‘Greatest’ label can be slippery

Isiah Thomas, who competed on the hardwood against the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson – all Hall of Famers – caused a stir recently when he proclaimed LeBron James the greatest player in the history of the sport.

“The best and most ‘complete’ player I have seen in my lifetime is LeBron James on and off the floor,” Thomas, a Hall of Fame point guard with the Detroit Pistons tweeted. “He passed the eye test and the numbers confirm what my eyes have seen in every statistical category. #GOAT let it be known!”

King James has led the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and now the Los Angeles Lakers to the championship series a combined 10 times, winning four titles. He is the first player in any of the major leagues in the United States — NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL — to win the championship MVP award with three different teams.

A bevy of legendary professional athletes retired without winning a championship, such as Dan Marino, but the ring is still a traditional measure of individual excellence.

Catcher Yogi Berra played on 10 World Series championship teams in 17 full seasons with the New York Yankees, won three MVP awards and made 15 appearances in the All-Star game.

Biographer Jon Pessah states the case that Berra’s leadership and play behind the plate were vital to New York’s dominance.

“The catcher is the only player to see the entire field. Nothing happens until he puts his fingers down to call the pitch, and no one but the catcher is required to know what every player has to do once the ball is hit. It’s the catcher who pulls together the eight other players on the field and makes them into a team.

“You don’t win a championship without a good catcher. And you don’t win multiple championships without a great one, as Yogi proved during his Hall of Fame career.”

Is it really possible to perfect standards that will enable the selection of one athlete as the premier performer at his position, much less in his sport?

The sports of gymnastics and diving have adopted strict criteria for judging, but interpretation still rests with individuals who are influenced by personal bias and judgments because, well, they are human.

Any attempt to identify the GOAT in his or her sport is an exercise in futility, unless the athlete in question is Muhammad Ali, who never missed an opportunity to remind everyone whom he believed was the greatest boxer of all time.

Thomas expressed his opinion about the stature of James, not unlike the SportsCenter anchors who arbitrarily crowned Tom Brady as the GOAT among NFL quarterbacks.

Such proclamations are not subject to the type of validation that a medical lab test would be. Does anyone really regard a #1 Dad t-shirt or coffee mug as substantiation of a man’s superior parenting skills?

Even the mission statement of the Westminster Kennel Club borders on overreach, referring to its own annual event as “the world’s greatest dog show.”

It would be wise to avoid absolutes when discussing where athletes rank among the pantheon of the elite in their sport because there are too many variables involved.

Plus, there’s always the possibility that someone with a more informed view will get your goat.

Jim Caltagirone resides in Altoona. He is an occasional contributor to Voice of the Fan.


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