Who Is The Best?—1988, Bird, Magic, or MJ

[I will make this introduction quick because this is a long (but intriguing) topic. In 1988, Street & Smith’s Pro Basketball Yearbook posed a really difficult query: Who is the best NBA player right now?


The magazine brought together some excellent writers to present arguments in favor of each of the three contenders in order to respond to this query. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe gets the party started by defending Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Ryan is a really good guy. Veteran Los Angeles sportswriter Mitch Chortkoff, who has covered the Lakers since 1965, will next take the court. He argues in favor of Magic Johnson and his winning combination of intangibles. Finally, but certainly not least, is Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune. After just four seasons, he presents a strong case for Michael Jordan and his amazing body of work.

I find these “greatest” questions to be entertaining but pointless. There are far too many factors, and different people will give different weights to each one. Stated differently, the “right” response is dependent on the individual. But we may also inquire in this instance: Which writer presents the strongest argument for his NBA client?


Bob Ryan comes in second in my vote, then Bob Sakamoto. Nothing against Mitch Chortkoff, who is sadly deceased. Well, he clears himself. The two Bobs are simply that good. At the very least, in my opinion.


Ideas? Forward them to us. Let’s start things off with Michelangelo, er, Larry Bird, anyway.]


In a one-on-one, Michael Jordan would undoubtedly defeat Larry Bird. Magic Johnson certainly would have, too, considering his stature and mobility. I bet Michael could defeat anyone in a one-on-one match. However, it’s not a one-on-one game. Five players against five. Remember that always.


And if it were a 20-on-20 situation, Larry Bird would master that strategy and be the greatest 20-on-20 player alive



Magic Johnson: His specialty is winning


Covering the Lakers in the 1960s and 1970s, when Elgin Baylor was doing things I had never seen on a basketball floor, was an honor. Even though the Lakers were never able to defeat the Celtics, they did introduce professional basketball to Southern California as a new kind of entertainment.


Regardless of how long I stayed on the beat, I was quite certain that I would never cover a player as good as Baylor. And then along came this Michigan State kid, like Magic.

It was clear from once that he would also be extremely unique. I eventually realized that he was superior than Larry Bird, superior to Baylor, and superior to any players who had ever played. The only things that matter are winning and differentiating his squad from the opposition. It all boils down to how worthless the Lakers are without him.


I’ve watched Bird, and I don’t know how anyone could be more successful. Next, I examine the record, which starts with Michigan State’s 1979 NCAA Finals triumph over Indiana State and goes all the way through the NBA years. And Magic Johnson has the upper hand since he is the greatest point guard in the history of the game. The Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons to record the first back-to-back titles by an NBA team in 19 years, and James Worthy was named the [1988] MVP. Without a question, though, Magic was the one who led the Lakers and ensured they wouldn’t lose any of the playoff series’ pivotal games.


Without Magic, there wouldn’t be any championships. Not even one. If Magic hadn’t existed, I think Kareem would have retired five years ago. If Magic was unable to play, I think the Lakers would be little more than a.500 club.


When Johnson was sidelined by a groin injury the previous season, it was ugly. Through 19 games, the Lakers had 9 victories and 10 losses. They were losing in Sacramento and Phoenix and annoying their coach with poor performance, all of a sudden just like any other NBA team.


The morning following a loss, Pat Riley shocked them by giving them a three-hour practice, claiming he couldn’t figure out why they weren’t improving. The rationale was clear to impartial onlookers. There was no Magic.


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