Sports Outside the Beltway

Sports Legends Fade Over Time

Bill Simmons has an interesting piece in ESPN The Magazine this week asking, “Does greatness have a shelf life?”

He grew up a Celtics fan watching John Havlicek but realized during a recent television replay that he’d forgotten just how good Hondo was. He thinks this is a common phenomenon.

One of my favorite books is Wait Till Next Year, in which a sports columnist (Mike Lupica) and a Hollywood screenwriter (William Goldman) trade chapters about a particularly crazy year in New York sports. Writing as a fan, Goldman submits an impassioned defense of Wilt Chamberlain’s legacy, called “To the Death,” which is one of my favorite pieces. He argues that great athletes fade from memory not because they’re surpassed by better ones but because either we forget about them or our memories are tainted by things that have nothing to do with their career (like Bill Russell’s being a lousy announcer, or OJ’s being an, um, lousy ex-husband). Goldman writes, “the greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It’s gradual. It begins before you’re aware that it’s begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death.”

This piece was published in 1988, when Bird and Magic were at the height of their powers and Jordan was nearing the same tipping point LeBron reached in Detroit. Already saddened that we’d be poking holes in them some day, Goldman predicted, “Bird and Magic’s time is coming. It’s easy being fans of theirs now. Just wait. Give it a decade.” Then he wrote an entire mock paragraph of fans picking apart their games in the year 2000, complaining that Magic couldn’t guard anyone and Bird was too slow. He ended with this mock quote: “Sure (Bird) was good, and so was Magic — but they couldn’t play today.” I remember reading that piece in college and thinking, Come on, that’s ludicrous. Nobody will ever forget Bird and Magic! Those guys saved the NBA!

Well, you know what? It’s 2007, and no one gives a crap about Bird and Magic anymore. Goldman was right. The phenomenon was in full swing after 48 Special — again, a magnificent event, but one that paled in comparison with a 20-year-old Magic jumping center in Philly, slapping up a 42/15/7, playing five positions and leading the Lakers to the 1980 title. Imagine if something like that happened today? There would be pieces of Skip Bayless’ head scattered across the entire city of Bristol.

So why do we pump up the present at the expense of the past? Goldman believed that every era is “so arrogant (and) so dismissive,” and again he was right, although that arrogance/dismissiveness isn’t entirely intentional. 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, even something as ingrained as “My favorite basketball team employed one of the best 20 players ever when I was a little kid.” Once upon a time, the Boston Garden fans cheered Hondo for 510 seconds. And I was there, in the building.

But that’s the funny thing about noise: Eventually, it stops.

I think that’s right. Aside from Jim Brown, who has a legendary status because he retired at his peak, it’s hard to think of a great athlete from the distant past who we consider the best of the best.

Most of us now think of Babe Ruth as a fat guy who couldn’t play with today’s athletes.

The list of great quarterbacks seldom includes anyone who played before Joe Montana. Terry Bradshaw? Roger Staubach? Who were they? And goodness knows we seldom hear mention of anyone who excelled before there were Super Bowls.

Who’s the greatest basketball player ever? Michael Jordan seems to be the consensus pick. Still, there’s hardly anyone from the distant past even in the discussion other than maybe Wilt Chamberlain.

Sports glory is fleeting.

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