Brady or Jordan? ‘Greatness’ includes shades of gray

Pro players with most titles.Tom Brady, NFL (7).Charles Haley, NFL (5).Yogi Berra, MLB (10).Joe DiMaggio, MLB (9).Bill Russell, NBA (11).Robert Horry, NBA (7).Michael Jordan, NBA (6).Henri Richard, NHL (11)

In the first moments after Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl — to be more precise, a team with Tom Brady as its starting quarterback won the Super Bowl for a seventh time — I said to my daughter’s boyfriend, “That’s one more than Jordan — and three more than LeBron.” Meaning: I’m guilty, too. If what follows comes across as a scolding, be advised I’m also scolding myself.

In our ESPN-sports-chat-driven world, we’ve come to measure everything in rings, though I have no idea if the 1927 Yankees were awarded rings for winning the World Series. Everything is about “legacy.” If you’re not “elite,” you’re lousy. For this reason, I try to avoid ESPN-sports-chat or any of its offshoots. Life’s too short.

But I follow sports for a living, and sometimes I start counting. Seven Super Bowl victories — although we stipulate that Brady hasn’t yet played a snap on defense in any Super Bowl — is a big deal, especially if you’re a quarterback, which is the most important position in team sports. It is indeed one more professional championship than Michael Jordan won, though Jordan never won any without Scottie Pippen, and Brady has taken four without Gronk.

It’s three more than Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, though their four were packed into nine and six seasons, respectively. (Brady’s seven have spanned 20 seasons.) It’s the same number as Otto Graham, though four of his were in the All-American Conference and the other three in the pre-Super-Bowl NFL. But seven isn’t the most championships ever for a North American professional. Yogi Berra, whose Yankees career bridged the DiMaggio and Mantle eras, played on 10 World Series winners. Sam Jones won 10 NBA titles with the Celtics; Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer hoisted 10 Stanley Cups as Canadiens.

Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, lifted 11 Cups. (He scored the tying and winning goals in the epic Game 7 against Chicago to claim No. 10. Best hockey game ever.) Bill Russell won 11 times over his 13 NBA seasons. He also won two NCAA titles with San Francisco and an Olympic gold with the USA. And here we go, about to plunge down the deepest of debating rabbit holes.

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan holds the NBA Championship trophy aloft while talking with the media in the locker room after clinching the title with an 108-101 win against the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, June 13, 1991, at Inglewood, Calif. (Reed Saxon/AP)
Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan holds the NBA Championship trophy aloft while talking with the media in the locker room after clinching the title with an 108-101 win against the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, June 13, 1991, at Inglewood, Calif. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Eleven NBA titles (over 13 years, we say again) for Russell. That’s more than Jordan and LeBron combined. So why is Big Russ never included in our G.O.A.T. discussions? If winning rings is All That Matters, how can you not pick the sport’s – and maybe the world’s – greatest winner?

Factors: Russell never led the league in scoring; he never averaged 20 points in a season. He was a great rebounder and a great shot-blocker, yes. He was the greatest team player anyone has ever seen, but — we dive deeper into the warren — can we really say that Russell was a better basketball player than his legendary rival? Russell didn’t score more than 37 points in any NBA game; Wilt Chamberlain averaged more than 37 points in five different seasons.

But: Only two titles for Wilt, one after Russell had retired. Was the game’s most unstoppable force somehow a loser? Or did his very-good teams keep losing to simply stronger Celtics teams? Had Peyton Manning been drafted by the Patriots, would he/they have won more Super Bowls than with Brady? For all Berra’s excellence, was he a better catcher than Johnny Bench, whose Reds won a mere-by-comparison two World Series? Was the Pocket Rocket a superior skater than Wayne Gretzky (seven fewer Cups) or Bobby Orr (nine fewer)?

I know, I know. I’ve declared Brady the G.O.A.T — in football, anyway — a half-dozen times. But is Brady better at his position than Jim Brown and Jerry Rice were at theirs, to say nothing of defenders like Joe Greene and Lawrence Taylor and Night Train Lane? Sandy Koufax, who at his best might have been the finest pitcher ever, also was one of the worst hitters — career batting average of .097 — on record. (Remember, Babe Ruth was a darn good pitcher, too.)

I’m 65. I saw Jim Brown gain 114 yards against Baltimore in the 1964 NFL Championship game, albeit on a black-and-white TV. I have no such memory of watching Koufax, who retired in 1966. Though I recall, when driving Furman Bisher to Clemson for the South Carolina game in 1984, him saying, “I met Sandy when he was a rookie,” and I thought, “When Koufax was a rookie, I wasn’t alive.”

What drives me crazy about the ESPN-inspired-sports-chat is that there’s such certainty expressed, and I’ve been around long enough to learn that, in sports as in life, so much is uncertain. Thinking of all I’ve seen reminds me only of how much I haven’t.

Brady has played on seven teams that have won the Super Bowl. That’s the fact. Does that make him the greatest quarterback ever? I’d say yes, but I’d also respect arguments to the contrary. (Another fact: In the Super Bowl generally considered Mr. Brady’s Opus, his passer rating was less — by a LOT — than Matt Ryan’s.)

Ask me who’s the best basketball player ever, and I’ll say Jordan. If you say LeBron James, I won’t call you an idiot. If you say Russell — or Wilt, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — I’d concede there’s a case to be made. One of the beauties of sports is that there’s a scoreboard. We know who wins, and we can count the number of victories. Much of greatness is in the counting, but not quite all.

If you ask me who’s the greatest NFL player I’ve seen, I wouldn’t say Brady. I’d still say Jim Brown. If you ask who’s the best collegian, it remains Herschel Walker, though Joe Burrow passed Cam Newton for No. 2. Please feel free to disagree.

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