Some of the NBA’s greatest players ever didn’t need to see a championship ring to count LeBron James in their ranks.
In what amounts to a game of “musical chairs” _ and that’s what ranking “the greatest anything” comes down to _ a few sounded prepared to give up their seats. But if James wants to occupy the last one, if it’s important to him to be the best of the best, the ring he picked up Thursday night better not be his last. He has a lot of ground to make up.
Michael Jordan, who stubbornly kept trying to win a championship by himself, got his first ring in his seventh season in Chicago and won six before he retired _ the second time. Ever competitive, he still refuses every offer to comment on any other player, let alone compare them to you-know-who.
Oscar Robertson, who made a career setting up teammates to succeed, squandered a decade trying to win in Cincinnati, then moved to Milwaukee and partnered with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to get his first and only title. He couldn’t have been more complimentary about James.
“He’s getting smarter, he’s only 27 and still too sensitive to what people think about him. He’ll get over that and if nothing else, it stops the `when are you …’ talk,” Robertson said. “Then he won’t give a damn what they say. That’s when we’ll see real LeBron come out.”
It’s been an article of faith in sports that sooner or later, the “next one” will come along. If not in this era, then the next, or the one after that. Robertson was the original “big guard,” a threat to score, hand out assists and grab rebounds, the only player in league history to average a triple-double over the course of a season. But he played the game at roughly 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds for 14 seasons, retiring in 1974.
James is 6-8 and 250, with much the same skill set, and a RoboCop physique to boot. Considering how many individual awards he’s already piled up in nine seasons _ MVPs, scoring championships, All-Star selections and record-book entries _ his accomplishments might one day dwarf all those of guys who played the same spot on the floor.
That means Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, each of whom won multiple championships. Think back to the day when the argument over best-ever was confined to the dominant big men: Bill Russell, who won 11 titles in Boston, versus Wilt Chamberlain, who won two. And if it comes down to rings, Clyde Drexler, another big guard voted onto the “NBA’s 50 Greatest Players” honor roll, wonders whether James will ever get his due.
Like James, he came up short several times in the postseason in Portland, then moved to Houston alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and won his only championship.
“I’m one of those guys who says you can’t view team sports the same way you view individual sports. If he gets you 30-plus points, 10 rebounds a night and I’m his teammate and I miss two free throws at the end of the night, is he a great player or not? And does he have to rely on other people for that judgment?” Drexler said, without waiting for an answer. “No.
“The guy has an unbelievable resume, he’s the most unselfish, hard-working guy on the court and if you’re a fan of the game, you can’t help but love the way the guy plays the game. So here’s one way to look at it. Before `The Decision,’ he was one of the most revered athletes’ on the planet. After `The Decision’ _ and it wasn’t the best way he could have handled that situation, but it’s over _ people just, just sort of threw him down the stairs.
“I know what Michael (Jordan) said about playing against your rivals instead of with them. But when I got to Houston and started playing with Hakeem, frankly, I needed a lighter load. I knew I wouldn’t have to work as hard.
“With LeBron, the expectations were outsized once he said he was going to Miami,” Drexler said finally. “He met those once. We’ll find out how much he’s got left.”
The funny thing about success for guys that good is that it cranks up expectations instead of easing them. What marked Jordan as special is that every offseason, after the cigars were extinguished, the champagne ran out and the trophy was passed around, he went back to work turning a weakness _ left-handed dribble, mid-range jump shots, developing a fadeaway to avoid blocked shots _ into a strength.
It’s that trait that Magic thinks will ultimately decide how far James continues climbing the ranks. Noting James was already a deadly scorer, a top-shelf passer and as tough a rebounder as he needed to be, Johnson said his improved post-up game _ following extensive offseason training with Olajuwon _ had already established James as “the most unstoppable force we have in the NBA.”
“Before, my biggest knock on LeBron was he was just playing off his God-gifted talent,” Johnson said during a conference call before Game 5. “He was just the best athlete. But he didn’t play with his head to match that. Now he’s playing with his talent and with his head, and wow, watch out. This guy is going to set the league on fire for a long time. … I know there was an earlier question about how dominant has his performance been. We look to see this from LeBron for years and years to come.”
After all, he promised “not two, not three, not …” well, you get the idea.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.