In the first chapter of David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps” nestled amidst the highest of possible praise for the book’s subject from the likes of Phil Jackson, Jerry West, and Larry Bird, is a quote from the author and Chicago-native Scott Turow that best encapsulates the place the man has held in the collective consciousness for going on three decades: “Michael Jordan plays basketball better than anyone else in the world does anything else.”
Imagine having someone say that of you and having it being close enough to true to make people stop and think of who else — William Shakespeare? Genghis Khan? — it might possibly apply to. Imagine someone saying that you were “the Michael Jordan of basketball” and having that phrase actually mean something.
Now imagine it might no longer be true.
No athlete in history has been as commensurate to the role of the Greatest of All Time as Jordan. Any look at his career or his legacy stars with a reckoning of his status relative to his peers. He was the highest flyer, and that made him the greatest. He was the best scorer, and that made him the greatest. He was the ur-competitor, and that made him the greatest. He is the GOAT of GOATs. The combined marketing muscle of countless multinational corporations and media empires conspired to make him too big to fail, and then from that point on he never did, at least not during the main canon of his career, the part spent playing basketball for the Chicago Bulls.
After years spent looking for the next Michael Jordan, often even while the original was still there, winning titles and being Michael Jordan, it turns out his closest rival is the one everyone suspected all along. LeBron James was supposed to be the most talented, most dominant basketball player since Michael Jordan, and that’s exactly what he has been, less cutthroat but more versatile. What if the consensus turns out to be that he was better? What if someone else later is? It’s not the Greatest Up To The Present Day. All-Time means All Time.
The trouble with building so much of your personal brand around being the Greatest of All Time is that, should you ever lose that title, the obvious landing spot for your legacy is “second-Greatest of All Time.” Could there possibly be a worse place for a man with Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit to end up? Once you’ve been the one, how could you possibly be the other?
Every sport has its GOAT, but not all of them live that way in the collective consciousness yet. Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, and Simone Biles are all the best their respective sports have ever seen, but they’re also all relatively newly minted. The feats that earned them those titles are — if not ongoing — then still close enough in the collective memory to have retained their shape. They can be seen for what they are, not for the narratives they tie into.
That’s not true for all GOATs, especially those whose playing days are long over. This was the impetus behind Jordan’s ESPN paean The Last Dance, a 2020 miniseries that traced the nestled arcs of both his entire career and his final season with the Bulls. Though purportedly designed to show a new side of Jordan, in actuality the project was part introduction to Jordan for a younger generation, part stern reminder of who’s in charge around here. But he’s not the only GOAT to reach for a vanity documentary production to bolster his case decades after the conclusion of his career. Earlier this year Netflix released a documentary about another GOAT in another sport, the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento and known the world over by a different name.
Pelé’s career has been constructed as a museum to his own greatness almost since it began. While the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás may have had more complete resumes as the world’s greatest player in 1958, Pelé’s combination of artistic ingenuity, ruthless efficiency, and simple joie de vivre marked him as a star from the moment the world learned about him as a 17-year-old at that year’s World Cup in Sweden. He arrived almost fully formed, and the rest of his career was spent confirming that reputation. He scored two goals in the 1958 final, helping mend the trauma to the national psyche caused by Brazil’s home loss in 1950. He scored mind-boggling numbers of goals in the fractured competitions of Brazil: a state league in São Paulo, a nascent national league. He scored even more on the numerous international tours his club Santos undertook to capitalize on their government-enforced employment — he was declared a national treasure at the age of 20 and forbidden from transferring to a foreign club — of the world’s most famous player. He scored, according to FIFA’s tally, 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
What do those numbers mean? It’s tough to judge from a modern standpoint. For many of those games, the point was Pelé, not the contest between the two teams. Today, the Brazilian league is clearly second-tier compared to the big moneyed divisions in Europe. Today, we wouldn’t dream of including exhibition games played during foreign tours in the career totals of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Neither of these facts was necessarily true, or at least as true, 60 years ago, though to what degree is nearly impossible for us today to tell. Which leaves those who weren’t around then in the position of having to take the Baby Boomers’ word for it, and that’s always worked out in the past. He was the king of soccer, but no one is sure anymore how much of that role was ceremonial.
As such he may have already been overthrown; we may have just been waiting for the messenger to arrive from the battlefield. Even before the death of Diego Maradona, it was becoming more common to flip the two in the all-time rankings. Maradona got a little extra credit from the likes of the soccer magazine FourFourTwo for being somehow more elemental, a vision of the game as being more about the man and the ball rather than the man and the goal. It all feels a little like the people who think it makes them edgy and modern to rate “Revolver” above “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
More recently, Messi continues to add new pages to a CV that might not need them. The latest update to that list from FourFourTwo put Messi second, above Pelé. You can find examples that have the trio arranged in nearly any order. Either recency bias is making us overvalue Messi’s frankly stunning set of achievements or our attempts to account for it mean we’re still not giving him enough credit. Arguments can be made either way. Arguments have been made either way. All that’s left to do at this point is argue.
There are no official GOAT standings, no leaderboard, no table. Every ranking is someone’s opinion, or the combined opinions of some panel of experts, or the aggregated opinion of some mass of voters, or the opinions of a computer simulation fed by the opinions of whoever inputted the numbers and the various weights they should be assigned to it. This is not a late-period Rocky movie. We will never see LeBron playing Jordan one-on-one, and even if we did, what would it settle? Being the GOAT is not a competition, not in the way these guys are used to, where you win more games than the other guys and you are indisputably the winner. It’s argument and persuasion and context. So much context, about who their teammates were and who their opponents were and what their diets and playing conditions were like, and the relative psychological toll of the pressure they were under, all thrown together and rolled around as if you needed a math Ph.D. to understand it. It’s the trust that, all other things being equal, X would be better than Y, only there is no set definition of what all the things that need to be equal are, or what “better” actually means.
And so it’s a debate instead of a sporting contest. The winner is decided not by points, but by faith, convincing great masses of people that you are the correct choice, and then keeping your hold over them. At some point, sports media realized — or learned from talk radio shows, as cable news did — that the secret to drawing readers and viewers throughout the 24-hour news cycle was to provoke this sort of debate at every opportunity. Replacing the objective with the subjective. You can’t argue standings, which are binary or trinary records of wins and losses and maybe ties, so instead new Power Rankings are released every week, which are someone’s opinion of who’s hot and who’s cold, who looks good, who is underperforming. This is why everything that could possibly be ranked has been ranked, including the GOATs and their nearest challengers.
How do you stay the GOAT? It’s a test that has billions of proctors, each with their own rubric, each out there waiting to be swayed over to one side or the other. This arguably benefits the holders, who have gotten to set the terms. Pelé’s success in World Cups — he won three with Brazil — means some people consider World Cup success a prerequisite for GOAT status and will never accept Messi as better. Jordan’s 6-0 record in NBA Finals means some people consider LeBron’s losses at that level akin to a forfeit. The specific arcs of their careers are used as fences to keep other contenders out. Never mind that Pelé was injured for most of one of those World Cups and Brazil won it anyway without him. Never mind that Jordan at one point had difficulty advancing out of the first round of the playoffs, that there were serious questions asked in the 1980s about whether a team could win a title when its offense was so dependent on one player. The doubts, the weaknesses, get pushed out of the pictures. Their accomplishments, and their way of accomplishing them, become the default.
But only some of them. Treating the GOATs as the sum total of their greatness keeps us from seeing these negatives but also obscures the facets of their careers that have grown less important to their cases as the GOAT. That the quintessential Jordan highlight, the moment all of The Last Dance builds toward, is his sinking of the title-winning shot over Byron Russell actually does a disservice to the player who regularly conjured physics-defying moments of magic. The shot is the capstone of a single throughline of his career: the player who comes up big when it matters, who sank the winning shots in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game, and the one that gets called The Shot even though it was made over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.
To reduce Jordan to just these clutch moments is to miss so much of the magic that he was capable of conjuring: the player who switched the ball from hand to hand while horizontal in mid-air and still made the lay-up, the man who exerted his casual dominance by holding the ball in one hand just out of the defender’s reach, the one-of-a-kind marvel who appeared to fall more slowly than anyone else on Earth. When we think of the titles and the clutch play as the reason he’s the GOAT, we risk flattening the rest of it into an indistinct haze of goodness, where the specific details that made him such a joy and a marvel to watch might be lost.
This is especially true for Pelé, who has fewer moments of his career captured on film, and most of those of lower-quality. The highlights preserved are largely of two kinds: Pelé performing some brilliant instinctive act of control in the box and then finishing, or Pelé showing a repertoire of different shots to beat keepers from long range. They are all impressive. He always seems to bring the ball down in some unexpected direction. He dribbles past defenders while barely moving, just willing them out of his way with feints and leans until he can cross through the space they’ve cleared for him. He seems to have more points of articulation than the average person, moving in many directions at once like a sophisticated action figure. When he gets time to measure a shot, you can almost see him pulling up the menu of options as his foot goes back.
The apotheosis of his career sees him wielding none of that skill or power, but rather his reputation to beat his opponent. In it, Pelé receives the ball in front of the goal, just outside of the box. It’s the final minutes of the 1970 World Cup Final. Brazil is already ahead 3-1 and has kept the ball for the last 25 seconds, evading occasional pressure from their exhausted Italian opponents but mostly progressing it at their leisure, especially on a long pass up the sideline from Rivellino to Jairzinho. Jairzinho passes to Pelé. Pelé’s nearest opponent, Tarcisio Burgnich, considers engaging the Brazilian but instead stops and backs off, unwilling to step in and expose himself to the potential devastation the GOAT might wreak upon him. Pelé waits. Burgnich waits. The moment only lasts about two seconds, but it feels like much more time than that has gone by before Pelé rolls a simple pass into an entirely empty patch of the turf for an onrushing Carlos Alberto to thunder into the net.
The goal is one of the most famous in soccer history. It confirmed Brazil not only as the winners of the tournament but as the greatest soccer nation in history. The pass Pelé played could have been made by anyone, yet no one but Pelé could have so thoroughly spooked his defender into giving him the time to play it. Being the GOAT allowed him to make the play that verified him as the GOAT, but it required none of the skills that made him the GOAT.
The two documentaries devote some time to exploring these other facets, with never-before-seen footage of Jordan mixed in with stories of the classic highlights and some of the clearest-looking Pelé footage you’ll ever see. But they ultimately double down on the chosen narrative of their respective subjects, spending far more time on Pelé’s international career, and especially his World Cups, than his time with Santos; conflating Jordan’s competitive spirit with his ability to play basketball better than (nearly?) anyone else when they are not actually the same thing. This way of looking at the pair means so much of their careers and their play becomes about comparison. Everything about them has to be, first and foremost, better. The projects provide much-needed perspective on each man, but when it comes to their playing careers, they trod the well-marked path to the shrines we’ve erected to their greatness.
But when you’re on top of the mountain, you stop being able to see the mountain. To borrow the old Grantland Rice cliche: it’s not just whether they won or lost, but how they played their games that built Jordan and Pelé’s reputations. There is beauty and grace and awe in the things that we let slip away when we treat them as the sum total of their titles and statistics. Trying to recapture those is a far more gratifying, and less inherently defensive, way to treat our GOATs, one that allows our scrutiny to meander instead of marching straight up. The long afterlife of their careers should be a celebration, rather than another contest that has to be won. Their legacies, and their transitions from best to “one of the best,” will be better served by a fuller remembrance not just of what made them the GOAT, but of what made them, simply, great. •