College basketball’s ‘greatest of all time’ bracket: Championship breakdown

On March 19, ESPN launched SportsCenter Special: College Basketball’s Greatest of All Time, a 64-player bracket celebrating the best men’s and women’s players ever.

ESPN writers and commentators will provide daily roundtables and predictions as the bracket advances through March 31. Here, writers Jeff Borzello, Andrea Adelson and David Hale break down the championship.

Championship

(3 East) Larry Bird vs. (2 Midwest) Michael Jordan — VOTE HERE

Michael Jordan hasn’t suited up to play in a meaningful basketball game in 17 years. Larry Bird hasn’t done so in 28 years. What does it say to you when you see Jordan and Bird as the last two players standing in this bracket?

Jeff Borzello: Aside from the fact they were two transcendent basketball players at both the college and pro level, it does show that they’re in the sweet spot of the voting public. Lew Alcindor is considered by most basketball historians to be the best college basketball player, but most of the people voting might have never seen him play at the college level. Christian Laettner had a storied career at Duke, but his NBA career didn’t move the needle. Jordan and Bird ticked every box to rack up votes throughout the tournament: historically good basketball players at both levels, most people voting watched them play throughout their careers — and they also were both picked as the best player in a given season against stiff competition. Bird won Player of the Year in 1979 over Magic Johnson, while Jordan won in 1984 with Patrick Ewing and Akeem Olajuwon also in college.

Andrea Adelson: It says no matter how much recency bias played a role in the early rounds of voting — two legends truly can stand the test of time. There is no one player more identifiable with Carolina basketball than Michael Jordan, and it is hard to argue against his inclusion here in the finals even though you could make an argument that *not* winning a title his junior season qualifies as a disappointment. Bird led Indiana State to the national title game in 1979 against Michigan State and Magic Johnson in what is still the most-watched college basketball game on television. Plenty of that has to do with the incredible season Bird had to take a smaller school so far. The NCAA tournament is all about the big, bad blue bloods against the lovable, fighting underdogs. Jordan and Bird represent both in the final. Quite fitting indeed.

David Hale: Clearly, a lot of folks had “Jordan vs. Bird” for Nintendo in the 1980s and are feeling nostalgic. Part of me wants to suggest that, at least a bit of this voting is more about legendary NBA careers than collegiate greatness, but that’s really beside the point. Both Jordan and Bird were superstars in college — Jordan, a marquee name at a marquee school, and Bird, the Hick from French Lick who took little old Indiana State to the brink of a title. These are the two I would’ve expected to be here before we kicked all this off, and so it’s no surprise to see them as the final players still standing.

Bird played in a 1979 national championship game that is held up as a very important moment in the history of the game at both the collegiate and NBA levels. Jordan launched a personal brand when he hit the shot that won the 1982 title game, and strengthened the already legendary UNC brand at the same time. With that in mind, which player do you consider to be most important to the sport?

Borzello: Michael Jordan is synonymous with basketball over the past 40 years, and he also laid the groundwork for the modern basketball player. There’s a reason every potentially transcendent talent to come into the game in the past three decades is compared to Jordan. He’s the greatest player of all time. That’s a pretty important achievement in itself. The way in which he played the game, there was an aura about him when he was on the floor. Hyper competitive at everything, but also eminently likeable. And in terms of importance, the way he helped bring in the business side of basketball — starting with his Air Jordan sneakers and morphing into Jordan Brand — has made a huge impact on the sport from a marketing standpoint. Oh, and Jordan is a billionaire, with the most lucrative post-playing career we’ve ever seen. Jordan is the most important basketball player, on and off the court.

Adelson: I spent a lot of time thinking about this question, because it is so difficult to answer. On the one hand, I am fairly confident North Carolina would *still* be North Carolina even without Michael Jordan because it had a storied tradition before him and continues to have a storied tradition after him. Bird was a part of perhaps *the* most heralded national title game in the sport’s history, and though he elevated Indiana State during his career there, the program itself remains among the mid-majors still looking for a leg up on programs like North Carolina.

But the key difference here is overall impact on the game, and for that I am going with Jordan. It is hard to separate collegiate from NBA impact, but that brand remains alive and strong in both games. Carolina wears Jordan-branded uniforms and shoes, and so do a host of other programs across the country (including Michigan and Florida). He remains as relevant today as he did in 1982 with the power of that brand alone.

Hale: Jordan is the answer to every basketball question, of course, but I’ll throw my lot in with Larry Legend. The NCAA final battle with Magic Johnson is arguably the most important college basketball game ever played, a fulcrum in the history of the game that took the sport out of the small gyms and niche fan base and brought the tournament to the masses. That Bird created that moment at Indiana State, of all places, also underscores another part of the greatness of the NCAA tournament: the notion that the little guys can make some noise, too. Sure, few “little guys” have a player as big as Bird, but the idea of rooting for the underdog — from Valparaiso to Butler to Florida Gulf Coast — has transformed the way the casual fan embraces the tournament, too. Jordan is the best there ever was, no doubt. But Bird’s impact on college basketball and the tournament in particular is incalculable.

Prediction time: Who will voters hold up as the GOAT, and who are you voting for?

Borzello: Jordan, on both accounts. With Lew Alcindor out of the picture, this one is clear to me. Both players were two-time first-team All-Americans, and both won Wooden Awards in their final year in college. But Jordan has one thing Bird doesn’t: a national championship. Plus, Jordan hit the winning shot to win that championship, taking down Georgetown in 1982. Bird has better counting stats, but Jordan can match him in individual honors — and has a ring as the tiebreaker. Plus, it’s MJ. He’s not losing.

Adelson: It is hard to go against Jordan, who remains the GOAT, period. No exceptions. These polls are so incredibly subjective, and it is so hard to separate the college Jordan, starting to come into his own as a dominant force, and the NBA Jordan, turning his dominant force into a stranglehold on the entire league and country. You think Jordan, you think dominance, and you hardly count his national championships or his scoring average or what might or might not have happened his junior year in the tournament. You simply know greatness.

Hale: I’ll vote for Bird for the reasons mentioned above. Hey, I can’t help but root for the underdog. But of course, there’s one guy who has a title, one guy who hit the game-winning shot, one guy who is still every bit as relevant today as he was when he last donned a college uniform. That’s Michael Jordan. He’s going to win. He always does.

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