Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Shelf Life Of Greatness

Really interesting Sports Guy piece here, about the perishability of "greatness" in sports.

While I don't completely agree all of his conclusions, the idea that we quickly forget the greats of the past and downgrade them in comparison with those of the present (and even the future) is absolutely true.

At least in basketball.

His examples are all concerning basketball, and this is certainly the sport in which the idea resonates most clearly. An example was in the Tribune just yesterday, as Sam Smith ranked (I know, but it's relevant and recent) the greatest NBA dynasties.

#1 on the list was the Celtics of the '50s & '60s, if only because how can you ignore 8 in a row and 11 of 13? The twist of the knife comes in the blurb, "Perhaps they didn't have the best players ever because the league then was so small and so white. But they dominated like no team ever."

So, Simmons' point about John Havlicek's forgotten greatness is explained by what, his ... whiteness, Sam?

#4 on the list was the Minneapolis Lakers of the early '50s, dismissed by Smith in this way, "They make the list for sheer domination in their era. Who knows if any but George Mikan even could make a team today?"

I guess that's the issue in a nutshell. The thing about basketball (in comparison certainly to baseball) is that it is a game of creativity as well as (and sometimes as much as) athleticism.

As with any creative enterprise, basketball is conditioned by its environment. Music in 2007 is not the same as music in 1951 because of the incremental changes that have built upon previous incremental changes (as well as the odd creative leaps). To say that someone making music in 1951 wasn't making the same music as someone in 2007 is not the same as saying that they couldn't make the same music. The context has changed.

Likewise with basketball, the context has changed. Players didn't do a lot of things in 1951 that we take for granted now. Partially that is because they are bigger and stronger and better fed (as is the entire population), partially that is because they are better trained (based on better knowledge about, appreciation of, and money devoted to better training), and partially that is because the things players do now have grown out of the things players have created in the intervening 56 years.

In other words, players didn't do a lot of things in 1951 that we take for granted now, partially because they didn't know they could. Because no one had ever done them before.

This, of course, is exactly what defines the greatness of a Pete Maravich or a Julius Erving -- greatness in spite of the lack of statistical backup for that greatness. Their way of playing wrenched the whole game forward (usually kicking and screaming) through a paradigm shift.

Vern Mikkelsen played in six NBA All-Star games in seven years for the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s. He was born in 1928, meaning that his formative years were in the Depression, where nutrition could be scarce, yet he grew to be 6'7" and 230 pounds in his playing days. Now if Sam Smith is saying "if you magically transported the Vern Mikkelsen of 1951 and placed him down in 2007, he wouldn't be able to make a team in the NBA," I'd say he's wrong.

If Sam Smith is saying "if you magically transported Vern Mikkelsen such that he was born in 1984, and that having been subject to all of the training and nutrition improvements of the intervening 56 years, and that having grown up watching Julius Erving and Ervin Johnson and Larry Bird and all the other players of roughly his size doing amazing things he still wouldn't be able to make a team in the NBA," then of course I'd say he's completely full of shit.

Anyway, Simmons' conclusion about why this historical dismissal happens is:
We'd like to believe that our current stars are better than the guys we once watched.

Why? Because the single best thing about sports is the unknown. It's much more fun to think about what could happen than about what already has. We don't want LeBron to be as good as MJ; we need him to be better than MJ. We already did the MJ thing. Who wants to rent the same movie twice? We want LeBron to take us to a place we've never been. It's the same reason we convince ourselves that Shaq is better than Wilt and Steve Nash is better than Bob Cousy. We don't know these things for sure. We just want them to be true.

There's a much simpler reason that we're incapable of fully appreciating the past. As the Havlicek broadcast proved to me, it's easy to forget anything if you stop thinking about it long enough ...
He's got two reasons for the historical myopia there, one somewhat complex, one simple.

I'll take the simple one. Stop thinking about how great John Havlicek was, or the 1951 Minneapolis Lakers were, and they stop being great.

And if you do think about them at all, go ahead and remove them from their context, and then you can go ahead and tell us how really awful they actually were.


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