Thursday, February 14, 2008

the case of larry legend v. mike

So, a number of my basketball players (who also happen to be students of Nicole Beckford's) are under the misconception that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all-time. So they're writing persuasive essays for Nicole's class, and one of them told me he was going to write about why Jordan was better than the great Larry Bird. So I said, Okay, I'll write one too. Here it is.

Many Greek philosophers, among them Leucippus and Democritus, believed that the Earth was flat. Galileo Galilei, the great Tuscan physicist and astronomer, was convinced that the Sun revolved around the Earth. And my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Gregory, once told us that the oceans were blue because they reflected the blue sky. (Evidently, pure water is simply a blue chemical.) There are many misconceptions about the planet Earth. But the biggest misconception on the planet Earth is that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all-time. I will stipulate that Jordan is the second-greatest basketball player of all-time, but if he wanted the top spot, he should have had better nicknames, he should have been a better college player, and he should not have tainted his legacy late in his career. Then maybe he could compete with the great Larry Bird.

In his career with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game; admittedly, Larry Bird’s 24.3 points per game don’t measure up. However, Bird’s game was not defined by scoring. The Boston Celtics of the 1980’s were defined by selflessness, and no player on that team was more selfless than Larry Legend. Bird could have scored more points than Jordan if that had been his goal; after all, his shooting percentages from the free throw line and the three-point line were both better than Jordan’s respective marks. (Their overall field goal percentages were equal.) But Jordan shot 3.5 more times per game than Bird while Bird dished out a full assist per game more than Jordan. (This is to say nothing of the fact that Bird averaged nearly four more rebounds per game.)

In addition to his impressive scoring record, Jordan won six NBA Championships; Bird won three. Before making a judgment, consider the coaches and teammates of Jordan’s who went on to play in one or more championship series without him later in their careers: Phil Jackson, Horace Grant, Jack Haley, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Will Perdue, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley. Bird’s list? Danny Ainge. In short, Jordan’s teammates succeeded without him; Bird’s did not. The sheer length of these lists suggests that Jordan was not nearly as critical to his teams’ achievements as Bird was to his.

Finally, what of Jordan’s myriad awards? He was NBA Rookie of the Year (although the same could be said of Bird). He was the MVP five times (to Bird’s three). He was the MVP of the NBA Finals six times (to Bird’s two). Don’t these accolades prove that Jordan was the better player? In a word, no. In the voting for any award, each player is essentially competing against the other players in the league, and the players against whom Jordan competed in his prime were drastically inferior to those against whom Bird competed in his. (It’s a small wonder that Jordan, despite averaging over 30 points per game in the 80’s, didn’t start winning Championships until Bird retired.) Jordan played in an era when high school players were entering the draft in unprecedented numbers, and while these players would eventually become today’s All-Stars (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, etc.), the 18-year-old versions that Jordan “competed” with were not nearly as talented as the Magic Johnsons, the Isiah Thomases, and the Julius Ervings that Bird dominated during his Hall of Fame career.

As George Herman Ruth, Joe Jackson, and Rod Smart can all attest, a colorful nickname is crucial to an athlete’s legacy. And the Babe, Shoeless Joe, and He Hate Me would likely also agree that Jordan can’t hold a candle to Bird in this category. Bird’s nicknames include Larry Legend, Basketball Jesus, The Hick from French Lick, The Mustard Kid, and Kodak. (Olympic coach Bill Fitch christened Bird with that last one because Bird seemed to create an instant mental image of every play that occurred on the floor.) By contrast, Jordan’s nicknames (according to www.basketball-reference.com) include Air, Mike, MJ, and Superman. After eliminating Superman because it’s unoriginal and no one actually called him that, the list stands at his initials, his first name, and “Air,” about which ESPN’s Page 2 admits, “[Jordan] outplayed his own…nickname.” Basketball Jesus versus Mike? Please.

To compare the college careers of Bird and Jordan would not be worthwhile as Bird’s numbers are significantly better. The Hick from French Lick averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game during his three-year career. (“Mike” averaged 17.7, 5.0, and 1.8 during his three-year stint at North Carolina.) What’s more noteworthy is the remarkable risk that Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics took on Bird in the 1978 draft. At the time, league rules dictated that a player could be drafted while he was still in college, but could not play in the NBA until he had been out of high school for three years. With future All-Stars like Magic Johnson and Reggie Theus still available, the Celtics used the sixth pick that year on Bird. The following spring, Bird carried his Indiana State Sycamores to a memorable NCAA Championship game against Johnson and Michigan State. Two years later, the Boston Celtics were NBA Champions. Their leading scorer and rebounder that season? Basketball Jesus.

With all of the rhetoric stripped away, this argument is about legacy. Were this a play, Bird would clearly have had the upper hand during the first act (their respective college careers). Some may have given Jordan the edge in the second act (although most of those arguments seem to have been put to bed). The third act, then, is the deciding factor. Bird spent the five years after his retirement as a special assistant in the Celtics’ front office before taking over as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. He led the Pacers to three Eastern Conference Championship games and one NBA Finals series. In 1998, he was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. He currently serves as the Pacers’ President of Basketball Operations. Jordan’s third act looks like this: early retirement; a short, disappointing minor league baseball career; gambling controversy; an injury-plagued comeback with the Washington Wizards; and a position as Director of Basketball Operations for the Wizards to which he is, by all accounts, only marginally committed. He has also been divorced from the same woman twice, the second time following a messy accusation of infidelity on Jordan’s part. To repeat, this argument is about legacy. In this play, Bird is our hero.

This line of reasoning is in no way a criticism of Michael Jordan. Thousands of players have played in the NBA since it was created in 1946. Jordan was better than the Chamberlains and the Russells; the Thomases and the Johnsons; the Jameses and the Duncans. But even Leucippus would agree that a close examination of their legacies proves that there was one man who stood above even MJ, and that man was The Mustard Kid: Larry Bird.

1 comment:

Sara said...

Yeah, I agree. Yawn....

I'm interested in the structure - point by point rebuttal, rather than Rogerian structure- is that what you teach in class? I do the opposite.