Who: You know who.
Why: Two of my other contenders for this designation are entering the Naismith Hall of Fame today, as is one of my contenders for Most Beautiful Basketball Coach. It doesn't matter. A larger auditorium was needed to enshrine Michael Jordan in the Hall, and that doesn't happen for megastars John Stockton, David Robinson, or Jerry Sloan. While it was Magic and Bird that saved the league, Jordan defined it. Imagine having the second pick in any fantasy basketball draft from 1989-1993, or from 1996-1998. Heck, imagine having the first in 1994. (Your cardiac arrest upon Jordan's first retirement would have been understandable.) The numbers are staggering: 30.12 points per game, a record. 33.45 points per playoff game, a record. Six Finals MVPs, a record. Ten scoring titles, a record. And on and on. His fluidity on the court was legendary, and his intelligence was unparalleled. But what mattered more than anything else was his drive. There was no one who wanted to beat you more, and damned if he didn't come with all the skills to do it.
Impact: Six NBA championships, one NCAA championship, two Olympic gold medals, and a billion dollars in revenue for the city of Chicago. Jordan's biggest impact, though, was on the NBA. As big as his presence was on the court, even bigger was the void immediately after Jordan retired the second time (he made a habit of it). No matter how talented his successors were, there was no one to make the world's collective jaw drop. Basketball stayed great, but it was a little more fair, a little more ordinary, a little more human. Eventually, another charismatic aerialist wearing #23 came along, and the jury's still out on him. For now, we can consider MJ's championship years as the greatest basketball of all time.
Personal Connection: I saw Jordan play live at the United Center maybe 25 times, and a couple more in Seattle. Eventually, I could predict his moves. I remember one night when I turned to my date and said, "Watch this." I drew a squiggle in the air to show Jordan's path down the full court, through the defenders, and to the basket. Sure enough, he did it. "How did you see that?" my date said. "From up here, it's easy," I said. "The question is, how did he see it?"
Other Contenders: Utah Jazz point guard and forward John Stockton and Karl Malone, the greatest teammates ever; Lakers guard and Celtics forward Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the best friends two men can be while being enemies; San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, not only a dominant player but the classiest fellow ever to lace 'em up; Seattle Storm and Aussie national team center Lauren Jackson, the most versatile basketball player I've ever seen; Jason McElwain, the autistic player who made the best of a chance we would all hope to take.