Was Jordan Really Any Better than Joe D.?
(published December 1999)
When ESPN inexplicably named Michael Jordan its athlete of the century
over Babe Ruth and others, my mind raced to answer the question, Why?
Initially, I dismissed the pick as the last in a series of examples demonstrating
that ESPN's list left a lot to be desired. But upon further reflection,
I became convinced that there is a deeper answer: ESPN failed to
realize that we are now at a point in basketball history similar to that
which baseball reached around 1950.
Basketball has been played well only for about the past 50 years—and
that may be a generous estimate. Baseball, meanwhile, has truly spanned
the century. If you imagine baseball in 1950—at that point, it too
had been played well only for about 50 years—then you can imagine its history
to that point looking a lot like basketball's history looks today.
What is the relevance of this to an all-century list, you might ask?
The key point is as follows: it is a lot easier to be the best player
in the span of a half-century than the best in the span of a full one.
Thinking of all the baseball greats of the past 100 years, I realized
that the player whose career most resembled Jordan's was the Yankee Clipper,
Joe DiMaggio. One could reasonably ask, Was Jordan really any better
than Joe D.?
Both players had brilliant careers of relatively short duration.
Jordan played 13 seasons plus one partial season; DiMaggio played 13 seasons
over a span of 16 years (he lost three years to war service). Both
could do essentially anything their sport asked. DiMaggio hit for
average, hit for power, and excelled defensively and on the basepaths;
Jordan buried jumpers, drove the lane, excelled defensively, and contributed
significant numbers of assists and rebounds. Jordan won five Most
Valuable Player awards, second to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (ranked #26 by ESPN),
who won six; in a sport with many more candidates and many more one-year
wonders, DiMaggio won three (no baseball player has won more). Each
was widely considered the finest player of his generation and perhaps beyond.
During baseball's centennial celebration in 1969, DiMaggio was voted the
game's greatest living player—an award Jordan would doubtless win for basketball
if such a vote were taken today. Beyond all this, each had an indomitable
will to win. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six World Championships;
DiMaggio led the New York Yankees to nine.
Down the line, these two athletes are neck-and-neck. If an edge
is to be given here, it is not evident to whom.
But while DiMaggio and Jordan run neck-and-neck, it is not clear that
DiMaggio was even the second-best player in Major League Baseball history—at
the least, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays also vie
for that honor. What is clear is that DiMaggio was not the
very best. In terms of greatness, Joe was no Babe—and neither was
Babe Ruth dominated baseball like no one else has, and like Jordan never
dominated basketball. He posted a career ERA of 2.28 as a pitcher;
he posted a career batting average of .342 (a mark that has been bettered
by only one player—Williams, at .344—in the past 60 years); and when he
retired after hitting the last of his 714 career home runs, no one else
had even hit 400. He was the greatest and most colorful player in
the history of baseball, and he saved the game.
Jordan has been retired for less than two years, yet he holds none of
the NBA's most cherished records (except for that of endorsement revenue).
Bill Russell won more titles; Kareem scored more points; Wilt Chamberlain
scored more points in a season and in a game. Jordan is most known
as a scorer, yet he already trails Karl Malone in career points—and Malone
entered the league a year after Jordan. Furthermore, most
of Jordan's greatest heroics came after fellow-greats Magic Johnson and
Larry Bird had left the court. Few would consider the Jordan era
(1991-1998) to be one in which an abundance of great teams and players
roamed the NBA. When the late Los Angeles Times sportswriter
Jim Murray was asked why he voted Jordan 15th on his ESPN ballot (which
he submitted shortly before his death), he replied, "I'd like to see Michael
Jordan try to dunk a basketball over Bill Russell."
If ESPN wanted to award its "Athlete of the Century" to the greatest
all-around athlete, then it should have honored Jim Thorpe (Olympic gold-medalist
in the decathlon; Olympic gold-medalist in the pentathlon; 6-year Major
League Baseball player; named the top football player of the half-century
by A.P.) If it wanted to honor the greatest player in a single sport,
then it should have honored Babe Ruth (as A.P. did). If it wanted
to honor the player who demonstrated the most courage and contributed the
most to social justice, than it should have honored Jackie Robinson.
If it wanted to honor Michael Jordan, then it should have attached an asterisk
and explained how he was better than its #22 selection, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.