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Comparison? // Great debate left unsaid

My goal is to make it through the next 800 words without comparisons of today's quadrachamp Bulls with nostalgia's icons, tall guys who laced up cheaper sneakers and squeezed into shorter, tighter basketball britches for the old Lakers, old Celtics or old NBA.


It is belaboring, bogus and boring, even in this finger-waggling era of acute Number Oneitis, to hear self-anointed experts, haughty historians and blokes on barstools blabbing to measure Chicago's heroes against old Lakers, old Celtics, old Sixers or the old NBA.

Free country, I know.

First Amendment, you bet.

We can talk, but in the evolving generations with their mismatched variables of sports focus, there can be no sensible and definitive comparisons between pro football's 1995 Dallas Cowboys and 1966 Green Bay Packers or between baseball's 1995 Atlanta Braves and 1927 New York Yankees.

Anybody can realistically say, "Best team I've ever seen," which is clearly one person's opinion. But it is the blanket, cocksure, often-semi-blind comparisons with all the 20th century that gnaw at my gizzard.

It's not enough for some zealots to say, these Bulls are "among the best ever." They feel a need to declare the best. I'm anything but guiltless. For most of the 1990s, I have openly considered Michael Jordan as the all-time best basketball player, by a hair over Magic Johnson. I always mention Larry Bird in the same paragraph. But can anybody shout such best-ever declarations while being truly equitable to long-ago immortals like Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Jerry West and George Mikan?

I think not.

A generation ago, a flamboyant and controversial Muhammad Ali traveled to every continent and sailed every sea to shout, "I am The Greatest!" He was a terrific heavyweight champion, but was Ali really the greatest? Hard to say, then or now. Difficult to fairly compare him to boxing's sizable wonders of the past, from Jack Johnson to Jack Dempsey to Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano.

But the more the mouthy, magnetic Ali would crow, "I am The Greatest!" the more it became worldly accepted, by both public and media. Perhaps there is similarity to what is occurring with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls in the modern, adroitly marketed NBA. To establish these Bulls as greatest is to create mushrooming sales.

Maybe these Bulls are the best, but nobody can know for sure. Their 87-13 record over nine months of domination is sweet evidence. But I'm sticking to "among the best ever." Is there any dishonor in being placed on the same NBA pedestal with memorable championship teams that starred Johnson, Bird, Russell, West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain?

Let's enjoy these Chicago Bulls for what they absolutely are; today's finest; one of history's best. We should covet having seen M. J. at his epitome, blended with the exotic talents of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, aided by the unique influences of Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc, included in an unbeatable mix with slightly less notables Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, John Salley, Jud Buechler, Randy Brown and James Edwards.

Jordan often has seemed inhuman, flying through the arena skies and gliding across polished wood to make plays that no man is likely to duplicate. But as Game Six ended, we saw the most human Michael our eyes have any right to expect.

He had a 5-for-19 shooting night, a painfully human statistic. Then, after time ran out on the last of this season's NBA pretenders, the Jordan we saw face-down on United Center floors was as human as The Greatest will ever get.

We could see No. 23 was throbbing. Embracing the game ball. Nobody needed to tell us that Michael's murdered dad was a prime factor, the Bulls having won a fourth championship on Father's Day. We like seeing human qualities in jocks who are gifted, accomplished, rich and famous.

Jordan also was overcome by the exhaustion of his personal comeback. We like to know that such a person can feel such wondrous emotions that are not immediately tied to dollars. We saw that in Michael.

Bulls: among the best.

Jordan: the best.

There, I said it again.