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.