Should Championships Define Greatness?
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The Kansas City Chiefs faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, one of the largest sports events in recent history, attracting 96.4 million viewers on February 7, 2021. But why do the finals gather so much attention compared to regular season matches? This idea isn’t exclusive to football. The NBA Finals and the FIFA World Cup Final are also the most watched matches in their respective tournaments. Likely, such viewership is due to the anticipation behind which team will emerge victorious over the other and be declared the best of the season. For decades, most fans have believed that titles determine a player’s greatness. They ignore the losing side, believing that players who won the trophy are greater than those who haven’t. Is this really the case?
Since Barcelona FC’s 4-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League Round of 16, fans have drawn comparisons between soccer legend Lionel Messi and young star Kylian Mbappé. Though Messi has played far longer than Mbappé, some people believe that the latter’s World Cup trophy, an award that Messi has yet to earn, speaks for itself. However, comparing trophies between two players is not a good way to determine who is superior, as they do not necessarily define a player’s success. There are numerous players who are all time greats without having won many––or any––trophies for their teams. They showcase their abilities through their performances each match, displaying immaculate skill and achieving the best result that they can for their teams.
Tottenham Hotspur FC player Harry Kane is a prime example of such greatness. Kane is an established player at the international level for England and has scored over 150 times by the age of only 27. He has won the Premier League Golden Boot award twice, and he was the top scorer of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Despite all of his personal accolades, Kane has yet to win a trophy for England or Tottenham.
Another player with a similar story is Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku. The 27-year-old has played for many clubs in his career, displaying his goal-scoring ability for each. He has 300 career goals to his name, many of them coming from the Premier League and Serie A. Lukaku also has many personal awards, including his appearance in the 2016-2017 Premier League Team of the Year, but surprisingly, he has no trophies with any of his clubs. All avid soccer fans know that both Kane and Lukaku are exceptional players, even with empty trophy cabinets.
People often wonder why great players choose to stay on teams where they will win few to no trophies. Whether it be due to the squad’s team chemistry, happiness with their playing time, or adjustment to a city, most soccer athletes focus on doing the best they can with a club rather than joining another one just for the sake of trophies.
On the other hand, some players who have won many trophies for their clubs don’t play an important role on their team. They are either used as backup players for the main squad or as fringe players in the circumstances of an injury. An important era of soccer that displays this type of squad hierarchy is Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United from 1986 to 2013. During his 26-year career at Manchester, Ferguson won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League titles, and five FA Cups. Ferguson achieved his success by nurturing young players into world-class athletes. Like most squads nowadays, to win trophies, the best players should play for the best chance at victory. And of course, there will always be players on a team who play a minor role in the actual game but get the trophy nonetheless. In Ferguson’s reign, there were multiple players who won trophies with the club but failed to receive the same recognition as the star players of the squad, as they simply didn't contribute as much.
This distribution of attention doesn’t mean that star players in a squad who lack titles are better than athletes who play minor roles for a title-winning team. The amount of trophies won should be a component in evaluating whether or not a player is great, but it shouldn't be the main factor. People tend to compare players based on their stats, such as goals, assists, passes, and unfortunately, trophies. However, the most important factor in deciding the legacy of a player is the impact made on the sport and team. Sure, a player can rack up titles while sitting on the bench almost every game, but does that really make a distinguished soccer player?
Steve Nash, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone are just three of many former NBA players who retired without ever winning a ring. Because they never won a championship, the legacies of these players should not be compared to those of champions like Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jordan, right?
Well, not exactly. Though it’s true that some basketball experts and spectators view the legacies of the mentioned players as “tarnished” due to the absence of a ring, no one can deny their greatness, much less consider their careers failures. Nash was a two-time league MVP and an eight-time All-Star, and he retired as one of the greatest passers in NBA history. Barkley, often called “the Round Mound of Rebound” due to his extraordinary ability to gather boards, and Malone, nicknamed “the Mailman” because he always delivered in the post, were two of the most dominant power-forwards to ever play the game. Together, their combined accomplishments include three MVPs, 25 All-Star appearances, 16 All-NBA first team selections, and a mind-boggling 60,685 points combined throughout their careers.
Given all these accomplishments, it’s foolish to think that these players failed to reach the status of NBA legends because they don’t have any championship rings on their fingers. Most people would rank Nash higher on the all-time point guard list over players like Jason Kidd and Walt Frazier, despite these two players having multiple championships under their belts. Similarly, very few NBA fans would take Pau Gasol and Kevin McHale over Barkley and Malone, despite the former pair boasting a combined total of five rings compared to Barkley and Malone’s zero.
The reason why championships don’t matter as much as personal accolades in many cases is that not every championship is equal. The quality of teammates, the level of competition faced, each player’s role on the team, and the ability of the team’s coach to adjust and make game-winning strategies are just some of the factors that make the playing field uneven for NBA players. Given the varying levels of adversity different players face when trying to win a championship, it’s unfair to rely solely on the number of rings to compare the players’ legacies.
But is this claim the case when comparing the greatest players of all time? One of the most common arguments that always seems to arise in the classic Jordan vs. LeBron James debate is that Jordan is 6-0 in the NBA finals while James is just 4-6.
Given that Jordan and James are undoubtedly the two greatest players of all time, they should be regarded separately from other NBA greats. In such a close and hotly disputed argument, every factor should be taken into consideration, championships included. However, this attention doesn’t necessarily mean that championship records should be the number one criteria in this case; individual accolades and the overall impact these two players had on the game are more important considerations.
A great player is still a great player even if they don’t have any rings. Statistics, MVP awards, All-Star selections, All-NBA selections, and Hall-of-Fame elections cannot be denied when measuring a player’s greatness. However, to see such accomplished players like Nash, Malone, and Barkley retire without ever getting to hold a championship trophy in their arms is truly a shame. Likewise, it would be a shame to see the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo finish his career without ever winning a championship. The same goes for Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Derrick Rose. In the end, no one will deny their greatness, but one can only hope that a ring will accompany their Hall of Fame resumes.
At the end of the day, championships are only one part of an athlete’s legacy. They may be the pinnacle of a player’s career, but plenty of other factors weigh more heavily than championships when measuring a player’s success. The arguments posed are not restricted to soccer and basketball. The same is true for most other sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, and the NHL. It is important to note, however, that the case is different for more individualized sports such as tennis and boxing. Whatever the case may be, instead of comparing players with one another, we should sit back and enjoy watching a new generation of athletes dominate the sports so many people love around the globe.