The NBA Finals Don't Matter, The Debate Afterward Does

06/15/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

We are a sports-obsessed nation that doesn't know how to talk about sports. Take, for instance, the NBA Finals. The series isn't even over, and yet, the legacy of LeBron James is already being re-litigated from Cleveland to California. As the pundits reassess where James stands in the pantheon of NBA Hall of Famers, they will continue to butcher the very terms of the debate they seek to clarify. Even worse, this verbal muddling has implications that extend beyond sports.

This crisis of sports debate hinges almost exclusively on the misuse of the words great and best. The words are often used interchangeably -- "Who's the greatest/best player of all time?" -- but they do not mean the same thing.

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective best as "better than all others in quality or value." Great is posited as "remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness" or "eminent, distinguished." Best asks us to identify the objectively superior player; great demands that skill and athleticism be transcended or sacrificed in the interest of social, political, or economic impact.

At sports' most basic level, being the best comes down to statistical dominance, whereas the quality of being great, or greatness, hinges on winning. Peyton Manning's personal rolodex of NFL records makes a strong case for his being the game's best quarterback, but Tom Brady's playoff and Super Bowl victories make him the greatest quarterback (forgetting "Deflategate" for a moment).

The question of greatness is inherently subjective and, in many respects, political. How we value social, economic, or political change is often directly linked to how we rate our athletes.

Bill Russell's career illustrates the case for social greatness. The Boston Celtics icon was the NBA's first black megastar, winning a record 11 titles in 13 seasons. He was the game's first black coach, a role he filled while playing (an unthinkable proposition in today's NBA). Russell was great because he set the league's gold standard for success, but was greater still for serving as a racial pioneer in a predominately white sport.

Michael Jordan's greatness was of an altogether different flavor. Fate hitched Jordan's star to the colossus of globalization, which was still in relative infancy when he arrived to the NBA. During Jordan's second season, Magic Johnson was the league's highest paid player at $2.5 million. Thirteen years later, Jordan received $33.1 million for his services. And that's pennies compared to Jordan's lifelong partnership with Nike, which continues to earn even more through him. As the NBA became must-see TV in large part thanks to Jordan's Bulls, ho-hum broadcasting rights became the subject of billion dollar negotiations and rich owners became wealthy.

Jordan's economic force brought prestige and power to anyone with a vested interest in the NBA. These people played no small part in advancing the idea that Jordan was the Michelangelo of basketball: He was the game's greatest artist during the league's economic renaissance.

Jordan understood this game within the game. His famous remark -- "Republicans buy sneakers too" -- was an honest admission that the maintenance of an athlete's economic empire demanded political neutrality.

Muhammad Ali didn't get that memo, perhaps because he came of age in the 1960s rather than the 1980s. What's Ali's career without his abandonment of boxing to protest the Vietnam War? "The Greatest" was stripped of his boxing license in the prime of his career because he wouldn't fight the Viet Cong, who, he said, "never called me nigger." Subtract that from his legacy and Ali is just another great fighter because he beat Joe Frazier twice and annihilated a Herculean George Foreman in Zaire. Instead, he transcended boxing by becoming synonymous with the rebellious spirit that marked the 1960s.

There's more than a little irony behind Ali's transformation from political sports rebel to global icon. Like Martin Luther King Jr., a generation had to pass before the new establishment could congratulate the martyred for giving the finger to their parents. Jordan didn't want to wait. There was simply too much money to be made.

Today, Floyd "Money" Mayweather fights for six figures a second, and LeBron has a stake in everything from bubble gum to Liverpool F.C. In contrast to the social greatness of Russell or the political greatness of Ali, the reputations of the best athletes are now overwhelmingly dependent on economic greatness as established by Jordan. Our valuations are so one-sided that the media is compelled to throw sports fans an occasional politically- or socially-minded bone. One would've thought LeBron was putting his career on the line when he wore an "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt before a game late last year. But until LeBron signs a petition criticizing China's suppression of free speech (instead of visiting the country regularly to buttress his brand), the move should only be regarded as brilliant marketing on behalf of the political zeitgeist.

Some may howl at this attempt to politicize the legacy of our sports heroes. The country is polarized enough, they'll say. Let me have Michael Jordan as a basketball player, not Gordon Gekko. As long as we don't confuse best with great, that would make for a worthy debate.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Bill Russell was the only player-coach in NBA history and that Muhammad Ali was jailed for draft evasion. He was convicted but never served jail time.