For all the hot air we tend to blow when assessing athletic greatness, the cold reality is we don't know jack.
Fans and followers of sports, professional media types and average joes alike are but varying degrees of clueless when it comes time to consider our cases for the considerably talented.
Sure, we've established greatness perimeters by sport, lines that are impenetrable to the journeymen, the specialists, the dirty-work-doers and the serviceable. You know them by their stats. But in that rarefied air where stats are a forgone conclusion, we get reduced to the plight of babbling pontification, walking through the valley of the shadows of inconsistency.
One minute we're making a case for a guy's impact on the business of sports, and in the next we dole out extra credit for another's cultural relevance.
It's a crap shoot. Except when it comes to championships.
We count on championships to validate our opinions, and when we're locked in the throws of a "who's better" debate, nothing makes us feel closer to the winner's circle than if we're capping for the guy who has more rings.
When the conversation is about the NBA's greatest of all time, then the conversation is very likely about Michael Jordan. And part of the discussion will very likely include the fact that Jordan never lost in the NBA Finals. He went to six and won six.
I remember being out at a sports bar not long after Kobe's Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. This was back when proving that Kobe was not Jordan's heir apparent was a favorite pastime for some, and for one guy at that bar that loss had sealed the deal.
"See, that's one thing Jordan never did," he said. "Jordan never lost in the Finals."
Fast-forward to 2015 when people are now obsessed with proving that LeBron James is as good as, if not en route to surpassing, Michael Jordan — people hardly ever mention the Finals James has lost.
As I'm sure you've heard by now, this is LeBron's fifth straight trip to the Finals, and he did this playing for two different teams. It's his sixth Finals in all, and this year he's got a second chance to bring home the Larry O'Brien Trophy with the same organization with which he pursued his first.
Even if it ends differently for him and the Cavs this time around, his Finals record will be distinctively different from Jordan's.
A loss, though, will mean that he will have lost more Finals than any of his contemporaries.
Of the guys who have been superstars, along with James, in the league in the years since Jordan dominated and have made multiple Finals appearances — Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade — a fourth loss for James this year would mean the worst record for him among the lot.
Yes, some of the greats back in the day have fared worse. The NBA's 50 Greatest List includes some guys who lost more Finals than they've won, including Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, and some guys who've never won at all — Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, to name a few.
But of course, in the unspoken ranking of that list, Jordan is number one. So yeah, there's that.
When it's all said and done, there will be those who will want to place James atop that list of contemporaries I mentioned above. Though it's too soon to tell, there's a possibility that they might not have his championship numbers as their saving grace in the argument. And even though it won't be a deal breaker, it probably means something. I'm just not exactly sure what.
And so it goes with defining greatness. At a certain point the discussion relegates us to pure conjecture.
Shaq recently made headlines for saying he'd take Kobe in his prime over LeBron. He played with them both, as well as Wade, and was an active player when he was named to that NBA 50 greatest back in 1996. He tried his best to say why he was picking the Mamba but ultimately ended up saying that both guys had killer instincts and finished up with favorable comments about LeBron's willingness to take over a game when necessary, his basketball smarts and well wishes for the Finals.
So you see, it's not just us mere mortals who have a hard time explaining these things.
Sometimes even the greats can't say for sure what makes someone great.
I once ran a 6 and a half-minute mile. So, there's that.