By Jason Keidel
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The NBA – Where Implosion Happens.

In the absence of a real jump ball hoisted on the heels of the sport’s revival, the NBA has famously followed hockey out the backdoor of America’s consciousness.

Coincidentally, Mike Francesa jammed to the oldies yesterday, with a conga line of callers hurling hypotheses his way during the afternoon drive.

Men love lists. As such I ask you: who’s the greatest baller in basketball history?

I don’t feel qualified to comment on Bill Russell, who retired the year I was born (1969). Francesa said Russell must top any logical list by dint of his dynastic Celtics. (And though the Celtics toppled Wilt Chamberlain countless times, Russell did little to stunt the Stilt). And, if I may, Mike also said Russell was flanked by up to eight Hall of Famers.

Michael Jordan had one – Scottie Pippen – who, honestly, has a bronze bust because he straddled Jordan’s faerie dust to Springfield. Dennis Rodman was on the back nine of his career when he joined Jordan, who already had a three-peat in his hip pocket before the eccentric, spray-painted, rebounding savant toured with basketball’s Beatles.

Jordan’s soaring, scissor-legged visage is as vital as Jerry West’s silhouette on the NBA’s logo. If you’re too young to recall Jordan, I’m sorry. What you missed was an athletic deity whose disdain for defeat was so savage that he couldn’t accept losing an innocuous game of golf to a geriatric Chuck Daly during the Dream Team’s romp through Barcelona – appearing at the iconic coach’s door at five o’clock the next morning, demanding a rematch.

Jordan’s 38-point explosion against Utah in the 1998 finals while crippled by flu, an IV jammed into his arm at halftime, puking what little fluids were left in his body, Pippen literally lugging Jordan over his shoulder off the court when the game ended, is the avatar of his allergy to losing.

Francesa said Oscar Robertson sat in the studio and claimed he was better than Jordan, which, to me, disqualifies him on the spot. Only Muhammad Ali, the premier provocateur of the 20th Century, can stand on the prerogative of such proclamations.

Jerry West, on any top-ten list, whose gallant but morbid memoir was just published, is quintessential proof of the human paradox. Perhaps the most decorated man in league history, who (as player and GM) has almost infinite rings and regalia, more money than he can spend, has never been happy one day in his transcendent life. West, whose record needs no recount, is quite kind to Kobe Bryant and compares the current champion nonpareil to Jordan, though West admits he’s Bryant’s de facto father, which also excludes him from objective assessment.

Can you imagine if Jordan had Shaq instead of Bill Wennington and Cartwright? In the era of free agent pinball, with loyalty tethered to the highest bidder, where winning is nice but trumped by price, Jordan won six championships with an amalgam of glorified role players, like Wennington, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, and Toni Kukoc. (Insert clever Caucasian punch line here.)

Before you think of bringing LeBron into the room, King James needs to shed his Pampers under pressure before we can consider him – a decade from now.

Kobe Bryant, as turgid, tempestuous, and likeable as Terrell Owens, is an unquestioned assassin whose manic mores on the hardwood are only surpassed by Jordan. But he is Jordan-Lite. If cornered and candid, my guess is Kobe would admit it, since his game (according to West) has been a singular dedication to duplicating Jordan’s mojo and on-court countenance. But there can only be one Greatest, as Ali has taught us.

Jordan is so sublime that John Starks’s greatest moment was dunking on Jordan – during a series the Knicks lost. The woes of Jordan’s foes were such that they found fantasy in failure, half-truths in the hard truth that Jordan wasn’t just more talented than you, but so hardwired to competition, so addicted that he abdicated his role as Lord of the Rings to take swings for the Birmingham Barons, where he found that a changeup was more than a metaphor, where not even Gods beat the odds.

Despite the ornate oratories about the Big Apple, New York was built by blue-collar ethics far more than the marble of Madison Avenue. And Jordan, despite his physical splendor, was more gritty than pretty. He was appropriately born in Brooklyn. Sadly, he just happened to wear the wrong pro uniform.

The recently departed Al Davis gave words to the American mantra: Just win, baby. Michael Jeffrey Jordan was a six-time champion in six chances, and was the MVP of every series.

If he’s not the leading man on Mt. Rushmore, who is?

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Well, let’s have at it. Who’s the greatest baller in basketball history? Let Keidel know in the comments below!

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