Both Sides of Forever

Disclaimer: I wrote this for Sporting News, but then it turned out someone had already written a similar then/now column yesterday. Without all the FD tinges, of course. So I'm posting this here, with some mightily rushed photo selection, because I think it has some nice lines and is worth arguing about.

We've all known for months that a Celtics/Lakers finals would set off an inexorable wave of nostalgia. Not only are these the league's two best teams—they're among its most storied franchises. Renewing this rivalry reaches far back into history, rousing the interest of fans who might long ago have given up on today's NBA. That's exactly what David Stern is counting on: Evoking the golden age(s) so much that it rubs off on 2008.

But there is a potential downside here. What if, between all the dusted-off highlight reels from 1985 and interviews with every Celtic ever, nostalgia overtakes the here and now? That's when you get everyone over the age of 25 wishing that Bird, not Garnett, still roamed the court; that Magic, not Kobe, were the pride of the Lakers. The argument being, of course, that the game was just plain better then, and today's teams couldn't hold a candle to yesterday's greats.

The 1960's and 1980's (we'll leave the seedy 1970's out of the discussion) may well have had tougher, savvier, smarter players who perfected distinct roles on a team. Scorers scored, point guards passed, rebounders rebounded, shooters shot. And in the days before rampant expansion—or truly empowered free agency—the Showtime Lakers or Bird/Parish/McHale Celts had a depth that's pretty much unattainable now.

But that was also when "smooth muscle" was the standard build, and the phrase "jump out of the gym" was a myth, not a scouting report. Before anyone could've imagined that, when rookie guard Magic Johnson played center in the 1980 Finals, he was inventing a new model for versatility—not proving he was the Babe Ruth of his sport. Watch the footage of when Jordan first came into the league. Or when forerunners Dr. J and David Thompson were in their prime. Plain and simple, they were absolutely unguardable. That is, unless the opponent threw most of its players at them and skirted a fine line between defense and aggravated assault. Today, dynamic leapers like Trevor Ariza area dime a dozen.

This debate is nothing new. Questions of when the league went sour, who was responsible, and how degraded the purity of the game has gotten are the great cliches of this century's NBA chatter. People keep waiting for the league to come back; the question is, could it ever return to the form they want from it?

During these playoffs, Brand Jordan has aired (somewhat perplexing) ads in which MJ himself insists that he didn't destroy the game, those who misunderstood him did. Jordan wants us to acknowledge his discipline, endless workouts, and winner's attitude. But he also made the above the rim game mainstream, to the point where the now-mature Kobe Bryant throws down tomahawks and three-sixties just to get inside opponents' heads. Just as Jordan, Erving, and Thompson pointed toward the future, Magic Johnson's ability to play any position paved the way for the likes of Garnett, Odom, and to a lesser degree, Gasol, whose agility and passing bely his 7' frame. But while Magic was an utter singularity, in this series alone you have three players who present non-stop match-up problems.

Baseball fans often marvel at the timeless nature of the sport. Whether or not this perception is accurate, there's certainly something romantic about an unbroken line that stretches from Ty Cobb to Ichiro. Integration, drugs, and modern medicine notwithstanding.

The NBA has never been that way. The game Naismith presented to his pupils would be almost unrecognizable to us. Someone had to dream up the shot clock, invent the jumper, and come up with small ball. Each generation defines the game as its own. That's not to say there's no continuity. But comparing epochs isn't a question of objective truth. It's taste, plain and simple.

Hopefully, the return of Celtics/Lakers won't further elevate the standing of the NBA's past. Instead, it can bring it out for an honest comparison. That way, we can appreciate what's changed and what hasn't, how today's Celtics and Lakers are both part of the tradition and writing their own rules. If we can keep insisting that the sport can only redeem itself by mimicking the past, we'll miss out when it is worth watching. And, in a way, to a dishonor to the past we're so hopelessly smitten with.



At 6/03/2008 2:43 PM, Blogger Sean C. said...

Good stuff.

At 6/03/2008 3:25 PM, Blogger Caleb Tyler Adam said...

I may be showing my [young] age by saying this, but doesn't it kind of bug you when people claim that "no one plays any defense anymore?" Watch games from the 80s. The post is wide open, there's no defensive motion, no weakside help (or any help for that matter). A lot of 1980s defenses that I've seen (on DVDs and ESPN Classic) look just plain sluggish and uninterested to me. Is this because of the illegality of the zone? Or was everyone really that much slower back then?

At 6/03/2008 4:59 PM, Blogger The wondering Mind said...

I don’t know about you but there is nothing in those old grainy videos that I want to return to ( I mean I will watch Tom and Jerry on TV if I have to but it is no “the incredibles” that is for sure). The truth is the L only needs more balance, the 2007/2008 western conference every year will cure any imagined or real disinterest from the “casual fan”.
We can’t have the Knicks, Bucks, Bobcats, Grizzlies, Sonics, Wolves, ETC falling twenty games under .500 by December every year. It is bad for the teams in question, it is bad for the casual fan, and it is bad for the L. Get one Isaiah Thomas in your life time and your team could be sucky until your kids graduate from college, where is the fun in that (Do you know how long it took the Knicks to pay Allen Houston’s anchor of a contract?).
I love dunks, and crossover dribbles and no look passes and alley oops but mostly I like to watch evenly matched games not forgone conclusions. If you know the spurs will always win and that Atlanta will struggle there is no mystery, no suspense, nothing to make you skip that latest blind date and instead find a nice spot on the couch, a stogie and the remote. Too many teams, too many bad managers, too many bad contracts (who the hell give Dampier a seven year contract anyway?) and not enough Kobes, Lebrons and CP3s to make up the difference that is what is wrong with the L today.

At 6/03/2008 5:08 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Maybe over the summer, we should have a fake contraction draft.

At 6/03/2008 6:06 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Would there be a lottery?

At 6/03/2008 6:13 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

To determine what teams get cut?

At 6/03/2008 7:15 PM, Blogger Kareem said...

We could have a three tier set up. Relegation: the first recipient is the Miami Heat, 2006 NBA Champions... You thought that players tried hard during their contract years? Imagine the frantic motivation of a franchise on the precipice of a precipitous drop off in finances and ratings!

In all seriousness, I never give this argument that much argument. I know nostalgia gets a lot of play in many circles--not here. I've heard plenty of things about Wilt, Kareem, even Hakeem, but I know Shaquille Oneal dominated a decade of my consciousness. Prime years too. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Iverson these all are players I've come to know, and they define the NBA and basketball that I've known.

As often as I watch those old videos of the 'golden' days, I'm still tied and will always remain rooted in today. The times don't even compare, the style doesn't even compare. Not because one is right or wrong, neither are. As basketball fans we are only relevant as long as we adapt to the "new" way. Having established all this, I really wish they would improve the shit condition of refereeing in our league. K.

At 6/03/2008 7:20 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins said...

"but doesn't it kind of bug you when people claim that "no one plays any defense anymore?"

It used to bug me, but I came to realize that complaints about modern basketball, especially modern NBA, is a good way to judge a person's stupidity.

You can basically throw people who mention the following in complaints about today's professional basketball players in the "stupid" and/or "full of shit" columns:
*lack fundamentals
*don't play defense
*lack passion/love for the game

At 6/03/2008 8:22 PM, Blogger Jason said...

No, a lottery for the high picks, like in the regular draft. And presumably you'd want to go by more than just recent standings; contracting the Knicks doesn't seem like the answer to the League of Stars' supposed woes.

I thought it would be a fun exercise, but looking at the standings, contracting the bottom two teams gets you, what? Wade, 19-year-old Durant and 30-year-old Matrix on new bad temas. Admittedly, Al Jefferson and D-Wade sounds like a pretty compelling team, but I don't think even KD and Matrix together would help Memphis.

Interesting that three of the four lowest win totals are in the West.

I'm not convinced that talent dilution is actually much of a problem after probably the most competitive regular season ever.

At 6/03/2008 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jason- agreed. In the words of William Gibson, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."

At 6/04/2008 1:30 AM, Blogger Err Bloc Tuck said...

I think the estrangement of the "casual fan" from basketball might have something to do with the proliferation of other sports/ entertainment/ the internet. Not to sound like too old, but when I was in high school soccer was not a school sport. Hell, hockey wasn't a school sport. We had baseball and football and basketball (and track, but that doesn't count). Of course people loved those games. And as those same people now don't watch basketball because there are so many other options (and there's been an ongoing branding issue), when a committed fan asks why the answer isn't going to be "I just love Rock of Love too much to bother watching a game that brings me no social capital around the cooler at work;" no, it will be something that deflects the (assumed) blame to the sport itself: "thuggery," no defense, playground, etc (I hate to say "other euphemisms for black" but...). I guess I would also think there is something to the blurring of gender definitions as defined by what one consumes entertainment-wise, but I'll let you good people get on with your days.

At 6/04/2008 6:57 AM, Blogger padraig said...

I dunno, I think basketball, in terms of the cultural values people assign to it, is like music, far more so than any other sport. it doesn't hold the same pop culture cachet but for reasons I don't pretend to fully understand (the same elusive reasons which, I expect, power a large portion of the FD engine) it seems to be capable of changing to evoke the zeitgeist of different eras. other sports change as well but baseball & football, the other two capable of affecting the American psyche on a rather large scale, are both much more locked into what defines them - for football of course the legimitized violence & for baseball both the American dream in an apple pie/white picket fence mold & it's air of mystery/inscrutability. basketball though, has changed radically - as shoals & others noted, today's game has very little to do w/that envisioned by Dr. Naismith. not just in the way it's played but in the way people relate to it. a lot of fans, I'm guessing, relate to the defining players of their youth the same way they do the music. when I hear people make the lazy/selfish/no fundamentals/game was better then arguments it sounds an awful lot like Boomers complaining that their music was better/more valid or like 29-yr old bitter heads complaining that hip hop has sucked since 88/92/94/97. it happens w/every generation. of course, none of those assertions are true. music & basketball are both so large that neither are of them are ever "good" or "bad", they're beyond that dichotomy. there's also a major point in here about both basketball and American popular music having been defined/dominated by black men for the last 50 years or so but I'm not going to try to tease out exactly what it is. anyway, packaging nostalgia and reselling it is a major business - people in their 30s/40s have $ that kids don't & everyone always wants to relive their youth. it's happening right now in the UK for exampe w/the 20th anniversary of the acid house explosion.


Post a Comment

<< Home