HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Sometimes you have to let the words marinate for a bit, take your glasses off, rub your eyes and breathe in the gravity of a statement before you react to it.
I watched LeBron James smile his way through another (well deserved) Kia Most Valuable Player Award ceremony Sunday, his fourth in five seasons. I watched every second and listened intently to every word spoken. James won the award months ago, when he pushed the Heat into overdrive and set them on a course for a record season that included that wicked 27-game win streak and more highlights than basketball law allows.
James earned the right to do and say whatever he wanted. But it wasn’t his words that stopped me in my tracks. It was Heat president Pat Riley who forced me to pause when he uttered these words:
“Over these 46 years, I’ve had an opportunity to see some great players — and all the ones I’ve observed, watched and have seen, they’ve always gotten better. In my humble opinion, I believe the man right here is the best of them all.”
The best of them all?
Let that sink in for a minute. Roll that statement around in your head and consider what Riley has seen, who he has coached and who he has coached against, and then say it out loud again.
“The best of them all.”
That’s a mouthful coming from a man who has seen and done what Riley has throughout his nearly half century in the game. He’s been immersed in the league longer than I’ve been alive, so I’m not here to refute his humble opinion or even to debate whether or not we should wrap our heads around the fact that LeBron has evolved — in a decade, mind you — into a player worthy of such high praise.
I’m here strictly to examine Riley’s words, to see if there is any way to scan the past four-plus decades of the league and rank LeBron ahead of the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and so many others.
This is a man who played on the Lakers’ 1972 championship team alongside Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. So his humble opinion comes from a very particular place (player, coach and executive who has won championships), one where few men in the history of the game can draw from.
And yet I still needed time to digest his high praise of LeBron.
Riley was an assistant with the Lakers when a 20-year-old Johnson scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists in Game 6 of The Finals his rookie year to secure a championship while playing in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was the Lakers’ coach for the four other titles they won during Magic’s tenure as the leader and maestro of the Showtime Lakers.
He watched Magic revolutionize the game, from the inside.
And Sunday he called LeBron the “best of them all.”
Riley’s Lakers teams battled Larry Bird and the Celtics and, later, he took on Jordan. When Riley coached the New York Knicks, his teams battled Jordan’s Bulls when Jordan was at his zenith. Anyone involved with the league during Jordan’s glory years, teammates and foes alike, tends to show him the proper respect and admit that he’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen.
Riley retired Jordan’s No. 23 in Miami for Naismith’s sake. And Sunday, he called LeBron the “best of them all.”
Riley came down from the front office to coach the Shaq and Dwyane Wade-led Heat to a title in 2006. And on Sunday, after three full seasons with LeBron, he called the current king of the league the “best of them all.”
The same declaration from almost any other man would mean little to most. Everyone has opinions about who the true G.O.A.T is and most of them are framed by a generational bias that is hard to shake. But when a man with a breadth of experience that travels through time, or at least the past 46 years, points a finger at someone, it wakes you up.
Now, there will be cynics who insist that Riley is simply doing his duty as the Heat’s boss and making sure to dollop the proper praise on his star. After all, Riley is going to need LeBron’s signature on an extension soon to keep the Heat’s current run going.
But Riley doesn’t waste his words. And he certainly doesn’t seem like the type who will pander to a superstar’s ego in that way or on that stage, not just for soundbite’s sake.
Riley has competed with or against and coached or coached against many of the players who make onto the short list we all use when discussing the “best of them all.” For 46 years, he’s been in the middle of the mix in one way or another, well before anyone even knew what analytics were and the advanced-stats craze reshaped the game.
So when he speaks on a topic like this, one that crosses all of the generational lines most people avoid during these discussions, it’s hard not to take his words to heart.
And even if LeBron still trails Jordan, Magic, Kobe, Shaq and many others in the championship rings race, is it so far-fetched to believe that he really does rank at the very top as a truly unique and once-in-a-lifetime basketball talent?
Riley says no.
What say you?