There is No GOAT and Why that "truth" Will Set You Free


I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want that kind of discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to come to see what sort of broader cultural purposes – often collective and unconscious — are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.

Yesterday was “LeBron Day” in class and it generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is GOAT). This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated.

“You can’t say LeBron is better than Jordan because Jordan won more championships.” “Jordan was more competitive.” “Jordan was more clutch.” “Jordan stayed with his team and built it.” (For the record, the majority of students who expressed an opinion “voted” for Jordan over LeBron). Hands were shooting up all around the room faster than I can keep track. Sometimes, when a student would finish making a point, the group discussion would fragment into micro debate as his or her classmates in the immediate vicinity would follow up on that point, disregarding, or unaware, that another student, across the room, had been called on and was trying to address the whole class.

So in some ways it felt pretty chaotic to me as a teacher. This feeling intensified when the dance history instructor who teaches in the classroom after me poked her head in to tell the players how great she thought they were and, basically, how much Gene Kelly would have loved to have seen them play. It can be hard for me to let go of the feeling that I ought to be in control, anticipating the course of a discussion, forestalling dead ends, seizing every opportunity, and leading the students to the pedagogical promised land of collective truth and wisdom, or at least greater understanding. And yesterday I frequently felt as if I were failing.

However, even as the chaotic point counter-point rolled on implacably, a number of students did my work for me by reflecting critically on the very terms of the question. “How can you use championships won in a team sport to compare individual players?” “How can you compare players from different eras?” “How can you compare a career in progress with a complete career?” Some, even as they argued that Jordan was the greater player, suggested that their own perceptions were shaped by the fact that Jordan came first and that their opinions were shaped by a powerful, inherited consensus in hoops culture that Jordan is the GOAT (a consensus forged in part by media, marketing, and celebrity).

And then, at a certain point fairly early in the discussion as I recall it, it seemed to emerge quite clearly (at least to me) that this was not the sort of question that could be answered conclusively. Looking back on the day, that for me was the really critical teaching opportunity. And, I guess, to be honest, I knew that going in and should have prepared a teacherly intervention for that moment. It would be the moment to have reflected this back to them explicitly and to have pushed them to wonder, given that we won’t come to a conclusion, why we are so energetically invested in continuing the discussion; and then, to have firmly kept them on that task. It’s a bit blurry in my memory, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do that.

I think I got as far as attempting to impose on them the idea that the consensus for Jordan expressed a deep-seated desire for a permanent, abiding standard that anchors us in a sea of change. I tried to paraphrase what that unconscious voice might say: “LeBron can’t be the GOAT ‘cause we can’t be changing that shit up every ten years.” Or something like that. I was not very articulate, and when I encountered resistance, I was not very articulate in response. Nevertheless, I think I was on the right track if not specifically about the Jordan consensus, then at least about the topic overall.

After all, it is called the Greatest of ALL TIME. In literary criticism, similar debates occur among scholars who wrangle on the pages of academic journals over the relative merits of various authors and works, arguing over who should or shouldn’t be in something called the “canon,” who is the literary GOAT. In that context, however, most of us today recognize that any such assertions are always inseparable from the particular values of a critic’s time and place and usually express a desire on the part of the critic to transcend that limitation and establish a fixed, permanent standard against which all others might be measured.

The problem with the GOAT discussion, probably in any domain, is that ALL TIME is a dream; ALL TIME never comes to pass and so when we declare an author, a player, a film, the greatest of all time we are saying (in addition to whatever specific things we are saying about that particular figure and his or her domain of human achievement): “I want there to be a human figure or work that embodies a definition of greatness that stands outside of all time, a standard that endures forever.”

We can want that. It’s an understandable wish in a world that changes so rapidly and at the whim of forces beyond our control; a particularly understandable wish during periods of transition in life (like, say, adolescence), or at those moments, whatever our age, when we become especially aware that our whole life is really a transition; when we feel the tough reality of mortality and impermanence. So we can want there to be a GOAT. But I don’t really think there can be one. Sorry.

Now, that makes it sound like I think it’s useless or delusional to participate in such discussions. I don’t. At least, I don’t so long as we exercise our capacity for ironic self-awareness of what we are doing when we do participate. When we can do that, then the debates slide past the strident back and forth of pseudo-certainty – what educational philosopher Kieran Egan calls “philosophic understanding” — and becomes the more subtly strengthening process of rhetorical exercise.

Put it this way: you can know that your playground pickup game really has no transcendent stakes, still try really hard, have fun, and even improve your existing game and grow new powers in the process. But you don’t want to be that guy who is treating the playground pickup game like it was his own private NBA finals. You don’t have to be cynically cool, but, you know, be cool.

Putting forth arguments in a classroom discussion like the one we had on Monday requires a similar mental balance between acting like it’s possible to arrive at the single, definitive, right answer and knowing that it’s not and that the whole thing is really just about how inventive you can be in the creative process of making arguments. In that setting, no less than on the playground, there is a genuine joy that arises simply from exercising our existing skills and experimenting with new powers; the transferable and enduring joy of learning that makes the illusory satisfaction of appearing to have been right seem pale, hollow and bitter by comparison.

Of course, I could be wrong.

  • Very cool that your students engaged critically on how to answer the question. Surely they’re learning from their prof!

    An interesting angle for students may be to discuss more specifically how those criteria have changed over time. Prior to his run of championships, Jordan’s transcendent talent was often contrasted to Magic and Bird’s ability to “make their teammates better,” as the main talking point for them over MJ in GOAT discussions. It was kind of dumb, but it did have one interesting stat to support it: prior to ’91, the only NBA title team that also had the leading scorer in the league that same season, EVER, was Milwaukee ’71, with Kareem. And actually, since then, there’s only been one other non-Jordan instance of that: Shaq in ’00 with the Lakers. As Bill Simmons pointed out in an aside in his book, instead of the all-too-easy “Jordan started winning once he became a better teammate” narrative that took hold, it would probably be more accurate to observe that Jordan peaked in the late ’80s, but he didn’t start winning titles until his teammates improved enough around him (or “stopped murdering him,” as Simmons put it).

    To get back to the topic at hand, I think the key criteria for GOAT actually shifted between Magic/Bird and MJ: it went from “making your teammates better” while winning titles to being the dominant scorer in the league while winning them. And I think Lebron is the first player since then who actually has a chance to shift that debate as well–being the most jaw-droppingly versatile player around, a guy who can legitimately play and guard all 5 positions, while winning titles could be a new standard. Unlikely in the extreme that he can replace MJ as the consensus GOAT, as that would almost certainly require at least 7 total championships, but in the more doable event of getting into that 3-5 title Magic/Bird area, he will likely expand the debate.

    • Great point! Also I thoroughly approve of the nuance and appropriately modest scope of the argument you make! 🙂 I wish I’d had this in my mind in class yesterday!

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