It’s a bit of a bar stool argument; there isn’t only one right answer to “who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” It’s a matter of opinion (well, so long as you don’t say Craig Ehlo). The conventional wisdom right now is Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time (Magic Johnson says he is), but if you want to argue for Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Magic, or a few others you’re not out of line.
Former NBA star and now Knicks’ color analyst Walt Frazier was asked about it on Bleacher Report, and he went another direction:
“If I had to pick a guy it would be Wilt Chamberlain, because if you look at his records, it’s hilarious, nobody will approach any of his records. So he would be my guy. Bill Russell would be behind him. A guy who is always overlooked is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the leading scorer in the history of the game. The skyhook is the most lethal weapon the game has ever seen, but when people talk about the greatest player he’s not even in the top five.”
I agree with Fraizer on the last part — Abdul-Jabbar does get shortchanged in this conversation far too much. Six time champ, six time MVP, his numbers stack up with anyone.
I was on a television show in Los Angeles with the Hall of Fame basketball writer Mark Heisler (formerly of the Los Angeles Times, now blogging for Forbes) and he made a good point: For him, the GOAT conversation has to be broken out into big men and guard/wings. He said their roles and what they provide on the court are so different, it’s not fair to compare the contributions of guys such as Kareem and Jordan. He thought they were separate discussions. I think there’s something to that logic. It’s also hard to compare across eras because there didn’t use to be a three-point shot, and how defenses were called (zone, no zone, hand checking on the perimeter) has changed.
Still, you can make a good case for Chamberlain — for his career he averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds, he was physically far ahead of his time. He was the first big man in the NBA who was a real athlete, and he changed the game.