Basketball is the ideal sport for the best-ever discussion. The game has only lived on the national stage since the early 1950s, which simplifies arguments.
In baseball, you can make a strong case for Babe Ruth as the best-ever, and he began his career in 1914.
That was a long time ago. That leads to all kinds of comparing of eras, which can get messy.
In basketball, the first greatest-ever candidate is George Mikan, who led the Lakers (then based in Minneapolis) to seven titles in nine seasons. He retired in 1955.
That makes picking a top 22 an easier task. And more fun.
Here’s my top 22, and I’d love to hear from you about your top five or 10 or 21 or 50.
Let the arguments begin.
1. MICHAEL JORDAN: You can argue this choice, but it would be silly. Jordan played in six NBA Finals. And won them all. He never quit growing as a player. He started his career as the ultimate skywalker. He ended his Bulls career — please, let’s just forget those days with the Wizards — as the game’s ultimate mid-range jump shooter. I will be stunned — happily stunned — if ever I see a better player than Michael Jordan.
2. MAGIC JOHNSON: A revolutionary. A point guard in a center’s body. If Magic had not been stricken with HIV, he might have tangled with Jordan for the top spot. He’s the greatest team player ever. What I mean is, any teammate who stepped on the court with Magic instantly transformed into a superior player.
3. BILL RUSSELL: Eleven titles in 13 seasons. No one will ever top that. No one will ever come close. He’s the greatest winner in the history of team sports. So why doesn’t he rank at the top? That’s easy. He was always surrounded by overwhelming talent. He was the lead actor in a dynasty jammed with superior chemistry and a deep collection of gifted players.
4. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: His hook shot remains the most effective offensive weapon in basketball history. This list is focused on NBA accomplishments, and if you include college accomplishments, Abdul-Jabbar might climb even higher. He won three NCAA titles. (Although, come to think of it, Russell won two NCAA titles.) Kareem climbed one spot on my list in the past year, largely because former Gazetteer Frank Schwab delivered solid arguments for The Big Man’s rise.
5. WILT CHAMBERLAIN: Watched him play in downtown Seattle when I was in grade school. An amazing talent who could have been even better. Many basketball historians, including one of my favorites, Terry Pluto, make a strong case Chamberlain was better than Russell. Wilt did compile mind-boggling numbers, and when he was surrounded by talent he won two NBA titles.
6. TIM DUNCAN: Emperor of the Spurs dynasty. For years, Spurs fans have commanded me to place Mr. Boring closer to the top of this list. During the past two NBA Finals, the scales fell from my eyes, and I could see one of NBA history’s finest defenders and winners. The best player of the post-Michael Jordan era in the NBA.
7. KOBE BRYANT: Duncan is the finest player of the post-Jordan era, but it’s close. Didn’t appreciate Kobe as much as I should have during his long prime, which is now over. Didn’t appreciate him primarily because I despised him. He’s an astounding talent. He’s not the most charming character, but he’s one of sports history’s most relentless competitors. And he’s the rare ball hog who also is a winner.
8. OSCAR ROBERTSON: Until Jordan arrived, he ranked as the most complete player ever. I’ve talked with a couple dozen players who competed against Robertson. When they talk about The Big O, they are filled with immense respect.
9. JERRY WEST: Interviewed him about the NBA draft a couple times when I was covering Syracuse University basketball. The most down-to-earth superstar ever.
10. LARRY BIRD: Overrated by overzealous fans, but a fantastic competitor and offensive player, even if he often looked lost as a defender. I’d place him lower, but a multitude of basketball people I respect place him high on their lists. Talked with Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich, who makes a strong case for Bird belonging in the top 5. Don’t agree, but understand Pilipovich’s — and others’ — devotion to Bird. He is one of basketball history’s most charismatic players. And, like Magic, it’s difficult to imagine what he might have done if he had remained healthy.
11. LeBRON JAMES: This is No. 11 with a bullet. LeBron could someday pass Duncan and land just outside the NBA’s all-time top five. Was talking to fellow Gazetteer Matt Wiley, a certified NBA freak, and he made an interesting point. He believes LeBron could carry any team to the NBA playoffs. And we’re talking any team. This is a huge statement, but it’s not an overstatement. James has long been an overwhelming force in the regular season. In the last four seasons, when he led the Heat to four rides to the NBA Finals, he’s proven he can deliver clutch work in the playoffs, too.
12. ELGIN BAYLOR: The first skywalker. A revolutionary and a basketball gentleman. He should have a much higher profile. I used to live in Syracuse, N.Y., once home to an NBA franchise. Fans there still talk about Baylor’s first visit in 1958. He soared a foot-and-a-half above the rim for a slam, but had a little trouble with his air traffic control. While trying to avoid one of his opponent’s arms, Baylor miscalculated his dunk and the ball slammed off the back rim. The Syracuse fans swore the ball bounced all the way past the halfcourt line. This Baylor air show ranks among the best missed dunks of all time.
13. RICK BARRY: I used to instigate heated basketball arguments by telling friends and enemies that Barry (who has lived in the Springs for decades) was a superior player to Larry Bird. These friends and enemies dismissed all points and acted as if I had just said the moon landing was staged. So I promised to never again state my case. (By the way, I do believe we landed astronauts on the moon.) Still, please, at least consider that the Bird-Barry discussion has merit. Look at Barry’s numbers: he averaged 24 points in his career, same as Bird. Look at the way Barry carried — as no other player ever carried — the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 title. Bird and Barry were remarkably similar players and belong right next to each other on the all-time list. One quick Barry story: I was talking a few years ago with former Sonics superstar Spencer Haywood about Barry. (Haywood, who had one glorious season in Denver, and Barry often did battle on the court.) Spencer spent a few minutes raving about Barry’s accomplishments before announcing, “Rick Barry is the greatest white player of all time.” Spencer then took a long pause, all the better for comic effect, before completing his announcement. “And Rick was about the 75th best player of all time.” Thanks, Spencer.
14. JOHN HAVLICEK: He played in eight NBA finals. And won them all. He also scored nearly 5,000 more points than Bird.
15. HAKEEM OLAJUWON: Sure, the Dream Shake was a walk, but who cares.
16. SHAQ: A dangerous man. The least-skilled player on this list. And the least-skilled great player in basketball history.
17. BOB PETTIT: One of the great power forwards in NBA history. He retired in 1965 and is largely forgotten, which is sad. He overwhelmed everyone in his day, and everyone includes Bill Russell.
18. JULIUS ERVING: The most entertaining, dazzling basketball player ever? Maybe. For pure thrills, only Jordan and David Thompson could battle with Dr. J. Will long remember watching The Doctor rise to the heights during his second season in the ABA in 1972. (Yes, I am old.) He dunked on various Rockets (later to become the Nuggets) a half-dozen times in downtown Denver. What a show. And what a ‘fro.
19. KARL MALONE: Not a big fan, but it’s difficult to argue with The Mailman’s numbers. Too bad Malone and John Stockton never quite found a way to win a title.
20. MOSES MALONE: If Moses had been blessed with bigger hands, he would have been illegal. His little hands limited his shooting. He handled himself like a boxer in the lane. Another dangerous man.
21. DIRK NOWITZKI: I’d seen Dirk play in person a dozen times and seen him play on TV dozens of times, but never truly appreciated him until the 2011 NBA Finals. Through dogged, exhaustive effort, Dirk constructed one of the most dangerous offensive machines in basketball history. He’s one of the greatest jump shooters ever, but he’s not soft. He dropped his biggest baskets in the 2011 series on courageous drives to the basket.
22. GEORGE MIKAN: I’ve talked to a dozen players — NBA pioneers — who battled against Mikan. Many of these players later battled against Russell and Chamberlain. These pioneers speak with immense respect for Mikan, one of the game’s all-time winners. If you’re doubtful about this selection, please consider a few facts: Mikan finished his career with seven — seven! — straight titles, and in his best three seasons averaged 28 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.