Milwaukee. He knows, and it's slipping away. He's probably been doing nothing but watching cable TV and listening to talk radio over the last week, he's not even being mentioned amongst the top-five players in NBA history on some occasions, and it's clearly set him off. So much so that he's embraced the "legacy" (his word) of a former unfriendly combatant in Chamberlain.

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It's all a sad show. Not unlike the way the Bulls played over the last four games of their 2010-11 run. Though the spirit of competition was there as they lost four close contests, Pippen has kept on the offensive with his pointed criticisms of a team he sat courtside to watch for most of its 98-game season.

First, in an interview with ESPN's Melissa Isaacson (someone who has covered Pippen for over 20 years), he defended Derrick Rose's terrible shooting marks from the Eastern Conference finals, blaming Chicago's lack of options beyond Rose for his litany of missed bailout shots:

"They hound [Rose] off the pick with two guys who are 6-9, so he has to make a pass," Pippen told ESPNChicago.com. "And now you give it to a guy who can't make a play. Derrick passes to Joakim, Joakim passes it back and now the shot clock is against him.

"How can you be efficient when you don't even have to make the defense move or shift, because they're not rotating to Joakim, they're not doubling Boozer. You put a little traffic around Boozer, and he couldn't hold on to the ball anyway. I don't know if his toe was the cause of [some of his poor play], but it doesn't explain bad hands. He didn't perform."

Yikes. Pippen also went on to criticize Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau for not playing big man Kurt Thomas more in the series, based on a solid regular season and an impressive (if not offensively successful) second-half performance in Game 5 last Wednesday.

Trey Kerby has the breakdown:

Unfortunately for Bulls fans, Pippen's pretty much right about all of this. Joakim Noah failed to make plays in the Eastern Conference finals, Carlos Boozer was inconsequential when he wasn't outright bad, and Tom Thibodeau probably should have played Kurt Thomas more than he did.

Such sober, spot-on analysis, Trey. Pity, because if you ramped it up a bit, you may have been a Hall of Famer.

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