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So here we are. Most of us are quarantined, those who are working are working under vastly different circumstances than normal and “social distancing” (a term none of us had heard of just a few months ago) is the new way of things.
Along with that, consequently, is a complete lack of sports. Not the greatest thing for a sports fan. The worst possible thing for a group of sports writers trying to generate content.
It is from these doldrums that I and others like me find ourselves in a perpetual cycle of hypothetical sports debates. Without new sports to pass the time, we come up with increasingly absurd topics of debate to scratch that sports itch.
My social media is full of it, as I’m sure many of yours are. Countless “start, bench, cut” hypotheticals, debates about the greatest sports movies of all time. On and on it goes.
One particular hypothetical has come to my attention recently. It has been around forever but it is on a comeback tour given the barren sports landscape. It is at the same time my favorite and most hated form of sports debate, particularly centered around the NBA:
“The game is soft today, not like it was in the (insert decade here, likely 80’s or 90’s).”
You’ve all seen some version of that statement. Let’s be real, probably about half of you have made that statement.
Well, with the help of my own quarantine, a likely undiagnosed form of ADHD, some books on the game’s history, the internet and just way too much time on my hands, I’ve solved it for us all. The answer to which era of the league is basketball in its most perfect form.
What will follow is going to be a four part series that will answer the great generational debate, once and for all. Part two will be released tomorrow, part three the next day and then the final piece.
So if you’re up for it, take this odyssey with me. Just do so with full awareness that by the end, I may take the fun out of these debates for you forever.
So…sorry, I guess?
Part 1: Your Memory Isn’t Objective.
For the purposes of this, I’m going to primarily look at this NBA debate through comparisons of the modern game and the 1990s. I feel for the purposes of this I need to disclose my age (32) to hopefully get that elephant out of the room.
I fell in love with the game in the 1990s. I’m not old enough to speak with any authority on the careers of guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’m old enough to have seen distinctly different eras but not old enough to have seen about half of the Association’s existence.
Now, if you will bear with me, I’m going to get away from basketball for a bit.
Think back on something your mom used to make as a kid. Let’s say it was spaghetti and meatballs. Now, unless your mother was a horrendously bad cook (there are some out there to be sure), I would bet for most of you, that is your favorite spaghetti and meatballs. No other spaghetti and meatballs will ever quite compare to those that Mama used to make.
So it is with sports (and everything, really).
This is the somewhat crippling effect nostalgia can cause on our brains. We romanticize the past, as it is peppered by other memories. The consumption of sports as entertainment is a personally subjective experience. For many, things we encountered when we were younger just seem inherently better than those we encounter later in life.
Why, exactly would that be? The answers are myriad but ultimately they are all about context.
Here’s a personal example. I very vividly remember the 2002 NBA finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Jersey Nets. The Lakers won in a four game sweep and I recall enjoying every second of the basketball in that series.
But here’s the thing: that was an objectively bad series. The Nets were nowhere near the same league as the Lakers. At the time I could not stand Kobe Bryant (an opinion that would change over time). Shaquille O’Neal was too dominant to be entertaining.
So if it was so bad, why do I remember it so fondly?
Part of the reason is I was 16 years old. I didn’t have a single care in the world. I went to school, hung out with my friends, played basketball, chased girls. Life was easy, so it was easier to just enjoy basketball on T.V., even if it wasn’t good basketball.
Now at twice the age I was then, I can’t enjoy a basketball game the same way. Even when it is an objectively better game. I can watch LeBron James go head to head with Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and objectively know that what I’m watching is some of the best basketball I’ve seen in 28 years of watching the sport.
However, at the same time, I’m worrying about work tomorrow, bills that have to get paid, planning my wedding, did I take something out for dinner tomorrow, that new ache in my back that wasn’t there this morning. There’s too much noise in my own head to have the unadulterated (never has that word been more fitting) joy of basketball take my full attention.
That’s what we miss when we debate different eras. We can look up statistics or individual awards all the livelong day but what we miss is the context.
As one of my favorite authors Chuck Klosterman once wrote: “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself.”
This is why debating which era may be objectively better is ultimately a fool’s errand. The context peppers our memory of what actually happened. Tweaks it. Makes us see it through rose colored glasses.
Now if you’re a Chicago Bulls fan, of course the 1990s seem like the greatest era. It doesn’t matter if it objectively was or wasn’t. Your team was dominant and all was right with the world. If you’re a Knicks fan and are too young to remember the early 70s title teams, the 90s was the last time the Knicks were relevant, so you remember it as the league being better.
Those are two of the more obvious examples but other things about the 90s influence every fans memory of that decade. If your team wasn’t ever in the hunt in that era, other basketball signifiers tell your memory it must have been the zenith of the sport.
Jordan, the generally accepted Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), peaked in the 90s. There were other all time greats of the era, like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, John Stockton and others. The Dream Team, the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, happened in that era.
Those iconic basketball figures distort our view of the decade. Yes, those were all time great players. Yes the Dream Team was a phenomenon we will probably never see again. These things are all true. But that doesn’t make a Thursday night game in 1994 between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers good basketball.
It goes beyond what happened on or around basketball courts. The 90s was an era of prosperity for the nation as a whole. We easily achieved the foregone conclusion of victory in Desert Storm. The economy was flourishing during the Clinton administration. Things like terrorist threats, housing market collapses or global pandemics were not things we were worried about.
Our minds were clearer, things were good. Our brains try to remember the basketball as being that way, too.
Now the point of all this is not to say the 90s were bad in terms of basketball. They were in certain areas and in others they were great. What’s important to take from this is that our memories aren’t as reliable as we like to pretend they are. Our subjective experience of watching basketball was informed by things going on in our own lives, both at a macro and micro level. For the country, the macro level, the 90s was a good era and whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, it greatly influenced how your brain remembers what actually went on between the lines.
Here’s some tangible, basketball ways to wrap your head around this:
When we do our hypothetical sports topics, we love lists. Top ten of this, top five of that. So let’s look at the top five shooting guards in the game’s history:
First off, any list like this is really a debate for who is three, four and five. Numbers one and two are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and if you think otherwise, please hand in your basketball fan card.
*I know it is hypocritical to give such a hard line “fact” in an article arguing for the importance of subjective interpretations but when it comes to top five shooting guards, we all know its Jordan, Bryant and then everybody else. Moving on…*
We generally accept that Jordan is first, Bryant second. Consequently, that raises an unanswerable but interesting question: if Kobe Bryant had played before Michael Jordan, would we invert that order?
There are a lot of factors to consider. In many ways, Bryant was a Jordan clone, mirroring his moves to perfection. There are plenty of fantastic Youtube videos highlighting it. Without Jordan, there wouldn’t be a Kobe, to a certain extent. Of course, Bryant had many of his own moves, tweaks and unique style but always building off of a foundation of Jordan’s previous work.
Given what we know of Bryant’s talent, work ethic and intense desire to win, is it a stretch to imagine that he would have been unspeakably great without the Jordan blueprint? And if he had, and had he done it 10-15 years prior to Jordan, would we rank Bryant higher than him?
My gut instinct is yes because that’s how our brains generally work. Sure, Jordan finished with more championships but unless we’re willing to rank Bill Russell (11 championships) as the undisputed GOAT of all-time, we concede that the argument has to be more nuanced than a simple tally of jewelry.
For one final example, let’s look at Jordan against LeBron James.
When we get into GOAT conversations in this day and age it is generally solely between Jordan and James (which is egregiously disrespectful to one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the argument is generally split amongst age lines. Over 30? Jordan, no question. Under 30? More likely to argue LeBron.
Part of that is visceral experience. If you’re over 30 you probably experienced some version of Jordan, even if it was towards the end and his legacy had cemented in your brain before James ever took an NBA court. If you’re under that age line, you likely experienced James as the first megastar of your lifetime and no amount of Jordan stats or highlight reels will change your mind.
James gets criticized more than Jordan ever did. A large part of that is the difference in eras: James has played his whole career in the age of social media. We can pull up every second of every play he’s ever been a part of and easily find flaws. We have access to him that was unprecedented prior to his arrival. Jordan didn’t have to go through that to the same degree. His legacy has been filtered to Nike Ads and “This is where amazing happens” commercials that dilute his accolades to game winners and championship banners.
That’s not a critique of Jordan, who was of course, amazing. But it is a luxury he is afforded that James never will be.
James is also heavily criticized for needing “super teams,” which is an incredible case of revisionist history, ignoring teams of yesteryear that were loaded with All-Time talent. Apparently this was allowed if teams drafted well to get those types of players. James had the audacity to seek them out himself after Cleveland’s front office repeatedly failed to find them. Scandalous, I know.
More than anything though, James is criticized for having the unmitigated gall to not be Michael Jordan.
James will never win the GOAT argument in my lifetime. One day he will, when those who really saw Jordan are no longer around and he becomes a legendary if inaccessible past hero, much like Bill Russell. James will supplant him for the generation that grew up with him and they’ll be complaining about some new young superstar who committed the sin of not being LeBron James.
Although Jordan officially retired in 2003, (the same year James started), his legacy was pretty well cemented after the Bulls’ first three peat in 1993. He was already the GOAT, the second three peat just confirmed it.
James was a decade behind the eight ball when he entered. The mythological specter of Michael Jordan (which is not the same thing as Michael Jordan, the basketball player) had taken its iconoclast position in our brains. Ten years later, in 2013, James would secure his second NBA title, second finals MVP award and fourth regular season MVP award.
While he was doing all of that amazing stuff, Jordan’s image just continued to solidify itself in our memories for another ten years. James should have been closing the GOAT gap but if anything, it widened.
James, now 35, is unlikely to catch Jordan in titles or MVPs. He could very possibly pass Jordan in basically every statistical category. It won’t matter. He could win 10 titles and many would never bestow GOAT status upon him. Jordan did it in a time when their brains were literally more malleable. Now older and more rigid, their brains simply will not allow it.
The point of all this is to say that basketball is an entirely subjective experience, one we bring our own unconscious biases into. We won’t be swayed towards someone else’s subjective opinion easily. Sports writers in particular like to picture ourselves as the enlightened thinkers in basketball debates but we’re human, too.
Our memory is not a neutral arbitrator. It lies to us all the time.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, Thank You. I know this was a little highbrow for a basketball topic and I promise that the next three parts of this series will have more discussion of actual basketball.
If you’re still on board, come back tomorrow for part two where I will basically contradict most of what I just said. Because even though I am all about subjectivity, there are objective reasons why basketball today is better than it was 20 years ago and why the 90s was better than the 70s, so and so forth.
Don’t worry, I’ll bring proof.