Who is the greatest American male athlete of all time? It is an awfully silly thing to ask on one hand, but an important question on the other. Sports fans cannot get enough of these debates, even if there is no discernible way to win them.
How do you compare team-sport athletes to individuals? Athletes who competed before integration to those who played afterward? Olympic champions to non-Olympians?
A current New England Patriots quarterback to a retired Chicago Bulls 2-guard?
You need to have fun with it. Last spring, after a phone conversation with Tom Brady about his future, I posited Michael Jordan’s legacy was Brady’s final frontier. I thought he had surpassed all NFL players before him, not merely quarterbacks, and figured if he was as serious about playing into his mid-to-late 40s as he said he was, the ultimate in unofficial titles — GOAT of GOATs — would be well within his reach.
Eight months later, a 40-year-old Brady is back in the Super Bowl as the likely league MVP and on the cusp of a sixth championship and a possible fifth Super Bowl MVP. He just won his eighth conference title in a dozen attempts with a dozen stitches in his throwing hand. So, yeah, Brady is very much in a conversation that needs some ground rules.
First, we’re sticking to on-field impact (Jackie Robinson has retired the trophy for off-field impact) and team sports, which place a heavier burden on superstars to deliver for the people around them. So Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Michael Phelps are eliminated from contention. (Yes, we understand the Olympic legends competed for their country at major international events, and on relay teams, but their accomplishments were mostly as individuals.)
We’re also eliminating athletes like Babe Ruth, who dominated in segregated times. Jim Brown gets knocked out by Brady on career length; he played nine seasons to Brady’s 18, though at a more physically taxing position. Willie Mays gets knocked out by Jordan on regular-season MVP awards in their respective sports (5-2 in favor of MJ), and Barry Bonds (7 MVPs) gets knocked out by … well, you know why he gets knocked out.
That leaves Brady, the best football player, to confront Jordan, the best basketball player. Measured against the conventional interpretation of athleticism (foot speed and leaping ability), Jordan and Brady do not belong in the same sentence, paragraph, column or ballpark. Jordan was a beautiful bald eagle in majestic flight, and Brady is a dimpled penguin waddling from place to place.
Brady’s staggering accomplishments have challenged the conventional interpretation of athleticism. If a young man can be drafted by a pro baseball team (the Montreal Expos in 1995) and a pro football team (the Patriots in 2000) and spend a lifetime throwing 20-yard outs on a dime while large and angry opponents are trying to cut him in half, how unathletic can he be?
So Brady vs. Jordan is a tough debate on every level. We need some fun in the mix to settle this one, and we need some categories. So here are some fun categories:
Greatest college obstacle overcome
Dean Smith’s selfless system at North Carolina: The old joke was that Smith was the only man able to stop Jordan from scoring 20-30 points every night in college. But Smith’s team-centric approach on offense made him a Hall of Famer and Jordan a national champ.
Lloyd Carr’s preference for Drew Henson at Michigan: Brady had to hold off local wonder boy recruit Henson, whom coaches, students and alums wanted on the field. Carr tried a weird rotation of QBs before eventually relenting and giving Brady the ball.
Greatest big-game performance with injury or illness
Jordan’s flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals: Jordan was a staggering mess, sick and dehydrated, with the series tied at 2-2 in Utah. Somehow he scored 38 points before Scottie Pippen all but dragged Jordan’s limp body off the floor.
Brady’s stitches game in the 2017 AFC Championship Game: Brady had 12 stitches in the worst possible spot on the worst possible body part before taking the field against Jacksonville and still threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to advance to his eighth Super Bowl. It was great and almost Jordan-esque.
Greatest comeback performance
Jordan’s 55-point game at Madison Square Garden after he unretired: I was sitting next to Bernard King that unforgettable night at MSG in 1995, and he was worried MJ was going to break his new-Garden record of 60. Jordan was only five games deep into his first comeback from retirement. He had 49 points after three quarters, and he won the game on a pass to Bill Wennington in the final seconds. I’ve never seen New York fans appreciate and embrace a visiting athlete more than they did that night.
Brady’s comeback from 28-3 down to beat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI: Brady was down 25 points with 18 minutes to play, and he had thrown a devastating pick-six. He ended up with 466 passing yards and the two touchdowns needed to complete the record-breaking rally while his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, watched from the crowd. No regular-season NBA game could touch that.
Greatest clutch moment
The last championship shot of Jordan’s career: Near the end of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, Jordan pushed off Utah’s Bryon Russell, pulled up and made his final jumper as a Chicago Bull. The perfect player punctuated his sixth championship by freezing his perfect follow-through form for all to remember.
The first championship drive of Brady’s career: At the start of New England’s winning drive against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, with the score tied at 17-17, broadcaster John Madden said the Patriots should play for overtime. Instead Brady ran the hurry-up offense and completed five passes for 52 yards to put Adam Vinatieri in field goal range. “What Tom Brady just did,” Madden said, “gives me goose bumps.”
Greatest partnership with a coach
Jordan’s six-ring partnership with Phil Jackson: When Jordan was asked in a 2015 Q&A which mentor he’d pick to coach him in one game, he named Dean Smith. “Phil was lucky because I was taught the game by Dean Smith,” MJ said.
Brady’s five-ring (and counting) partnership with Bill Belichick: Brady has never been to dinner with his coach, according to Tom Brady Sr., and their marriage hasn’t been defined by obvious signs of affection. But they’ve looked pretty happy in their enthusiastic postseason hugs — like after last week’s AFC title game — and Jackson proved with the Knicks he has no idea how to run a franchise like Belichick does.
Greatest response to a commissioner’s investigation
Jordan wins third NBA title, retires for first time, and David Stern ends gambling probe: People still wonder whether Jordan’s decision to leave the Bulls to play minor league baseball was a strongly encouraged vacation as the league investigated his high-stakes gambling.
Brady wins fourth Super Bowl title before Roger Goodell continues Deflategate probe: Down 10 points, Brady answered the furor over his alleged role in the deflated footballs in the 2014 AFC title game by throwing two scoring passes in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl to help lead the Patriots to another title after a 10-year wait. Brady’s magical fifth title two years later, after serving his four-game suspension, makes this a windmill dunk over Goodell and Jordan.
Greatest trash-talk revenge game
Jordan scores 51 against the Knicks in 1997 after Jeff Van Gundy calls him a con man: Van Gundy enraged Jordan by claiming the Bulls’ shooting guard conned opponents into thinking they were his friends before shooting daggers through their gullible hearts during games. Van Gundy told me that night Jordan screamed at him, “Calm down you little f—,” when the Bulls guard got in his face.
Brady scorches Steelers safety Anthony Smith in 2007 after Smith guarantees victory: Smith promised the Steelers would end New England’s bid for a perfect season, then got roasted on two long touchdown passes by Brady, who finished with 399 passing yards and four touchdowns and screamed profanities into the safety’s face. The fact that Jordan stared at Van Gundy most of the night swings it.
Greatest frenemy freeze-out
Jordan blocks Isiah Thomas’ appointment to the original Dream Team: Jordan never forgave his Eastern Conference teammate Thomas for his supposed role in icing him out of the offense during the 1985 All-Star Game. Payback was a hitch — a hitch in the process of selecting the best NBA players for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. Jordan gave a him-or-me ultimatum, and Thomas lost something special he had definitely earned.
Brady effectively forces Patriots to trade Jimmy Garoppolo: Brady didn’t say why Garoppolo had to go. He showed why he had to go by playing at a ridiculously high level for a man his age.
Some 325 million people live in the United States, and Bud Grant, 90-year-old resident of Bloomington, Minnesota, might be the most qualified among them to decide the Jordan vs. Brady debate. Grant is famous as the former coach of the Vikings, but he also happens to be the only man ever to play in both the NBA and NFL.
In 1950, Grant was a first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles, and a fourth-round draft choice of the Minneapolis Lakers. He won an NBA title as a reserve on George Mikan’s Lakers — Grant made his first field goal as an NBA player on a buzzer-beating half-court shot on Christmas Day, while suffering from food poisoning — and he played alongside Chuck Bednarik in Philly before becoming a star in the Canadian Football League. Grant coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to six Grey Cup appearances, winning four, before coaching the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances, losing all four. Born in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Grant also was offered a baseball contract by the Chicago White Sox. He has lived an amazing athletics life.
So I called him the other day to ask for his help. Grant was a better football player than basketball player; he’d switched from the Lakers to the Eagles, who had drafted him 14th overall.
“I finally figured out I wasn’t going to be a Michael Jordan,” he said. “I was an average basketball player.”
Grant said the travel in the NBA can really wear on an athlete, making life in pro basketball harder than in pro football. In any event, as a converted defensive end, he caught 56 passes for seven touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards in his second year with the Eagles.
I asked Grant if Brady was the best quarterback he’d seen in his 90 years on the planet, and the old coach didn’t even want to concede the Patriots quarterback was superior to Grant’s own Hall of Famer, Fran Tarkenton.
“But Brady is a winner, a competitor and a very accurate passer,” Grant said. “If his receiver has a step on the defensive back, he puts the ball out in front. He doesn’t throw it behind them. His accuracy is so good, it makes him doubly effective. And the one ingredient to greatness you have to have is durability. Brady has that durability, and that’s something in your genes.”
On Brady and Jordan, Grant said: “It’s apples and oranges. You can’t make that kind of comparison. You can’t even compare Babe Ruth to Ted Williams.”
Tony Gonzalez does not agree. He is the greatest tight end to play in the NFL, and he was a starting forward on a University of California basketball team that beat Princeton in the 1997 NCAA tournament on a Gonzalez jumper and free throws in the final seconds. He calls Brady and Jordan “a logical comparison,” and he puts one slightly ahead of the other.
“I’d give the nod to Tom Brady,” said Gonzalez, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports. The 14-time Pro Bowler for the Chiefs and Falcons said that while Brady has benefited from the “perfect storm” that joined him with Belichick and Robert Kraft, Brady’s road to the top has been slightly more difficult than Jordan’s.
“Dan Marino and I proved that you can be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the NFL and still not win anything,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t make it to a Super Bowl, and Dan made one. Warren Moon, first-ballot Hall of Famer, never went to a Super Bowl. In basketball you can carry a team. Jordan can take over on defense and offense, and Tom’s just on one side of the ball and the defense can screw it up. … To be in that many Super Bowls is ludicrous. I think Tom has had the best professional sports career ever.”
Brady can add to his ever-growing legacy by beating the Eagles next Sunday in Bud Grant’s town. And in the end, we all get to debate who is the ultimate GOAT. You might decide that Jordan’s five league MVP awards to Brady’s two (or three, if he wins this season’s award) give him the tiebreaker even if Brady matches Jordan’s total of six titles on Feb. 4.
I put a little more stock in the fact that Brady has played at a much higher level for the Patriots from ages 38 to 40 than the 38- to 40-year-old Jordan played for the Washington Wizards, and that postseason Brady has always dealt with sudden-death pressure and no margin for error, while postseason Jordan always had the luxury of surviving a bad night or two in best-of-five and best-of-seven series.
That’s why I think Brady, the 199th pick in the NFL draft, is now within striking distance of Jordan, the third pick in the NBA draft. And why I think the quarterback is one more Super Bowl MVP performance away from sending the shooting guard to a place he positively hates.