If Great NBA Players were TV Shows

I really enjoy two things: watching (and discovering) great tv shows, and debating the all-time rankings of NBA players – inspired of course by the greatest NBA book ever: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.  LeBron recently claimed he would be on the NBA Mount Rushmore and I agree with him (more on that later), but as I was running through the new season of House of Cards the idea came to me to combine the two ideas.  What if NBA greats were my favorite TV series (NOTE: TV Shows not in order)?  Who would be what, and why?  Please feel free to debate, (and there will certainly be that) as we go on in reverse order.

Note: apologies to the following: Wilt, West, Oscar, Moses, Hakeem, Dr. J…

9) Shaquille O’Neal (Damages) –

Why: Shaq left things on the table, and Damages was very good, but never great.  Both were great alpha dogs, but never fully capitalized on what they could have done (Glenn Close was awesome though).  Both will go down as twisty and hard to pin down fully.  Was Damages ever Pantheon worthy?  Is Shaq?  How many titles did he leave on the table?  He and Kobe could have won 8 or 9, and Shaq’s laziness cost him at least two more which is tough to stomach.  Both Shaq and Damages are fun, entertaining, very complex and ultimately do not stand up to the other shows or players on this list in the same way. 

8) LeBron James (House of Cards) –

Why: LeBron’s legacy will be hard to figure out even though he will end up top four all time.  He is a better player than Larry Bird.  He may be a better player than Magic Johnson and his defense alone should put him into the top three.  We may never see him fully reach his ceiling because his talent is virtually limitless.  House of Cards is incredible, and its ceiling is also virtually limitless.  Could it end up as one of my top five favorite shows ever?  Yes, yes it could.  Will it have enough great seasons for me to find out?  I am not entirely sure.  One thing is certain: both of these guys will move up because their ceiling for greatness is so much higher than the next few guys / shows on the list. 

7) Kobe Bryant (Lost) –

Why: From the outset, neither Kobe Bryant nor Lost had a ceiling as the greatest ever.  Both were entertaining in their own right, and both reached their highest possible peak (Lost with the greatest season finale ever, and its multitude of twists and turns / Kobe with his two post Shaq titles).  Both had their ups and downs, Kobe in the years following Shaq’s departure, and Lost when it briefly became an unfocused mess.  Questions abound around both: how many titles did Kobe leave on the table through his arrogance?  Why didn’t Lost solve all the mysteries?  What did it all mean?  How good is Kobe?  Both are hard to slot in an all-time manner because you have to feel they left things on the table and you must factor in that both had ceilings they reached.  Those ceilings were not as high as others (LeBron, anyone?!) but they made the most (for the most part) of what they had. 

6) Tim Duncan (Sons of Anarchy) –

Why: Tim Duncan is a fundamental player who is underrated as one of the greatest players ever.  He has won four titles and narrowly missed out on a fifth.  He made his name through being absolutely, 100% dependable when it mattered most.  Sons of Anarchy is one of the best shows on TV in that you know exactly what you are getting: pure entertainment.  There is some deep complexity, but mostly this is a show about men being violent and struggling to hang on to what they love most.  Mostly though, it is an adrenaline rush (based on one of the most classic ideas in literature, Hamlet) – that said, I have debated with @madadub about which Sons season is Pantheon worthy.  Not too many shows that have that ability.  Try to pick out a Duncan Pantheon season and inevitably you will have to ask yourself the same question: “which one?”

5) Larry Bird (Breaking Bad) –

Why: Bird saved the league, and Breaking Bad is one of the most consistently entertaining shows ever.  Bird loved to play around and win titles, Breaking Bad is an incredible examination of a man descending into evil and making no apologies for it.  Both had multiple Pantheon level seasons, and both go down as among the greatest ever.  Additionally, Bird and Bad had down times (Bird because of injury, Breaking Bad because it simply could not produce content as amazing as those that had come before).  However, you could never count either out.  They came back with a vengeance, time and time again.  They are impossible to ignore and their signature moments and greatness touch a ceiling few others have ever reached.  Were they consistent forever?  No, but their best was better than 99.9999% of anything else that came before them.  No one had more fun playing basketball than Larry Bird, and no one had more fun on a TV show than Bryan Cranston. 

4) Magic Johnson (The Sopranos) –

Why: Magic was a 6’9 point guard who could play any position, consistently rose to the occasion when it mattered most, and won five titles.  The Sopranos was one of the best shows on TV, is responsible (with OZ) for introducing the antihero to mainstream culture, and was often great (a few stumbles).  Each was blessed with an enigmatic leader (Pat Riley and David Chase) and each ended abruptly without any real explanation as how they ended.  (NOTE: Magic obviously had a reason).  Both peaked at the perfect time and were exceptionally popular, and it has been their legacies which have made them withstand the test of time.    

3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (The Shield) –

Why: Kareem and the Shield are two of the most consistently great things of their era.  Both sort of sneak up on you – the Shield because it was so great and built to a fantastic conclusion, and Kareem because he was good for so long.  Neither gets the historical relevance they probably should, even though Kareem was alpha dog for titles with the Bucks and then, ten years later with the Lakers (a lot harder than you think); or the Shield created an antihero and series that got better and better with team, leading to one of the greatest final seasons ever.  Even though they are underrated that does not mean they are not great, and both, undeniably are.   

2) Bill Russell (Oz) –

Why: Russell is arguably the second best player in NBA history, and won 11 titles, a record which will never be broken.  He also played at a time when he was able to dominate slower, weaker players who were 6’7.  In today’s NBA he would still be good, but there is no way he wins 11 titles.  Russell is, therefore, absolutely a pioneer of the NBA; just like OZ was absolutely a pioneer for all the shows which came after.  It was HBO’s first move into drama and it was a brilliant show, the first four seasons of which could rank with anything ever done on TV (the fourth season in particular is pantheon worthy).  Was it always great?  No, but against subpar competition it stood heads and shoulders above and had seven solid years that took a title year in and year out.  The show pushed the boundaries of good, bad, love and philosophy, all detailed brilliantly by wheelchair man “Augustus” and created some of the most indelible (anti-hero) characters in TV history.  Everything which came later owes itself to Russell and Oz, they set the way and the standard for what could be done both in basketball and television. 

1) Michael Jordan (The Wire) –

Why: Over time both have taken increasing criticism even though they are without a doubt the greatest of all time.  Now that they are long finished, we always seek the next great thing, which is why people ask if LeBron is the greatest basketball player ever, or they say Breaking Bad is better than The Wire.  For the record: Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player ever and The Wire is without doubt the greatest TV show ever.  We have never seen anything like either before and we are unlikely to do so again: The Wire because it showed us all a segment of the world that spoke to an entire country and the systemic problems within it; Jordan because he was pathologically driven to vanquish his opponents and then did.  Even though we are forced to debate their greatness every few years, Jordan due to the Wiz time and the Wire because of Season 5, there should never be any doubt.  The Wire submitted 3 Pantheon Level TV Seasons, 1 Great Season, 1 Very Good Season – show me any other show that has done so.  You simply cannot.  Meanwhile, Jordan’s entire career was essentially the Pantheon (minus the Wiz time and the whole Bobcats thing).  There should be no debate: Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player ever and the Wire is the best show in the history of television.  Case closed. 



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