Here’s the most important thing to remember when debating who is the greatest NBA player of all time: it literally doesn’t matter. I mean this in the larger, existential sense where nothing in life has any meaning other than what we assign to it, and also in the less philosophical, more grounded way wherein no one’s enjoyment of the game of basketball will be diminished because we can’t agree on who is the greatest to ever play. The NBA employs several hundred of the world’s most skilled athletes who perform or an almost nightly basis for close to nine months out of the year; you are going to be entertained even if you’re not watching the GOAT.
And that’s the other thing to remember here: this is all entertainment, even the debate about who is the greatest. It’s the kind of low stakes argument that is meant to be a fun, momentary distraction from stuff like the impending climate disaster that will make it so no one gets to play basketball anywhere ever again.
Which is why it’s so disturbing to hear people’s reactions to the LeBron James’s assertion that he is the greatest NBA player of all time. In an episode of his ESPN+ miniseries, More Than An Athlete, a show about himself and his inner circle’s rise and domination of the worlds of sports and entertainment, James remembers the 2016 NBA Finals, where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Golden State Warriors, and won the Cavaliers first NBA Championship, and the first major sports championship for the city of Cleveland in 52 years. "That one right there made me the greatest player of all time," he said, “That's what I felt… Everybody was just talking—how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back, you know, the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, 'You did, you did something special.'”
It has been treated not just as faux pas, which it isn’t, but as a grand indictment of LeBron’s character. The remark has been remarked upon as though he is somehow now responsible for a societal decline in morality and decency. It’s as if LeBron shot a puppy on live TV.
During an NBA TV broadcast, former All-Star Chris Webber, who appears to have never heard of Muhammad Ali, weighed in by saying, “I’ve never heard one of the greatest say they were the greatest of all-time.” Hall of Famer Kevin McHale added, “You don’t need to say that about yourself. Let other people say that for you. It’s disrespectful to the great, great, great players that came before you.”
In the aftermath, an old interview of Michael Jordan, the man widely acknowledged before now to be the greatest, began circulating on social media, where Jordan declines to call himself the greatest, a contrast to LeBron’s comment. “What everybody is saying I am,” Jordan says, “I never had a chance to compete against other legends prior to me. When I hear it, I cringe a little bit.” On ESPN’s The Jump, Jordan’s old running mate Scottie Pippen offered his two cents, saying, “Michael Jordan has never, ever said he’s the greatest player to ever play the game.”
And that’s true… if you don’t count the fact he put it on his fucking sneakers. Check the back of a pair of Air Jordan XIIs, which boast “QUALITY INSPIRED BY THE GREATEST PLAYER EVER.” Please don’t try to convince me that Tinker Hatfield and Nike just snuck that one past him.
But it’s OK! Really, truly, it is. The debate is more fun if these guys are involved, too. Let everyone who believes they have a claim on the title throw their hat in the ring. Because what are we even talking about when we’re trying to determine the greatest? As Jordan points out in that interview, most of the guys in the discussion never had an opportunity to play against one another, and it would seem the best way to assess who is a more skilled basketball player is to play against someone else and see who wins. Good luck getting Bill Russell to lace ‘em up now to prove a point.
No one can make a real determination of whether Wilt Chamberlain’s prolific scoring or Magic Johnson’s assists make one or the other the better player. It depends on what you, personally, value more. Maybe it’s all just an eye test: we make our pick for GOAT based on who we enjoyed seeing play the most. (In that case, I’m going with Tracy McGrady.) For some people it’s not those personal stats but the ultimate team accomplishment: championships. How many did you get? If that’s the criteria, then Russell, with eleven, must be the GOAT. But Jordan, with six and a perfect finals record, appears more as the pick for people who think rings matter most. It’s inconsistent because it can’t be anything but. Russell got more, but there were fewer teams in the league at the time. Jordan had a perfect finals record, but he didn’t necessarily face historically great challengers in those finals (he caught a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-less version of the Lakers in ‘91, and perhaps I simply hate Karl Malone too much to admit the greatness of the Jazz, but was also out of the league when Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets reigned supreme). Or maybe he personally made them look bad? How to tell?
LeBron’s comment is instructive in showing what we are actually talking about when we talk about the GOAT: story. The Golden State Warriors were 73-9 in 2015-16, the best regular season record of all time, better than MJ’s Bulls. Steph Curry was the first ever unanimous MVP. They established 3-1 series lead, which no team had ever overcome in an NBA Finals. And then LeBron, alongside Kyrie Irving, put on one of the greatest three game performances ever, concluding with possibly the best defensive play in NBA history, to help secure a victory in Game 7.
That’s an amazing story. That’s a story worthy of the GOAT. And that’s really all LeBron was getting at.
For the better part of three decades, we’ve been hammered with the story of Michael Jordan. Any casual basketball fan can tell it to you. Game winning shot for North Carolina. Sixty-three points against the Celtics. MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Overcoming the Bad Boy Pistons. Three-peat, retirement, three-peat. The shot over Ehlo, the shot over Russell. Jordan’s story is well known to us and has become the standard by which greatness is measured. Many who helped craft that story or grew up with it are protective of it. Pippen’s defense of Jordan’s status as GOAT comes as no surprise because Jordan’s story is, in part, his story, too. Jordan is also the first megastar of the modern NBA, where corporate behemoths have dictated the storylines to us. Of course we’re not as familiar with Oscar Robertson’s story, because Adidas wasn’t spending millions of dollars telling it to us, the way Nike has done for Jordan.
It’s not accident that LeBron is the first real challenger to Jordan’s throne. The same machine that manufactured Jordan’s story has done the same for LeBron since he 16 years old. That he has met and exceeded all expectations, on and off the court, only makes his case for GOAT status that much stronger. His story is different from MJ’s, but it’s one hell of a story.
If you don’t enjoy his story, that’s fine. There are plenty of others that have been and will be told. But the mean-spirited devolution of this debate misses the real point of it all: selling sneakers.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, and a Knobler Fellow at Type Media Center.