Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Comparing Players Isn't Just Lazy, It's Shortsighted


Sports debates are a great reason why we love the game. I love hearing different opinions and why/how somebody believes what they do.

I used to love doing it. At least for me, I’d try to know enough about the past to make my comparisons valid. When LeBron first starting getting notoriety when I was in high school, I saw Magic Johnson’s passing with the body of an NFL tight end. I saw a remarkable athlete who had the impact to make people better.

The more I watch sports, the more I think the rush to compare somebody to someone has ruined the coolness of watching things unfold. Nobody can do anything without us looking for rank or judge it.

But why do we do it? Is it solely to remind us how great the past greats were? Is it to put the present in its proper context to combat prisoners of the moment? Is it to denigrate the present as not worthy?

I just think it’s a waste of time especially when the comparisons are so lazy. This goes back to what I addressed back in February but I'm going to take it a step further now.

Comparing doesn’t allow us to appreciate. Comparing always has look to the past instead of live in the present. Comparing doesn’t allow someone to be judged on their own merit or career. They’re always in the shadow of a ghost they can never defeat.


I know this having lived in the heart of the Kobe vs. Michael debate most of my adult life. That’s why I’m glad I unplugged from it when I did and I’m not falling for it with LeBron James.

Newsflash. There won’t be another Jordan. Another Magic Johnson. Another Kareem. Another Bird. Another Russell. You know why? Cause everybody’s unique in their own way. Every era is also different. So once you realize that in sports, you have to reframe the conversation. How you ask? Judge folks by their peers or their own merit. Simple.

You compare anybody to the greats and they fall short. You dare mention somebody is worthy of being an all-time great? It’s asking for flying daggers in return. Especially for folks in the hallowed cult of Jordanism – where nobody can dare stand with No. 23 or in his sphere.

So instead of falling in line, stop drinking the Kool-Aid and see the greatness in front of you. Instead of seeing a great player for what they aren’t, see them for what they are. See them in the context of their time before you take them out of it. Also, learn to appreciate the past and embrace the full history of the sport without just comparing to a few big names we know.

Too often, we associate greatness with our emotional attachment to it. I’ll add that it’s understandable why we do it. We just have to step back from it and find a way to see the present/future not as a threat but as worthy in it’s own way to be great.

Case in point, I happened to say on Twitter that LeBron James in 2013 is better than Kobe Bryant in 2013. Not career wise, just saying skill wise. I had Lakers fans coming at me like I wasn’t one of them or hadn’t seen Bean since he was a teenager taking Brandy to the prom in 1996.

2nd case: People believe that Kobe Bryant’s 81 points was more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. Yes, Kobe did it with more variety than Wilt but since guys are barely cracking 50 these days, we might want to give Wilt more credit.

It’s funny how this seems to happen more in basketball than any sport. In football or baseball, sports with longer history, you rarely hear that kind of talk become the dominant line of thinking.

Imagine film critics who watch the best films of the last 5 years and keep saying “Yeah but it’s no Pulp Fiction, Godfather, Citizen Kane or E.T. [or insert any movie from AFI’s Top 100 list].”

http://www.warriorsworld.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Kareem-Wilt.jpg http://sinbapointforward.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/bill-russell-michael-jordan.jpg?w=600&h=466 http://dougmerlino.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/magic-and-bird-II.jpghttp://i.cdn.turner.com/dr/nba/teamsites-nbateams/release/lakers/sites/lakers/files/imagecache/lakers_standard/west_bigo_650_110906.jpg
Past generations had Wilt, Kareem, Russell, Michael, Larry Bird, Magic, West, Oscar Robertson and more. And they'd be the first to tell you that while they loved their era, they still enjoy what's before them.

All I say is appreciate LeBron James.  You don’t have to like him or root for him. I didn’t like Michael Jordan growing up. I hated the fact the Bulls always won. But looking back, I appreciate that I got to watch Jordan and respect the dominance of those Bulls teams. I feel the same for LeBron and his NBA resume after 10 years.

Appreciate Kevin Durant. Appreciate Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and the many younger players we’re blessed to see. Their stories are still being written so let it be told.

Appreciate the old veterans like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett and the last chapter of greatness they’ll give us before they retire to immortality.

But don’t let the past keep you from appreciating the present. Don’t let your biases cloud you from realizing that LeBron had one of the finest individual seasons in a while or that Kobe/Duncan defied Father Time with some of their best efforts in years.

Comparisons are a part of sports. But we’re also privileged as fans to be in the present. To have our own stories to pass down to future generations. To respect the past before us and learn about how it shaped today. That’s why I love sports and I’ll love it more without forcing what I see to measure up to a ghost.

Bill Russell gets the final word with some truth on the matter. Good enough for him, good for me. 

"I have this theory that it's impossible to play against ghosts -- past, present or future. That kind of discussion is for non-participants. It's like video games. Whenever someone would ask me how I would play against this guy or that guy, I always thought that it was like playing against ghosts. Past, present and future and I never get into that discussion. You can only play against your contemporaries.
"Basketball -- out of all of the sports -- is the most evolving. Whoever the best player is, that's how the game is played for a generation.
"You never hear the name George Mikan being discussed. But George Mikan won five championships in six years and where does that put him among the all-time greatest players? You can't do it because the game is always changing. The game is dictated by centers. You had Mikan, Wilt, Kareem. Then you build off that with the forwards, Elgin, Larry Bird. Then there is Michael and the guards.
"Each era produces a style of play. For someone to say this style of play is better than this style of play, that person doesn't know what they are talking about. So, I never get into that discussion."

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