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Magic Johnson: “Michael Jordan is the Greatest One-on-One Player”

Sep 21, 2013, 7:30 PM EDT

Magic Johnson Getty Images

Ask one of the greatest players of all-time if he could beat someone else one-on-one, and you can usually predict the answer. Professional athletes have to think very, very highly of themselves. You can’t be one of the best if you don’t think you are. It’s just how it works.

That’s why you don’t see many elite athletes come out and say, “I would lose because he’s better than I am” and just leave it at that. Even when they’re retired.

Magic Johnson almost did, though. He came super close.

When Magic Johnson was asked who would win a game of one-one between him and Michael Jordan, he didn’t hesitate.

“Michael would win. That’s not my game. My game is assisting, setting up my teammates. Michael’s the greatest one-on-one player. I couldn’t go out and drop 60 like him, but he couldn’t run a team like I could.”

Via Jon Becker of the Midland Daily News (hat tip to

Magic was heaping on the praise for Jordan and showing some impressive humility, but then he almost seemed to have an epiphany halfway through, like, hey, I’m Magic freakin’ Johnson.

And let’s make something clear: Magic is right. He couldn’t go out and drop 60. He couldn’t even drop 50, as 46 points was his career-high. It just wasn’t in his blood to play that way, even on the nights he couldn’t miss.

And while Jordan could run a team in the sense that he’d handle all of the scoring and pass once (if?) he was slowed down, he was never the distributor Magic was. In 1251 career regular season and playoff games, Jordan registered double-digit assists only 94 times.

Both players stuck to their strengths, and their careers worked out pretty okay, I think.

But while we’re here, in standard one-on-one rules (make-it take-it, game to 11 by all ones, take-out on all fouls) give me prime Yao Ming over everyone. He’s about a foot taller than Jordan, he could shoot from range if he got bored of slowly backing down in the post, and he’d get every rebound and make MJ shoot from distance. Michael Jordan ain’t stopping Yao once (if?) he gets the ball, you know?

These are the things we think about in the offseason, of course. Can real actual NBA games start soon, please? Pretty please?

  1. General37 - Sep 21, 2013 at 7:57 PM

    Wilt,Jordan,magic,Russell,jabbar,Kobe,Shaquille,Duncan,Oscar,west,My top 10 all time in order.

  2. packersareandwillalwaysbebetterthanthebears - Sep 21, 2013 at 8:23 PM

    Yao over MJ?!

    In this hypothetical, fantasy situation, it’s hard to imagine that Yao would be able to keep up with MJ’s handles and attacks on the basket.

  3. j0esixpack - Sep 21, 2013 at 8:25 PM

    Excellent commentary. There’s probably even a wide consensus that Magic is right.

    But is Jordan the best TEAM player? I don’t think so. And a team player can be responsible for far more points than they score – not to mention their role on Defense.

    Magic is in that discussion as the best team player ever – as is Bird and several others. That shouldn’t be viewed as a knock against Jordan.

    • mytthor - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:58 PM

      Jordan was one of the best defenders ever. If Jordan’s off the list for his passing not being amazing – just good – then how does Bird make the list? He’s a great passer but not his defense is no better than Jordan’s passing, for sure.

      • j0esixpack - Sep 23, 2013 at 1:51 PM

        Bird was not a good defender?

        Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same Bird.

        Larry Bird – who played for the Celtics.

      • mytthor - Sep 25, 2013 at 12:33 AM

        Didn’t say anything about Bird not being a good defender. In fact, by inference, I basically said that Bird is a good, not amazing, defender. Like Jordan was a good, not amazing, passer?

        By the way – Jordan career assist average, 5.3. Bird, 6.3.

  4. antistratfordian - Sep 21, 2013 at 8:46 PM

    Magic is almost right on the money. He forgot to mention that he doesn’t play defense – so MJ isn’t the only player who could beat him one-on-one. There would be a whole list of guys.

    And I have to disagree with this Yao Ming assessment. There is all sorts of things Jordan can do.

    1) Yao wouldn’t be able to get every long rebound. Jordan is too fast and athletic.
    2) Jordan can stop Yao easily just by stealing the ball from him. Yao will have trouble dribbling either out in space or when he’s trying to back him down. Jordan’s hands and feet are too quick.
    3) Jordan would be able to use his quickness to get his preferred shots off, he just makes Yao think he’s going to shoot in a place that he has no intention of shooting, then move to the place he wants to shoot. Basic stuff. Yao won’t be able to recover fast enough. He may even fall down trying.
    4) If Jordan’s long jumper is on then Yao would be forced to come out, then MJ blows past him.

    Etc. A truly great athlete like Jordan will always find a way to win regardless of size differences. Yao’s only advantage is height. Jordan holds every other advantage.

  5. watermelon1 - Sep 21, 2013 at 8:52 PM

    Michael Jordan aint stopping Yao!?!


    And you say this game is to what? 11? We sure Yao doesn’t break a leg before they can score that many buckets?

    Jordan beat 5 monstars with very little help from Bugs. I think he could handle Yao 1 on 1.

  6. jzone954 - Sep 21, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    How many times is this topic going to be brought up???

    • stayhigh_247 - Sep 21, 2013 at 10:32 PM

      enough times till it makes you go away

  7. savvybynature - Sep 21, 2013 at 9:16 PM

    Yao Ming over MJ?!? What’re you smoking bro?

    What is Ming gonna do with the ball at the top of the key? I get that he could try backing MJ down into the post, but when you are 7’6″ you gotta be dribbling the ball three feet off the ground, and it’s only a matter of time before Jordan gets a deflection and a steal. He was pretty good at getting steals, after all (league leader three times).

    You’re crazy if you think Yao Ming is scoring 11 straight on MJ in his prime.

  8. armstrongsmissingball - Sep 21, 2013 at 9:16 PM

    Today’s NBA sucks. Give me Magic Bird or Jordan any day. Doc, The dream or even old skool pistons teams please?

    • mytthor - Sep 22, 2013 at 11:00 PM

      So tired. Go watch old game tapes then.

    • zoomy123 - Sep 25, 2013 at 7:04 AM

      Shut up. People always romanticize the past. 25 years from now someone’s going to be saying, “Today’s NBA sucks. Give me Kevin Durant, Lebron James, or Kobe Bryant any day.”

  9. steelerfanforlife - Sep 21, 2013 at 9:56 PM

    Seriously you’d take Yao over Jordan in a one on one??!! One of the dumbest things I’ve read in this site…..and Helin can write some pretty dumb stuff!

  10. furiouslytim - Sep 21, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    Is goaltending allowed in standard pickup rules!?

  11. ProBasketballPundit - Sep 21, 2013 at 11:56 PM

    Are we counting defense because I’ve never seen anybody who can score on LeBron in a 1-on-1 situation when LeBron is determined to get a stop. Jordan was a good defender but LBJ is bigger, stronger and probably faster.

    • impartialsportstalk - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:53 PM

      MJ couldn’t stop Magic from scoring and passing in the 91 finals, you think he could touch Lebron? Lebron would probably go to the rack on MJ every time.

      • gabeg333 - Sep 26, 2013 at 11:48 AM

        Noone could stop Magic in the post in ’91, not Scotty and not MJ. Scotty did a better job pressuring Magic dribbling up the court and starting their offense. About Lebron’s post play compared to Magic’s you haven’t got a clue even though you are impartial, right?

  12. nflcrimerankingscom - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    no way, definitely Mario Chalmers

  13. Brian - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:15 AM

    Yao in his prime against Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime. That would be a one-on-one for the ages.

    • 00maltliquor - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:41 AM

      Yao’s soft behind would get whupped by The Dream.

  14. 00maltliquor - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:43 AM

    I thought it was John Stockton?

    • sportsfan18 - Sep 22, 2013 at 6:18 AM

      That’s just for the Glove.

  15. Waxxx4321 - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:43 AM

    Well Michael and Magic both ran their teams in different ways with superiority. It looks kind of equal to me. But Michael Jordan is still the greatest of all time period.

  16. sknicks21 - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:45 AM

    Yao over Jordan one-on-one is actually one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard..

  17. hvoigt21 - Sep 22, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    NBA sucks. bunch of overpaid tattoo riddled Thugs have overrun the NBA.

    • antistratfordian - Sep 22, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      Some are unbelievably underpaid and there’s nothing wrong with tattoos.

    • money2long - Sep 22, 2013 at 4:43 PM

      so you’re saying the sport sux because the people in them have a bunch of money? and tats? wake us up when you actually talk about the game itself.

    • impartialsportstalk - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:55 PM

      very uneducated comment

  18. themagicfanguy - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Big Diesel vs Wilt the Stilt, I’d watch.

  19. themagicfanguy - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    @hvoigt Yeah, because every NBA/ABA player was an angel back in the day right?

  20. fruitcovejag - Sep 22, 2013 at 4:02 PM


  21. 24thesho - Sep 23, 2013 at 8:11 AM

    I’m fairly sure if Jordan had decided to become a real point guard instead of the scorer he was earlier in his career, this conversation would not exist. He may not have been quite as good as Magic, but, he would have been in the top 5…, if he really wanted. That’s how skilled of a player Jordan was. People seem to forget this fact.

  22. jimeejohnson - Sep 23, 2013 at 8:21 PM

    Yeeow! Yao couldn’t beat MJ one on one even if Jordan had the flu. Wait a minute…

  23. swu32733 - Sep 23, 2013 at 10:44 PM

    Why is Oscar Robertson not part of this conversation? Oscar averaged a triple double for an entire NBA season. That is an incredible statistic that none of the others have even approached. He was one of the best to ever set foot on a basketball court.

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