When “The Greatest” Gets in the Way of The Greatness

Why GOAT talk is the WOAT

If you’ve been watching TV or scrolling through NBA Twitter this week, you’ve probably come across a debate we have every year—and can’t seem to stop having.

I’m talking about all the GOAT talk. And before I say any more, I want to be clear: I just don’t like it.

Three months ago, I wrote that winning the Finals in the Bubble would go down as one of the greatest achievements in basketball. I had the same thought the minute the whistle blew and the Lakers stormed the court. They used a crushing loss as fuel to come back even stronger. They played like a team. And they kept their eyes on the prize all season long. And even though Miami may not be celebrating right now, they surprised a hell of a lot of fans this year—their future is crazy bright, if you ask me.

That’s what everyone should be talking about. And for the most part, it is. But the week after we wrapped one of the most historic NBA seasons I can remember, I’m hearing everyone already having that other conversation: “Sure, the Lakers won. But who’s the greatest of all time?”

“Is it Bron?” People ask. “MJ?” Here’s why that’s a useless comparison: Those are two different players, playing two different games, at two completely different moments in time. Matter of fact, I’ll complicate it some more: How the hell would you go about stacking LeBron James and Michael Jordan against someone like Bill Russell? The man has 11 NBA championships and 2 NCAAs; 5 MVPs; he’s a 12-time All-Star; he’s got an Olympic gold medal—all while he was active in the Civil Rights Movement. Or how about Kareem, with his own history of activism, plus 6 championships, 6 MVPs, and 19 All-Star games under his belt? Magic, Kobe…you see where I’m going.

I could keep doing it, too – everyone’s got stats to throw out for their favorite players. And I understand why these conversations can be fun to have. But numbers can’t account for how different the league was for every guy I just mentioned. They all came up, played, and retired in different years—in some cases,  different eras.

My generation grew up watching MJ. When we started playing, we tried to imitate what he—and all our idols—did. But we didn’t put in all that work—we didn’t dedicate our lives to basketball—just to get compared to the stars who inspired us to do so. And I don’t think the OGs made history just so they could become benchmarks for every new sensation. The past is supposed to blaze the trail for the future. It doesn’t always have to compete with it. I’d bet a lot of my peers would agree.

Which leads me to the other part of this conversation that doesn’t sit right with me: the way it pits Black men against one another. How often do you hear Tom Brady compared to Joe Montana? I haven’t—and certainly not to the degree that LeBron and MJ are put side to side these days. In our sport and others, white players simply aren’t defined by one other as often as we are. They’re given plenty of room to exist as individual phenomena. Come back to me when you’re lining up Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle. Or maybe don’t.

One person who also doesn’t want to talk about GOATs? Bron himself. He’s been a team-first guy since Akron—that’s what makes him great. In almost every interview I see, he makes a point of saying that he doesn’t care about that conversation, that he couldn’t do what he does without his team, no matter where he’s playing. Kobe, too: “Let’s just enjoy each other’s greatness,” he said. I used to think people weren’t listening to those guys – the same players they were arguing over – but now I think they just don’t care.

So if you don’t take it from me, take it from Bron or Kobe, or any one of the greats who’ve said and proved that basketball is a team sport: Talking about something as individualistic as the GOAT isn’t worthwhile—at worst, it’s downright disrespectful to the game. Disrespectful to everyone who plays it and everyone who came before them. That’s why I can’t act like the question holds any weight the next time I hear it. If you’re looking to sell papers or get clicks, I promise there are better ways to do it.

Because when you’re busy trying to figure out who the greatest is, it’s hard to see greatness itself.