The Greatest Basketball Player Ever Turns 50

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By John Hubbuch

This past weekend Michael Jordan celebrated his 50th birthday. The hoopla surrounding his milestone birthday was as big as any living America ever. For 5 days ESPN ran homages to His Airness. There were stories in the national press. The hoopla was bigger than Obama's 50th. Why it was even bigger than my wife's girlfriends.                       

Inevitably there was much discussion about whether Michael was the greatest basketball player of all time. Similiar debates rage over whether Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player. Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods? Jim Brown or Walter Payton? Rod Laver or Pete Sampras or Roger Federer? Pele or Messei? 

The debate makes for fun albeit sometimes heated discussion. We humans are passionate about sport. I just wish there would be just a touch of rationality to these debates. I propose a few parameters.

First, sad to say, but modern athletes top the heroes of yesteryear. No athlete prior to 1975 can be considered for the crown of greatest. Subsequent to that date almost all athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and sadly more chemically enhanced. Training is year round and  based on science. Much better nutrition and equipment.  And there needs to be competitions that involve African-American and Latin athletes.  The Boston Celtics would be destroyed by the Miami Heat. The 2013 Ravens would crush the 1967 Bears. LeBron James would kill  Hondo.                         

Second, lifetime statistics are not that important. If the debate is over the most hits then Pete Rose's 4191 is tops. But no one will seriously argue that Pete is the greatest hitter. You can bet on that. Same for Karl Malone or Emmet Smith. The "most" does not equate to the "greatest".              

Third, you can't be the greatest in any team sport unless you win some championships. The ring is the thing that defines greatness. If you don't win tchampionships, then you must not have been that good.

Fourth, there are multiple metrics that must be used to determine the greatest. We are talking meta-analysis. Now some data is better than others. My son Phil argues that Jordan is the greatest because he has 6 NBA Finals MVPs. The next closest has only 3. This metric includes championships and individual greatness.                                                          

Fifth, you must discount bias.  Old white people will sometimes argue that Larry Bird is the greatest. Don't get me wrong,  Larry is great, just not the greatest.  It is hard for me to admit that Johnny Unitas is not the greatest QB, but he isn't. Same for Greg Maddux.                                     

Finally,  when the athlete transcends his sport that is a sign of greatness. " The Greatest" Muhammed Ali is the best exemplar along with Michael Jordan who was a key figure in the creation of 3 world wide markets--sports drink/ nutrition, athletic shoes and 24 hour sports media. 

So happy  50 th birthday to  Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Even if you are from Chicago.

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