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Monday, August 26, 2013

LeBron James Talks About Personal Growth, Lists his Top Three Basketball Players of All-Time

It would be easy for LeBron James to gloat and to defiantly assert that his detractors were wrong--but the very fact that James is not doing that is just one more example of how much he has improved his mental and psychological approach to life. In a recent interview, James refused to take the bait and say that his critics had been wrong about him. Instead, he declared, "No, I've changed. I've changed for the right. I've grown as a basketball player; I've gotten better. I've grown as a man. When you make mistakes or you have done something that you did not feel was the best choice to make, it's how you come back from adversity, it's how you come back from those pitfalls that define who you are as a man and as a professional athlete." Whether or not you root for LeBron James and the Miami Heat, his ability to recognize his flaws and implement positive self-change deserves respect. Such introspection is not easy to do, particularly for a person who has already achieved significant wealth and success.

The portion of the interview in which James talked about that personal journey has been overshadowed, though, by his response to a question about the greatest basketball players of all-time. James chose Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. The backlash against James' selection of Erving is unfortunate and it reveals how little those critics know about basketball history. It is also sad that Magic Johnson, who James added as a fourth choice after saying that it was too difficult to just mention three players, lashed out by bragging that he should be ranked ahead of Bird and Erving because he won more NBA championships. If Johnson wants to deal that card, then he should know that the deck is still stacked against ranking him in the top three: Bill Russell leads the championship pack with 11, John Havlicek won eight rings and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships together--to mention just four Top 50 players who won more championships than Johnson's five. It should also be noted that Johnson's teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, including one without Johnson (Johnson never won a ring without Abdul-Jabbar).

All great players should be appreciated for their unique contributions to their sport and sometimes in our haste to rank players there is a tendency to diminish or demean one player in order to elevate another player. I included Erving in my 10 player basketball Pantheon in 2008 but I did not rank those 10 players, preferring instead to describe the qualities that made each of those players so great. I don't know if Erving is the greatest player of all-time or the third greatest player or the ninth greatest player--and no one else can definitively answer that question, either--but I know that Erving absolutely belongs on the short list of the very greatest players in pro basketball history. He played at an exceptionally high level for 16 seasons, winning four regular season MVPs, three championships and two Finals MVPs; his playoff career is one of the most distinguished--and underrated--in pro basketball history, as indicated by the impressive list of his postseason accomplishments appended to Part IV of my series about Erving's playoff career. In the 1976 ABA Finals--playing against a Denver team stacked with Hall of Fame players David Thompson and Dan Issel, Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown and the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time (Bobby Jones)--Erving authored arguably the greatest single series playoff performance in the sport's history, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as he carried his undermanned New York Nets to an upset win over the Nuggets.

If Erving had played his entire career in the NBA or if he had played in today's era of media saturation then his abilities and accomplishments would receive the full respect that they deserve. Check out some great articles that put Erving's career in proper historical perspective.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM



At Monday, August 26, 2013 11:52:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

You make some good points. And yes, Julius Erving's career is underrated because they don't include his ABA days.

When ranking players people use different criterias. Most include titles in their criteria as you know.

A guy like Scottie Pippen won six titles. That's more than what Magic, Olajuwon, Erving, Bird and Shaq have.
Not taking anything away from Scottie but its more impressive and difficult to win titles as the best player on a team than a great sidekick.

I dont think anyone would rank Pippen over those guys.

JAbbar was the best player for like two of those titles compared to like four for Magic.

At Monday, August 26, 2013 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Championships should be considered when ranking great players but championships have to be placed in the larger context of each player's career--his role on his team, who his teammates were, which teams he faced, etc. Pippen won six titles as an All-NBA caliber performer, which is different than winning multiple titles as a role player (like Robert Horry or Bruce Bowen). I am not ranking Pippen above the players who you mentioned in your comment but his titles form a significant part of his resume because he played a major role on each of those championship teams. Pippen also had an MVP caliber 1993-94 regular season after Jordan retired.

Back to the topic at hand, Erving achieved enough to be in the top three or top five discussion and it is not ridiculous to mention his name in that context, contrary to some of the responses to James' interview. Perhaps a stronger case can be made from some of the other Pantheon members but Erving's peak value and his longevity as an All-NBA level performer are most impressive.


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