Cleveland star LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of this generation, has proposed that the NBA retire Michael Jordan's #23 in honor of 'the greatest NBA star ever.'
I think that's a terrible idea.
Nobody questions the greatness of Jordan, and most experts agree that he probably was the greatest ever. What made Jordan great-- and this can also be said of James, is that in every game there is a most talented player on the court, and also a player on the court who puts more heart into it and plays harder than anyone else. In Jordan's case, he was both of those in one package.
However, a subjective judgement (and it will always be subjective, for example there is no way to put Jordan on the court against Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson) should not be definitive, and more to the point these kinds of things change over time.
Consider baseball. For decades it was not even questioned that Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever. After the Black Sox scandal nearly destroyed baseball in 1919, Ruth became the game's savior, changing it in such a way that even when I was a kid in the 1970's people would talk about Ruth like some sort of a demigod. When mere mortals dared to challenge a Ruthian record-- Roger Maris in 1961, Hank Aaron during the early 1970's they were booed and denigrated and it was said of them that there was simply no comparison.
Another thirty-five years have gone by since Hammerin' Hank overcame the boos (not to mention the overt racism) and launched home run # 715 off of Al Downing, and it is interesting how perceptions of Ruth have changed.
He is still counted among the game's greatest players, no doubt. And there are still plenty who would point to factors such as his highest ratio of home runs per at-bat or his success as a pitcher before becoming the Sultan of Swat and say he is still the greatest. But the point is that there even is a debate. Many other players-- Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Aaron, Ted Williams and Mike Schmidt, also have their advocates. Even Ty Cobb, who epitomized the game before Ruth, has been rehabilitated and now has his advocates who claim that he was the best pure ballplayer ever.
Or football. Back when Ruth was the greatest baseball player ever, no question, in football it was Jim Brown. Of course in those days running backs were considered more fundamentally football players than quarterbacks. The change in perception since is even more pronounced there-- because of the emergence of the position of quarterback, most people would argue today that the greatest football player ever was a quarterback, likely Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Dan Marino, John Elway or even Brett Favre. If anyone suggested a running back at all, it would probably be Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton, not Brown.
I'm not going to wade into the middle of that argument. My point is that perceptions change. Sometimes people look back into history and begin to better appreciate athletes who may have been considered not the greatest (though still great) when they were playing. After all the old days were always better, or so it often seems. Or, it may be that in the future a better athlete comes along.
And so it is with Jordan. Was he the greatest? Probably. Will he always be the greatest? Probably not. LeBron has the talent and maybe the chance to make people forget about Jordan someday. So does Kobe Bryant. And maybe some kid who is just now being signed up for the local YMCA basketball league. The truth is, we don't know.
There are examples of players whose leagues have uniformly retired their numbers. In baseball, Jackie Robinson's #42 was retired for every team. But Jackie Robinson meant something to baseball above and beyond his ability as a player. Beyond his ability on the court, Jordan--- well, he's a better shoe salesman than Al Bundy.
It is entirely appropriate that the Chicago Bulls, Jordan's team, have retired his number. But for the entire league to retire it, doesn't make the cut.