Despite John Daniel Davidson’s excellent case for Michael Jordan and David Marcus’ compelling argument in favor of LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest individual NBA player of all time. All it took was a cursory glance at Abdul-Jabbar’s Wikipedia page to realize that recent bias has completely distorted the “GOAT” argument.
ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary on Michael Jordan is peak quarantine viewing, and LeBron on the Los Angeles Lakers was the most entertaining thing pre-quarantine, but the world existed before 1984. So, just like the greatest president of all time is too distant a memory, so is the GOAT basketball player.
Abdul-Jabbar, originally born Lew Alcindor, has three NCAA championships at the University of California at Los Angeles to Jordan’s one at North Carolina. He has six NBA championships, one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Lakers, to match Jordan’s six with the Chicago Bulls. He won his first NBA championship in his second year in the league on a team in little Milwaukee with the help of NBA all-time great Oscar Robertson. Because Robertson was known for averaging a triple-double, he’s the equivalent of that era’s Russell Westbrook.
The greatest argument in favor of Abdul-Jabbar is that he is also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, placing him firmly ahead of Jordan and James.
The best argument against the seven-footer is the general knock against big men and the fact that he played with great point guards, including Magic Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar’s stat assists and finesse remain quite impressive, however, so his basketball skills are timeless. Not to mention, Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook is an almost unguardable offensive weapon that has yet to be fully duplicated.
Davidson’s argument factors into the GOAT equation an athlete’s overall positive effect outside of individual performance, including Jordan’s ability to improve the players around him and the way he increased the legitimacy of basketball as a global sport. Abdul-Jabbar was the face of the NBA’s boom in the ’70s. While Jordan popularized the game globally, Abdul-Jabbar introduced it to the world. Abdul-Jabbar’s legacy off the court is arguably just as strong as his legacy on it.
In mentioning Muhammad Ali as an apt comparison to Jordan, Davidson also opens the door for the connection between the boxer and Abdul-Jabbar. Both were black athletes in the ’60s at the forefront of their respective sports who converted to Islam.
Many say LeBron James’ civic record dwarfs Jordan’s, particularly in the specific struggle of African Americans. Well, Abdul-Jabbar protested by refusing to play on the U.S. 1968 Olympic basketball team — the same Olympics in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the black power fist in protest of American racism on the 200-meter relay podium, taking gold and bronze, respectively. Abdul-Jabbar’s record on the court is bolstered by his participation in the actual civil rights movement.
Being a local celebrity in the Los Angeles area also allowed him to study martial arts with Bruce Lee, which led to him starring opposite Lee in the 1972 film “Game of Death.” The iconic fight scene showing the 7-foot-2-inch Abdul-Jabbar versus the 5-foot-8-inch Lee is still cool to watch.
Abdul-Jabbar also appeared in comedy classic “Airplane!,” TV shows such as “Full House” and “Living Single,” and a few others through the years. He is currently producing “Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution” on the History Channel, honoring the activist legacy of which he was a part.
Abdul-Jabbar is also a diplomat and cultural ambassador, having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
LeBron James still has time to challenge these accomplishments because his legacy is still being written. The greatest argument in his favor is the championship he won for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. If you need motivation, James’ 2018 NBA Finals performance in game one against that greatest basketball team ever assembled is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Achilles.
The court of public opinion can be a fickle space to play, yet the NBA GOAT conversation in my mind is not a two-man argument, but three.