Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?
If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.
Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.
Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.