Only the most stubborn fans and writers refuse to acknowledge LeBron James’ place in NBA history. They cling to greatness past with their eyes pressed shut, it’s the only way to avoid seeing what’s become of their beloved record books, to not see what’s happened to very definition of greatness. Shut eyes can’t see efficiency statistics or defensive ratings. Shut eyes don’t have to acknowledge 3-1 leads or switch flips. You can’t see a man defending five positions, chasing down lay-ups, or even eight years of *uninterrupted* dominance blindly clinging to Michael Jordan like Jeff van Gundy under a fist fight.
The only thing you can see with your eyes shut that tightly are ghosts.
LeBron has alluded to chasing ghosts on many occasions. Most recently, he said, “You guys are going to have the conversations about who is the greatest of all time and things of that nature. It doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, it’s so funny that the conversation in the NBA about who is the greatest but it’s never talked about in the NFL about who is the greatest quarterback.
“It’s just like: (Dan) Marino, (John) Elway, (Peyton) Manning and (Tom) Brady. All great quarterbacks. You know, and it should be the same for us. We go out and just try to be as great as we can be every night. The comparison of always trying to compare people either living or still playing or not playing, I think it’s great for barbershops, but for me I’m just trying to put my mark on the game and leave a legacy behind so I can inspire the next group of kids that want to play the game the right way.”
Whether you believe LeBron or not, or even whether you think he’s the greatest basketball player of all time – he is – he brings up a great point about the GOAT conversation. We talk about the greatest of all time ALL THE TIME in basketball. Player rankings are thrown around on pregame shows, halftime shows, post-game shows, highlight shows, debate shows, social media, and every form of print journalism available.
A GOAT list is everything. It’s a worthwhile argument, it’s clickbait, it’s insightful narrative… the only thing it isn’t is ubiquitous on the sports landscape. It’s as if basketball arenas are the only buildings worth haunting anymore.
We certainly aren’t talking about ghosts in the NFL anymore. The shadows of greats are cast long, but I don’t remember a national obsession with whether Emmitt Smith or Adrian Peterson were better than Jim Brown. When Ray Lewis became the best Linebacker in history, we shrugged and said, “Yep. That’s probably true,” and we left it at that. I’m sure an old guy shook his fist at the sky, but the consensus happened quickly.
Same with Tom Brady. We debated about the best NFL quarterback in history for a few years, and then we didn’t. Once the proof was presented to us, there was no doubt. Somehow, LeBron’s seventh straight trip to the Finals, the MVPs, the Finals MVPs, the 3-1 lead, the hometown narrative… none of that is proof enough? It’s been said that if LeBron wins THIS championship, THEN he’ll be IN THE CONVERSATION to be better than Jordan.
Imagine if LeBron was caught with deflated basketballs.
Meanwhile, ballparks are shining beacons for ghosts. The tradition, the unwritten rules, the white people… you would think ballparks are haunted 24/7, that the ghosts even summer in Florida or Arizona with the rest of the team. Ghosts are smart, they stayed where it’s warm.
Sure, Babe Ruth’s and Hank Aaron’s names are all still invoked to celebrate baseball’s majestic past, but “is Barry Bonds better than Hank Aaron?” wasn’t a question Skip Bayless went out of his way to answer incorrectly 7,845 times. Nolan Ryan didn’t overtake Satchel Paige, he became Nolan Ryan. Ken Griffey, Jr. didn’t threaten the legacy of Willie Mays by being great.
Maybe it’s the PED era suspicions, or travel schedules, or even the MLB’s late integration, but baseball’s ghosts are unassailable, which somehow makes them less visible in our everyday chase of greatness.
Ice rinks are too cold for ghosts. Plus, Wayne Gretzky can’t haunt everywhere at once.
That leaves the NBA. The league with the most open superstars, interacting with the most robust and youthful fanbase, that’s awash in pirated highlight videos and music stars, as the league most haunted.
It makes sense, really. The league that’s changing the most, and changing the fastest, is the league where generations of fans are working the hardest to preserve the greatness of their memories.