As another NRL season approaches its end, the annual query surrounding the retirement of champion fullback Billy Slater re-emerges.
2015 was when the Australian, Queensland and Melbourne Storm number one last put pen to paper, for a two-year $1.8 million contract many assumed would be his last.
After Cameron Munster emerged during Slater’s injury hit ’15 and ’16, many forgot the worth of ‘Billy the kid.’
However, a fully fit Slater and a raging Storm have been quick to dispel any lamentations regarding the effect he has on his team, with many wondering if he’ll go around again.
On Sunday, he has a chance to net his fourth Premiership – not quite as many as Norm Provan’s all-time record of 10.
It’s also not enough to eclipse Michael Jordan’s six NBA triumphs, but the Chicago Bulls’ champion and the Melbourne custodian have had vastly similar careers and effects on their sport.
Both arrived with their teams hyped out of amateur level and probably shocked at the freezing nature of their new homes compared to far north Queensland and Wilmington, North Carolina.
Punctuated by fantastic athleticism rarely seen in the game, they both showed early two-way offensive and defensive chops well above their age, resulting in Rookie of the Year nods.
Defining a career
Career-defining moments arrived for both boys in just their second year in the league.
Having just turned 23, ‘MJ’ erupted in the 1986 playoffs against the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics, scoring 63 points in game two of the first round – still a postseason record – and averaging almost 44 points over the course of the series.
He could not prevent his side being eliminated but playoffs abolition in ’86 was the calm before a mighty, Jordan-led storm.
Slater made his State of Origin debut in 2004 as a 20-year-old, barely 12 months after his NRL debut.
His watershed moment also came in game two of the series. Down 12-10 to New South Wales, Slater picked up a Darren Lockyer grubber kick behind the Blues’ line.
With just his opposite number Anthony Minichiello to beat, Slater audaciously chipped the football over the head of the best fullback in the league, re-gathered, and dived over the line to complete one of the great Origin tries.
Again, despite another try in the match, and two more in each other game, the young man was unable to spur the Maroons onto a series victory.
Losing the way
Shortly after, both men went to dark places in their on-field careers. Jordan would lose in the playoffs another four times, leading to questions as to whether he could truly dominate at the highest level.
Slater was sensationally dropped from the Origin team for game three in 2005 and would have to wait out three more fullbacks and seven more games to receive his recall.
Jordan won his first title in 1991, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in a “passing of the baton” moment.
Both men would go on to record multiple individual and team honours, sharing nine championships, six player of the season awards, and seven player of the finals awards.
Slater and Jordan wrote careers heavily mirroring each other but where their achievements truly overlap is off the field; what they both accomplished for their cities and their sports is immeasurable.
While basketball had clawed its way out of its 1970’s irrelevancy, injected with excitement and purpose by Jordan’s predecessors, it was still superfluous in Chicago.
With nationally famous baseball, football and hockey teams, the Bulls were batting uphill for local attention and league supremacy, having never been to the finals in 17 years prior to Jordan’s arrival.
New life in apathetic cities
All that changed when Jordan showed up, breathing life into Chicago basketball and drawing fans back to the NBA both nationally and globally.
Slater hasn’t had the same international success as Jordan but what he’s helped build in Melbourne, a city with a once-steely distaste for rugby league, is unquestionable.
While his teammates Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk may have the honours and statistics, Slater’s electrifying excitement has turned the Victorian public to league in a way perhaps even Rupert Murdoch thought not possible.
In week one of this year’s finals, with three games played in Sydney and one in Melbourne, the Storm comfortably enjoyed the largest of the four crowds, at 22,626.
It marks a season in which Melbourne’s home attendance is the second-best in the NRL, no mean feat given the weekly presence of AFL in the city.
Is the NRL truly a national competition? Not yet, but one day, when it is, Slater can be pointed to as one of the first to get the ball rolling in turning the AFL states towards the excitement of league.
It is an incredible ripple effect for a career sure to last long after the final whistle blows on Sunday, should it also be marking the end of Slater’s career.
Just a few spots are reserved for the pioneers of a sport’s burgeoning popularity, and Slater and Jordan have most certainly booked theirs, throughout two careers that are similar in more ways than one.
If this is to be it, then thank you, Billy Slater, for all you’ve done for rugby league.
What are your best or favourite moments from Billy Slater’s career so far? Let us know in the comments below.
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