P.T. Barnum sold his circus as "The Greatest Show on Earth". Mohammad Ali was self-proclaimed "The Greatest". Sinatra, Streisand, Pavarotti – at given points in time within their genre, generally regarded as the Greatest.
The New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens – more team championships than any in their sports. Hence the greatest franchise.
Babe Ruth, Walter Payton, Jim Thorpe, Lance Armstrong, Richard Petty, Wayne Gretsky, Tiger Woods, Bill Russell – dominant individuals in their sports in the years in which they played.
Arguments continue over whether Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, or Truman was our greatest president. Whether Jack Benny, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, or Eddie Murphy is our greatest comedian.
There is general agreement that Buddy Rich was the greatest jazz drummer of all time, but little unanimity regarding the players of any other instruments.
The art world has never crowned a champion in any category, and no two experts agree on Shakespeare's greatest play, Faulkner's greatest novel, or Beethoven's greatest composition.
There is, however, one modern day phenomenon where the entire world recognizes an individual as the greatest ever in his profession – the most dominant individual player in the history of team sports – "His Airness" – Michael Jordan. M.J. reached heights both literally and figuratively, never approached by any other in the game of basketball. No man of his size at his position, or any position, controlled the tempo and flow of the game and carried the entire image and personality of the league with his smile, grace, athleticism, leaping ability and awesome competitive fire.
The young Ali, smoldering between rounds in the corner – the great Jim Brown, creating a space where none existed – Joe Namath guaranteeing a first-ever Super Bowl win for his Jets against an overwhelmingly superior Colts team. All great, but eclipsed by Mighty Michael winning his sixth championship and tenth scoring title on the last shot in the last seconds of his last game – a classic crossover move – leaving the defender on the floor and the ball swooshing through the net from the elevated body and splayed legs of the greatest. Retiring as the best in the world.
One only has to think of the battered Ali at the end of his third comeback, or Namath on the bench as the second string quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams barely able to walk, or an overweight 70-year old Sinatra at Madison Square Garden, no longer able to sustain a tone, to appreciate the majesty of Jordan's exit from the game.
In his final year, Michael earned more salary than any player in history. The power of his image continued to generate more endorsement income than anyone actively playing his game or any game. As the Chicago Bulls ownership elected not to resign Coach Phil Jackson, or attempt to keep the team together for another year, Air Jordan retired at the absolute top of his game and quickly bought an ownership interest in the Washington Wizards.
Many question whether the greatest could continue to play at that level at 35 and were frankly relieved that our final memory would be one of singular triumph. NCAA champ, Olympic champ, NBA champ, even a two-year hiatus between three-peats to attempt a career in baseball. And now a career in management.
What changed? Why, last summer, at nearly 39, three years out of the game with the greatest risk to his reputation, come out of retirement to play for a mediocre team and become the focus for every young star competing to fill the void he created? Since that presumably final shot was taken, the sports world has tried to anoint a successor. Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Alan Iverson – great players – but at least as yet, "not like Mike". Jordan had the ability in the final minutes to take over and win virtually any game in which the Bulls were close. He also played with other great players who complimented his style.
As this column is being written M.J. is a regular Wizard – averaging more minutes than any player on the team – the leading scorer – and in the top-ten in the league. He no longer dominates. Percentages are down, and his speed and inside game have suffered. His knees are fragile, and while after an abysmal start, the Wizards are only a couple of games under 500, even with the "Greatest" a play-off birth looks out of reach this year and perhaps for several more. The Wizards and the league's number one pick, rookie Kwame Brown, right out of high school, is barely playing and looks to be years, if ever, away from justifying his pick.
It is very difficult for CEO's to step down, old soldiers to fade away, or great athletes to stop playing. For many, it is all they have ever done. The game defines their lives. They live for the locker room, the adrenaline rush, and the competition.
M.J. need apologize to no one for again wanting to play the game he loves. At 39 he is still one of the MBA's most exciting, but not the greatest. Never again the greatest. He has to realize the fact that fans, seeing him play for the first time, may not believe his skills once surpassed all others. The longer he continues, the greater the potential to tarnish his legacy.
As in every other aspect of this extraordinary individual's life, however, it is his call, not the leagues, not Nike's. Hopefully he will look back on his decision to play again and feel as good as he did when he took the winning shot for his final championship.