Basketball Hall of Fame honoree Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time. Tim Tebow may be the greatest college football player of all-time. Beyond that -- or, perhaps, because of that -- they share some common qualities.
Obviously, a common meme here -- perhaps THE meme -- is the notion underlying this college football season that, in Tim Tebow, we could be watching the greatest college football player of all time, in real-time.
Making that more interesting: His "G.O.A.T." status is on the line, depending on how Florida performs this season (national title? unbeaten?) and how Tebow performs individually (Heisman-ish stats? Heisman-ish "moments?")
The last time fans were having this "are we watching the greatest player in this sport's history" conversation was the mid-90s, when Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement to lead the Bulls to 3 straight NBA titles -- most notably the '96 Bulls, who might have been the best team ever. (Sound familiar?)
It is hard to compare Tim Tebow to Michael Jordan precisely -- football (particularly college football) is so different from basketball (particularly pro basketball). Let me try:
Instant, flashy impact: In 1982, then-freshman Michael Jordan hit the game-winning shot for UNC to capture the national title.
In 2006, then-freshman Tim Tebow came off the bench, but was arguably Florida's MVP, making THE key plays to help UF capture the national title.
Dominance without championships: In the late-80s and early-90s, Michael Jordan had established himself as the best (and most exciting) player in basketball. He had yet to win a title, so doubters persisted.
In 2007, Tim Tebow established himself as the best (and most exciting) player in college football -- his Heisman season was, statistically, one of the greatest in college football history. And yet, the Gators' lack of any championship (SEC or otherwise) allowed doubters to persist.
Championships: A 15-year NBA career is tough to analogize to a 4-year college football career, but I think I see the pathway.
Michael Jordan established himself as a Top 5 all-time player when he won his first string of 3 titles from '91-93. Tim Tebow established himself as a Top 5 all-time player when he won his first title (as starting QB) last season.
Jordan then took himself to another level after his "I'm back" unretirement, by winning 3 more -- including the above-mentioned ridiculous '96 season.
Similarly, Tebow had his own "I'm back" moment -- announcing his return for his senior season -- and if he completes the national-title quest this year, it will be the college football equivalent of Jordan's second "three-peat."
(If Tebow can lead Florida to an unbeaten season, this team would be ranked among the best of all-time, not unlike Jordan's '96 team and its gaudy 72 wins was -- and is -- considered one of the best teams of all time.)
Legendary competitiveness: It is widely agreed that Jordan was the most competitive player in the history of basketball -- perhaps sports. At least until Tebow came along. Folks can disagree about whether Tebow truly is the "best ever," but even the ones who like to hedge with phrases like "could be" or "might be" agree that he is the fiercest competitor in the sport's history.
Mythology: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team. Jordan made Dean Smith rethink freshmen. Jordan was passed over for Sam Bowie on Draft Night. Jordan had his sneakers banned by the NBA. Jordan froze out Isiah Thomas for the Dream Team. Jordan killed his teammates in practice. Jordan tries baseball. Jordan's flu game. I could go on and on. The point is this: No small part of Jordan's appeal was the mythology built up around him -- part of that came from his on-court amazingness; part of that came from stories that emerged off the court.
Given that he is only 22 years old, Tim Tebow has acquired as much mythology as Jordan -- the miracle birth, the home-schooling, the high school documentaries, the jump pass, the ministering to prisoners, the eye-black, the Chesney singing, the list goes on and on (and we have covered it here extensively). The point is that all "greatest of all time" candidates must combine individual talent with championships with mythology. A big question for Tebow remains whether his myth will end with college football or whether he will extend it in the NFL.
Endorsement potential: There was no greater marketing force in sports than Michael Jordan. Part of this was man-meets-moment (rise of Nike, rise of ESPN, rise of NBA, rise of 80s and 90s spending cultures). Part of this was his own savvy. Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, hot dogs... the list goes on and on. He even created his own shoe brand, which is selling like crazy these days. The Jordan brand continues to resonate as a marketing force.
For Tim Tebow, even though marketing spending by companies is shrinking, Tebow sizes up as someone who will buck the trend. I have already said this: From his first minute after his college eligibility ends and he can sign endorsement deals, he will be the most successful endorser in the NFL, instantly eclipsing Peyton Manning.
Between Tebow's All-American appeal and his fervent fan base, how can you NOT see him signing huge deals with: Nike, Gatorade (hmm...those two sound familiar?), EA Sports... hell, Hanes, auto companies, whatever -- and that doesn't even begin to account for marketing dollars he will see from companies affiliated with selling to the country's massive Evangelical Christian community. I'm not saying that this will signal a bounce back for all athlete endorsement deals; I'm saying that Tebow is a very very special case -- and will be paid that way.
And so as we celebrate Michael Jordan's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame tonight, it is a great moment to celebrate the sport's -- or sports' -- greatest of all time.
Tim Tebow may not be his sport's greatest-ever... yet. But he would be smart to draw inspiration from Michael Jordan -- even as their "G.O.A.T." bonafides seem to resemble each other.