Being as big a basketball fan as I am, I knew it wouldn’t be too long until I started blogging about historical basketball topics on this page. Now, I realize this is a bit of a niche topic, and in fact, not many academic historians discuss sports history, except when it has a direct impact on society at large, or serves as some kind of microcosm of what was happening in the world (e.g. 1972 Hockey Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union). The history of sport is usually left to journalists. Today, I’m going to break the rules because I need to let off some steam and this is the only forum I know of where I can discuss it.
There is a lot of debate among basketball pundits these days as to who the greatest all-time basketball player is. This has especially flared up since how LeBron James of the Miami Heat has been having his way with opponents these past few seasons. So where does LeBron rank with the greats? Can he be included in the same league as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NBA’s all-time leading scorer)? How about Wilt Chamberlain (scored 100 points in one game)? What about Michael Jordan (Undefeated in six NBA finals appearances)? To answer this question, some people would go to the statistical records, others would look at how many awards or playoff games they won. One journalist-turned-NBA-executive, John Hollinger, developed the player efficiency rating (PER), taking into account various individual statistics and boiling them down to a single number to make comparing players easier.
Now, I’m a casual basketball player, and I play on a fairly regular basis. When I play against someone, I know I’m better than someone (or not) by watching them play. My Dad still swears that despite his low statistics, Bill Russell was a superior basketball player to Wilt Chamberlain, just by watching them play. I think there’s some value to the “eye test.” Now, I’ve been watching basketball since I was 9 years-old (1994), and It’s also my personal opinion that the two best basketball players since 1994 were Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal (explicit lyrics in O’Neal link). The reason is because when I watched Michael and Shaq play, they seemed unbeatable. They inspired fear in both the teams they faced, and those teams’ fans alike. As much as I wanted my team to win, when they faced Shaq and Jordan, I was always resigned to the fact that my team would lose–and they did. I didn’t need to see statistics, awards, or any other data to know how good Shaq and Jordan were, I saw it on the court.
For what it’s worth, I thought I’d throw my two cents and tell you who I think the best players of all time were based on what I have seen. I do apologize that my opinions are biased toward the post-1994 era, and what’s available of legendary players prior to that time on YouTube. Anyway, here’s the list…
Centers: Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon
Power Forwards: Tim Duncan
Small Forwards: LeBron James, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen
Shooting Guards: Michael Jordan, Pete Maravich, Kobe Bryant
Point Guards: Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, Gary Payton
The History angle to this is that the NBA severely lacks video footage of league games prior to 1980. There have been a lot of great moments in NBA History of which video footage doesn’t exist (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game). I’m glad today that most archives–especially in television–have the sense to preserve what they are creating right now for posterity. I suppose my wish is that any NBA video footage that does exist could be digitized and made available online so that we can have a better sense of how to settle these debates. They may seem trivial to some, but for other people whose lives revolve around sports, it could be incredibly valuable to them, or even inspire other people to start playing the game.