First, John Salley likes to say outrageous things on the radio. There’s a history of it.
Second, there is the fact that our personal views of history — particularly our personal history and stories — tend to be skewed by the things we choose to remember and focus on. Which is to say, for example, how you remember your high school years when you are 25 or 35 are not how your high school years were in reality.
Combine those to facts and you get John Sally on the ESPN’s Colin Cowherd show saying that Michael Jordan is not even in the top five players Salley ever played against. He puts Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon above Jordan on the all-time list. Even Kevin McHale is higher on Salley’s list. He thought Isiah Thomas was the best he ever played with — and he was on a Jordan Bulls team. Watch the video yourself.
I don’t want to get into the barstool debate about the GOAT. You can make an obvious and strong case for Jordan. I think Kareem tends to get shafted in this debate — maybe because he was aloof with the media, maybe because he was tall and we expect it of him, but he should be in the conversation. Magic was revolutionary. And we could go on and on about Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and others.
I think what is going on here is Salley is a victim of his own memories, which are not always the most accurate of reflection of reality.
What Salley really remembers is a young, immature Jordan. He remembers the three years that the Bad Boy Pistons beat Jordan’s Bulls in the playoffs. The Pistons were the hurdle Jordan and his teammates needed to clear to get a title and Salley and his defense were a part of that. For years they had Jordan’s number.
But once Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the Bulls cleared that hurdle, they went on a run that blew the Pistons out of the water. Salley tends not to focus on the 1991 playoffs when the Bulls beat the Pistons, or even 92 when the Pistons were coming down and couldn’t get out of the first round. That’s when the Bulls were becoming the icons we know.
What Salley remembers is that the Lakers and Celtics of the Bird and Magic era were the Piston’s hurdle to clear to get a title. And so he reveres those he had to strive to reach, not as much those who came after trying to reach the Pistons heights. Before you rip Salley for this, we all do this in our own ways, and often with our own teams.
But there it is if you want it, John Salley saying some things that will make some of you mad.