The Great GOAT Debate: Going Against the Grain

 469 total views,  1 views today

By Henry Liao

Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl title with the underdog Tampa Bay Buccaneers last February 7.
Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl title with the underdog Tampa Bay Buccaneers last February 7.

Here we go again. The seemingly endless debates on sports’ G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) have heated up once again after 43-year-old Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. powered the underdog Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 victory over the regular season-leading and 2020 title-winning Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV last February 7 for his seventh championship ring in 10 SB appearances, the most in National Football League history.

No other player or NFL team in league history owns more titles than the American football quarterback, who won his first six championships with the England Patriots before departing for the Bucs prior to this season.

Brady, who turns 44 in August, also earned his fifth Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. The first four were secured during his Patriots journey.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won five NBA titles withe LA Lakers during the 1980s, hoists his patented skyhook off Denver Nuggets' Dan Issel.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won five NBA titles withe LA Lakers during the 1980s, hoists his patented skyhook off Denver Nuggets’ Dan Issel.

As a comparison, “The Chief” Robert Lee Parish was the oldest player in the 75-year history of the National Basketball Association to win a league championship. The 7-1 Louisiana native turned in the trick with the Chicago Bulls in 1997 at age 43 years and 9.5 months.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the oldest player to earn NBA Finals MVP honors when he accomplished the feat with the champion Los Angeles Lakers in 1985 at age 38. It came 14 years after the 7-2 UCLA alum first claimed his first Finals MVP hardware in 1971 while powering the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only crown in franchise history.

Three years ago in July, Kareem, who won a record-setting six-time NBA MVP awards (1971-1972-1974-76-77-80) to go with his six championship rings (including five with the Lakers in 1980-82-85-87-88) during his illustrious 20-year tenure from 1969-89, opined that “there can be more than one” G.O.A.T. (other than the popular choice, Michael Jordan) in NBA history.

Kareem was not referring to himself although he is most qualified. Strangely, his name has never cropped up in the G.O.A.T. discussions.

The former Lewis Alcindor before he legally changed it to his Muslim name in the summer of 1971 following his championship campaign with the Bucks even said that the “Greatest of All Time” debate was silly.

Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky is the greatest athlete of all time, according to a fans survey conducted by sports.yahoo.com a year ago.
Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky is the greatest athlete of all time, according to a fans survey conducted by sports.yahoo.com a year ago.

“These GOAT discussions are fun distractions while sitting around waiting for the pizza to be served,” declared Abdul-Jabbar. “But they’re on a par with ‘Which superpower would you want most: flight or invisibility?’ Whether I’m included or not in anyone’s list doesn’t matter. I played my hardest and I helped my teammates. That’s the most important thing I walked away with.

“The reason there is no such thing as the GOAT is because every player plays under unique circumstances. We played different positions, under different rules, with different teammates, with different coaches. Every player has to adapt to their circumstances and find a way to excel. This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one.”

And we are only talking about one sport: basketball.

Still, in July 2020, sports.yahoo.com came up with a fan survey to determine The GOAT of all GOATs – the Greatest Athlete of All Time. A total of 16 athletes or the GOAT of each of the 16 different sports was seeded. A one-on-one knockout matchup was the format utilized.

The website said the survey was not about popularity but which athlete dominated his/her sport the most.

The list of athletes (with their seeds) and the results of the first-round matchups were the following:

  • 1-Wayne Gretzky (pro ice hockey) defeated 16-Jon Jones (MMA fighter)
  • 2-Michael Jordan (pro basketball) beat 15-Cheryl Miller (women’s basketball)
  • 3-Roger Federer (pro men’s tennis) downed 14-Amanda Nunes (women’s mixed martial arts fighter)
  • 4-Muhammad Ali (pro boxing) defeated 13-Annika Sorenstam (women’s golf)
  • 5-Michael Phelps (Olympic swimming) beat 12-Lionel Messi (soccer)
  • 11-Tiger Woods (pro men’s golf) defeated 6-Mario Andretti (car racing)
  • 10-Tom Brady (NFL) defeated 7-Mia Hamm (women’s soccer)
  • 8-Babe Ruth (major-league baseball) beat Serena Williams (pro women’s tennis)

In the Elite Eight, Gretzky beat Ruth, Jordan eliminated Brady, Woods ousted Federer and Phelps defeated Ali.

A stonewall defense by the name of Bill Russell keeps Philadelphia 76ers' Wilt Chamberlain at bay.
A stonewall defense by the name of Bill Russell keeps Philadelphia 76ers’ Wilt Chamberlain at bay.

In the Final Four, Gretzky downed Phelps and Jordan defeated Woods.

For the GOAT of all GOATS showdown, the fans vote for Gretzky over Jordan by a count of 54 percent to 46 percent.

There you go, Jordan lost in the sports.yahoo.com’s fans survey. While it’s impossible to compare athletes of different sports, it attempted to determine which athlete dominated its competition the most.

For the uninitiated, the 60-year-old Ontario-born Gretzky saw action with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers in the National Hockey League from 1979 to 1999 and won four Stanley Cup championships (1984-1985, 1987-88), all with the Oilers. Playing center, “The Great One” finished his career as the leading goal scorer, leading assist producer and leading point scorer in NHL history. He was the recipient of the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP nine times (1980-1987 and 1989) and the Art Ross hardware as the league’s scoring leader on 10 occasions (1981-87, 1990-91, 1994).

My G. O. A. T. Bill Russell won the first of his record 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in 1957.
My G. O. A. T. Bill Russell won the first of his record 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in 1957.

While Kareem had once said that the G.O.A.T. talk was silly, doing one should be fun to many.

I get it. The popular vote as NBA G.O.A.T. goes to Michael Jeffrey Jordan, who turns 58 in February.

Jordan, after all, earned six title rings with the Chicago Bulls in a pair of “three-peats” (1991-93, 1996-98) during the 1990s.

At the risk of a violent reaction, I am going against the grain and pick William Felton (Bill) Russell as the GOAT in NBA history.

Unlike Russell, whose tenure from 1956-69 was bereft of decent television exposure or highlight films, Jordan was a huge beneficiary of mind-conditioning video technology during the mid-1980s and 1990s and the byproduct of media hype that puts too much weight on jaw-breaking one-on-one highlights or mind-boggling slam dunks and other acrobatic acts that the ESPN publicity machinery has institutionalized since it entered the national conscience instead of focusing on the fundamental brilliance of the league’s other prominent players.

Michael Jordan eyes the basket against New York mastodon Patrick Ewing.
Michael Jordan eyes the basket against New York mastodon Patrick Ewing.

Even hoop fans from the younger generation, whose memory of Jordan’s games were very limited, only came to know his accomplishments after being romanticized by the 10-episode documentary series “The Last Dance” that portrayed Jordan like a demigod.

The truth of the matter is that nobody really started talking about Jordan’s greatness … until he snared his first NBA title in 1991 following six fruitless campaigns in the pro league. That was notwithstanding his various individual feats (multiple NBA scoring crowns, in particular).

Any G.O.A.T. talks began to take shape only after Jordan and his Bulls again reached the mountain top in the next two seasons for the first of his two title “three-peats.”

Following a brief, forgettable 1.5-year flirtation with major-league baseball, the University of North Carolina alum and two-time Olympian “unretired” to propel the Bulls to another three-year championship reign in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Bill Russell was known for his defensive prowess but, here in photo, he looks to score against the Philadelphia Sixers even as Wilt Chamberlain is a hapless bystander (at far left).
Bill Russell was known for his defensive prowess but, here in photo, looks to score against the Philadelphia 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain as a hapless bystander (at far left).

That’s when the 6-6 Jordan heard the G.O.A.T. discussions roar the loudest as the stakeholders in the sport (media, co-athletes, coaches and fans) steadily elevated the current Charlotte Hornets team owner’s status to the NBA pantheon as the world’s greatest basketball player ever.

If we follow that line, then it’s presumed that the NBA championships he won were a major factor in evaluating the G.O.A.T. issue.

And if this is so, then Russell has the edge over anybody else – including Jordan – for the legendary 6-10 Boston Celtics center amassed 11 titles – the most by any player in NBA annals – in 12 trips to the Finals during his distinguished 13-year tenure.

Even in an LA Laker uniform, Wilt Chamberlain could not beat Bill Russell in his farewell season in 1969 as the Celtics won in seven games in the NBA Finals despite the Lakers hosting the finale at Fabulous Forum.
Even in an LA Lakers uniform, Wilt Chamberlain could not beat Bill Russell in his farewell season in 1969 as the Celtics won in seven games in the NBA Finals despite the Lakers hosting the finale at Fabulous Forum.

Try to go to a well in your backyard. Strike it a dozen times and the well produces water on 11 occasions. Isn’t that quite astonishing?

Russell’s claim to G.O.A.T. status was validated when the NBA named the Finals MVP trophy in his honor in 2009.

It could well have been the Michael Jordan Finals MVP trophy if he were truly the greatest of all time, but this wasn’t so.

Allow me to make a case for Russell furthermore.

You talk about the level of competition. Russell was battling arch-nemesis Wilt Chamberlain under the boards for as many as 10 games every season in a 10-team league during the mid-1950s and 1960s. Unknown to many, however, the two were close friends off the court, often inviting each other for Thanksgiving dinners.

Michael Jordan is the choice of many hoop fans as NBA G O. A. T.. That, however, excludes this writer.
Michael Jordan is the choice of many hoop fans as NBA G O. A. T. That, however, excludes this writer.

It was a packed league with several talented teams during Russell’s time and yet the Celtics were able to put together an eight-year title reign from 1959-66.

In contrast, Jordan belonged to an era where the level of competition was much lower and the talent diluted due to the entry of expansion franchises during the mid-1980s and 1990s.

The biggest knock against the 6-10 Russell, if it was even legit, was that he was only an average scorer. But the two-time NCAA championship star (1955 and 1956) out of the University of San Francisco was a demon on the defensive end.

Russell was the quintessential shot-blocker (even though no stats for this category were documented until the 1973-74 season when he was already five years into retirement), the scary rim protector that befuddled the opposition as he could block an enemy missile then throw it to straight the Celts’ frontcourt for a fastbreak even before he landed on the floor, so unlike the players now who just swat the flies out of bounds.

Wilt Chamberlain tries a short hook over the outstretched arm of arch nemesis Bill Russell during their fierce NBA rivalry in the 1950s and 1960s.
Wilt Chamberlain tries a short hook over the outstretched arm of arch nemesis Bill Russell during their fierce NBA rivalry in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then there was his rebounding – a career average of 22.5 boards in 963 regular assignments – far outweighing his offensive contributions (still pretty cool at 15.1 ppg and 4.3 assists) during his entire NBA stint in Hub City.

For the record, Russell even submitted higher numbers in the playoffs where all the marbles were at stake. The goateed center from Louisiana posted per-game clips of 16.2 ppg, 24.9 rpg and 4.7 apg in 165 games.

Russell did it all on the defensive end but if that were to be taken against him, how then would you be able to defend the old adage that “offense wins games, defense wins championships?”

Russell and Chamberlain often exchanged words during the games with their competitiveness ....
Russell and Chamberlain often exchanged words during the games with their competitiveness ….

So there is my narrative for Russell.

For those people who have a contrary opinion, I accept them with much respect. At the end of the day, we can always agree to disagree.

By the way, I am not a leprechaun apologist. I have been a Lakers fan since Kareem moved out of the gloomy weather in Milwaukee in June 1975 and relocated to the bright lights of Hollywood.

I myself continue to enjoy the Hollywood glitz more so after LeBron James joined the Lakers in the summer of 2018 and gifted the tradition-steeped franchise with its 17th NBA title last season – its first since 2010 behind the late Kobe Bryant – that duplicated the Boston Celtics’ NBA-record championship harvest.

Henry Liao