LeBron James is catching a lot of wreck for leaving some exceptional names off his NBA version of Mt. Rushmore, placing Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson up there. Was he right? Why is this so much of a topic of discussion? Are we having this conversation because of the names on his list or because of who LeBron omitted?

I would say the latter and to be honest, LeBron left off arguably two of the greatest athletes in team sports history, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

On my NBA version, Michael Jordan and LeBron would be joined by Kareem and Wilt.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. LeBron is a better overall player than both Magic and Bird. They had physical limitations that LeBron surpassed athletically in middle school. Regarding skill-set, what couldn’t LeBron do that Magic and Larry did on the floor?

Bird was a better shooter and was much more clutch earlier, but his supporting cast in that span was superior to anything LeBron had in Cleveland and arguably now in Miami. How teams attacked Boston defensively has to be mentioned, as opposed to how LeBron garners most of the attention against his opponents in this era.

The same can be said when speaking of Magic. Was he a better passer and total point guard than LeBron? Of course he was. But look at what Magic had in the middle and on the wings. James Worthy, with his amazing combination of speed, power and legitimate post moves, was no joke. Nothing was stopping him in the paint or on the break.

Do I have to mention Michael Cooper, the three point set-shot killer with sick athleticism who was always ready to catch a crowd-rocking Coop-a-loop? Magic, Kareem and James Worthy would be formidable opponents for anyone throughout NBA history, and the same could be said for Larry, McHale and Robert Parrish.

Magic and Larry were two of the best ever, but they had considerable help.

LeBron at 6-foot-8, and 260 pounds, is the best NBA athlete since Wilt. Thus far, he’s been a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a four-time regular season MVP, a starter in ten all-star games, was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2004 and won a scoring title in 2008. His Heat team is in a great position to win a third-straight NBA title.

When his career ends, there’s a possibility that he’ll be in the discussion as the greatest player the world has ever seen, even if he never wins the 6 championships that Michael Jordan has. Dismissing him from that discussion would be ridiculous.

Was Larry Bird ever compared to Bill Russell in any national discussion regarding championships? Magic and Kareem? No.

So why is LeBron compared to Mike? Because he said he wants to be the greatest to ever play? Why are we critical of someone proclaiming that publicly, despite it being the dream of everyone that has ever played the sport?

You don’t think Magic and Larry wanted to be the best ever?

Come on y’all. Is it because we don’t have audio recordings of them saying it? Why does that matter?

As a society, we seem to get bored with and criticize winners. Why can’t we let a legend become legendary?

LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami made way too many people angry and uncomfortable. And there is no denying that when it comes to postseason awards, there’s a certain bias working against him. Over the last two years, LeBron was far and above the best defensive player in the NBA.

So how did he not win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award? He’s the best player in the league and it isn’t even close. That certainly is no diss to Kevin Durant – the heir apparent.

Now back to whom LeBron should replace on Mt. Rushmore. Was the league better when Magic and Larry played from a team standpoint? Yes, but the only other team that could be mentioned with those regarding talent was Julius Erving’s Sixers, and even Doc’s team had a considerable drop- off in overall talent when compared to the Lakers and Celtics. Philly didn’t have that post presence until Moses Malone arrived that 1983 championship season – the year the Sixers ran over the league and lost just one game in the playoffs.

Magic and Larry caught Doc as his career was descending and his skills were diminishing. They both have him to thank for being that elite measuring stick when they entered the league. His professionalism also set the gold standard for them to strive for.

Julius Erving is yet another underappreciated player because we didn’t get to see his ABA days, where his entire, superfluous skill-set and incredible athleticism were on display. He was what we considered Michael Jordan back then. When he entered the NBA, he was asked to give up much of his scoring, yet still became the league’s most valued ambassador. 

Doc bridged the gap between what the league was and what it now is, creating awe and an interest that facilitated the media-enhanced era that Magic and Bird augmented, and with that, Michael Jordan later took full advantage.

Doc is the only player to win an MVP award in the ABA as well as the NBA and scored 30,026 in both leagues combined. If this was a basketball list and not just an NBA list, an argument for Doc’s inclusion holds major weight.

Back to Magic and Larry and why they will be replaced by LeBron.

If the Lakers needed a bucket, and everything else broke down, who did Magic feed on the inside? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem then unleashed his patented sky-hook, the most unstoppable shot in basketball history, after Magic took his own defender away from the post (there was no zone back then) and freed Kareem from a double-team.

Yes, he won in 1980 as a rookie in Kareem’s absence, playing every position in L.A.’s Game 6, series-clenching victory. But again, Philly just didn’t have an inside force that was capable of stopping a loaded Lakers team.

Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time MVP and a six-time champion. He was a two-time National Player of the Year while starring on three NCAA championship teams. He also won three straight New York City Catholic championships and 71 straight games at Power Memorial Academy in high school. The dunk was outlawed in college after the 1967 season because of Kareem, and didn’t resurface in the rule book until 1976. No problem, Cap just used the sky hook.

Larry Bird had shooters everywhere, one of the most incredible post players in Kevin McHale,  an organizational standard of excellence, championships (like Magic), and the Chief, Robert Parrish, to hit his rainbow jumper from the charity stripe extended to free up the inside for Bird to sneak in and snatch rebounds.

Bird was an amazing player whose basketball IQ had only one peer, and that was Magic. Those two players were the answer to Philly acquiring Dr. J, and both took turns defeating the 76’ers annually. Although they played smart defense, Bird and Magic were never stellar defenders. Neither was a force on the break at the rim offensively nor defensively as LeBron.

It’s only a matter of time until LeBron’s talent and career pushes Magic and Larry into the background just as Magic and Larry did to Oscar Robertson. Neither accomplished what Oscar accomplished statistically in terms of versatility.

But we cannot diminish what we did not see. Even more incredible than Russell winning the MVP  during the ’61-’62 season is Oscar’s triple-double average of 30 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Walt Bellamy also put up 32 points and 19 rips. How does Russell win MVP again with all that talent around him? So Wilt, Big O and Walt Bellamy were robbed, after having one of the most remarkable statistical individual seasons in NBA history just because Bill Russell starred on a loaded Celtics team?

How many MVP’s did Wilt win, but not win? Does that have any effect on his legacy for future generations? Of course, because people will argue about players being better simply based on the number of MVP’s they were awarded.

In 2012, I had a conversation with Sonny Hill, the legendary basketball historian from Philadelphia. He said, “Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest player in the history of team sports. No one has ever been able to accomplish what he accomplished. Now there will be some naysayers that will say well…he didn’t win all the championships. Russell won the championships. There is no denying that. Russell is the greatest winner in the history of team sports, but when you talk about a player who has dominated his sport, no one in the history of team sports has been able to do that. They (the NBA) changed the rules. They didn’t change the rules for anyone else that has played basketball that I know of. The rules were changed to combat him (Wilt), so that in itself tells you greatness. Then if you look at the record book right now, he’s been retired for 40 plus years and he still owns 96 NBA records.”

How can we denounce Hill’s view because we weren’t there watch the game with him? We view Babe Ruth one way and Wilt differently. Why is that? Babe played in an era where no minorities participated, yet he’s still largely viewed by many as baseball’s greatest player. Wilt was so far ahead of his peers, similar to Ruth, that his superiority actually became a criticism.

While in the Dallas Mavericks locker room that same day I spoke with Hill, I told Jason Kidd, Brendan Wright and Brandon Haywood that Wilt didn’t win the MVP in a season where he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds, while Russell, the winner, averaged 18 and 23. Their mouths were agape. Said Wright, who was the most dumfounded, “What do you have to do to win?”

Wilt averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds, while Russell averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds in the 142 games vs each otherRussell’s Celtics teams were loaded with seven future Hall of Fame players. When Russell joined the Celtics in 1956, the team already had three future Hall of Famers, Tommy Heinson was named Rookie of the Year and Bob Cousy was the league MVP.

In 1959, when Wilt Chamberlain hit the NBA, he was awarded the Rookie of the Year and the MVP. But no one was defeating those Celtics teams if they didn’t have comparable talent. So to say that Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t a better player than Bill Russell is downright illogical when, head-to-head, Chamberlain outscored, outrebounded and dropped more dimes than Russell. He doubled Russell’s scoring average in those games and also shot at a higher clip than Russell. He also played on two of the best teams in NBA championship history: His 1971-1972 Lakers went 69-13 and won a team sport record 33 straight.

Chamberlain should have more MVP’s than any player in team sport history considering his regular season numbers and team wins, but that he doesn’t is a glaring indictment on anyone voting. And yes, that included the players at the time.

LeBron could be headed down this road in terms of expectations. And it would be just as unfortunate for his legacy when it’s all said and done. This season, he’s averaging 26 points while shooting 57%, seven boards and six assists for a 37-14 team seeking a third straight championship that is missing Dwyane Wade in spurts.

Kevin Durant, the player many feel is this season’s MVP thus far, is averaging 31 points, seven rebounds and five dimes for a 43-12 Oklahoma City team that is just getting Russell Westbrook back. It will be interesting to see how this season’s voting shapes up, because it appears, while Durant’s numbers are just incredible, that LeBron’s season is undervalued and almost disrespected as a two-time defending champion.

Has LeBron become Wilt? Will the expectations of him that are shooting skyward into the NBA stratosphere never approach a Michael Jordan universe?

Why?

This all being said, subjectively or objectively, LeBron will be top four, all-time great if he continues to play on this level for at least the next 5 years, as long as his health is not an issue. There’s also nothing saying he can’t perform at a high level, barring injury, into his late 30’s.

It’s a shame that Mt. Rushmore has only four spots. LeBron, you were half-right and being diplomatic. To not initially include yourself was probably the right thing to do. But as you seriously contemplated the question asked, how could you not speak the truth within the legacy of your name?