By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
LeBron James made headlines recently, as it is so easy for him to do, on his ESPN+ documentary series “More Than An Athlete” in which he stated that after winning the 2016 championship — the first in 52 years of Cleveland major league athletics, as well as to arguably the greatest single season NBA team in history who had his Cavaliers down 3-1 — he believed himself privately to be the greatest player of all time.
A tidal wave of new and rehashed takes regarding James’ place in the GOAT debate and his comparison to previous standard bearer Michael Jordan came in response to James’ candid moment of self-appraisal. Further complicating the overall discussion was Celtics general manager Danny Ainge speaking out against the King and — in what has to be considered a low-blow against James — saying that James is taking a page out of Donald Trump’s book and trying to sell himself that GOAT title.
Although I disagree with James’ sentiment, the argument he provokes is a legit one and the public should not fault James for his viewpoint, nor should they criticize black players for being outspoken with their beliefs regarding the topic of greatness without prior knowledge.
First off, the immediate GOAT debate within professional basketball pitting Jordan against James debate is as hotly contested as it is for a reason and that’s because it has a lot of merit.
Jordan, over a 15-year NBA career (including two periods of retirement):
- Career averages: 30 points, 5 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals per game; 84 percent from the free throw line, 50 percent from the field, 33 percent from the three-point line.
- 14-time All-Star, 3-time All-Star MVP, Slam Dunk Champion (1988), 10-time scoring champion, 5-time MVP, 6-time NBA Champion and 6-time NBA Finals MVP (6-0 all time in Finals)
- Rookie of the Year (1985), Defensive Player of the Year (1988), 9-time All-Defensive Team, 11-time All-NBA Team.
James, currently in his 15th NBA season:
- Career averages (per game): 27 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal; shooting 74% free throws, 50% from the field and 34% from the three-point line.
- 14-time All-Star, 3-time All-Star MVP, 1-time scoring champion (2008), 4-time MVP, 3-time NBA Champion, 3-time Finals MVP, 9 NBA Finals (3-6 record), Rookie of the Year (2004), 6-time All-Defensive Team, 14-time All-NBA Team.
- First player in NBA history to have over 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists.
The debate is a lot closer than you think from the standpoint of the two men’s overall body of work, but things we often do not consider include the differences in eras of basketball that they played in. Past eras of the game were more physical, and the way the game was executed offensively was different. Because of these circumstances, we cannot cross-examine everyone without ignoring key elements of each comparison, also the comparisons tend to lean towards current players while discounting and dismissing the successes of the great legends of yesteryear.
We must appreciate the Bill Russells, Wilt Chamberlains and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars of the game and the standards that they set. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, George Gervin, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and others all did much to evolve the game as well and their shared examples led the way for LeBron James to be King of his era of basketball.
The GOAT debate is simply an opinionated analysis as well as a constant source of inter-generational warfare, because it is, we cannot dismiss others simply because we disagree with their viewpoints.
To bring this discussion to another cultural fault line, we can not ignore how for generations Black athletes have had to bear the burden of their beliefs in the public as they often clashed with popular opinion, which was often rooted in unfair traditions or false, bigoted beliefs.
Fox Sports 1 analyst Chris Broussard evoked such struggles while discussing the GOAT debate on Colin Cowherd’s “The Herd” show, mentioning the backlash Black athletes like Muhammed Ali experienced for publicly supporting themselves. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf declined saluting the United States flag because of his beliefs and eventually got fined, suspended and essentially blackballed from the NBA.
Colin Kaepernick came out and spoke his beliefs and has been unemployed for over two years in the NFL. Though he was “welcomed” back, Eric Reid was in a similar situation until halfway this season, which has seen the current Carolina Panther drug-tested more in eight weeks than over half of the league’s players have been for the entire season.
This brings me back to Ainge’s comments, which show a lack of understanding regarding the continued history of backlash that black athletes face, criticism much more focused and enduring than those of their white counterparts. James has seen quite a bit of that himself for no reason.
Ainge comparing James to Trump is an insult to say the least, given James’ history in calling out Trump and placing himself as a public figure willing to check the President for his offensive statements and policies geared toward the African-American community.
James’ body of work proves that he will be a first ballot Hall of Famer and has every right to put his name among the greats, or even put himself as the GOAT, even if you disagree.
Soak it in, appreciate and enjoy greatness on the King James show while you still can.
Joshua M. Hicks is the lead columnist of WARR