Scream All Day
This will totally shock all of you: The still-untitled FreeDarko Book 2 will at one point address some "could've been" players. I had called them "what if's," but not only does that encompass much more, it also overlaps with the Simmons tome—one of my great anxieties about the project. The last thing I want to do is look like I'm ripping off another colorful NBA history book that came out one year before ours.
Last night, as I inexplicably watched the World Series over Lakers/Hawks, I struggled to come up with the perfect characterization of that kind of player. Then it turned into a model, so I decided to scrap it and make it a blog post, not in the least because it could use some copious reader input. I think they call it open source, or cheating. First, though, some glimmers from the NBA I caught last night: I fear the Lakers will win it all with Bynum as rampaging dinosaur and Artest and Odom used as unimaginatively as possible. The Blazers really bum me out, especially Aldridge. Blatche is the original Anthony Randolph. Stop comparing Oscar Robertson to LeBron, Robertson was a better mid-period Kidd with scoring genes (that was all Ziller). Ozzie Guillen's pre-game commentary shows you why Kevin Garnett will never be part of a studio crew.
But back to the problem that really bugged me. We all know that there exist players we say "if only" about. For one, there's two kind: Those that drive us insane when they're around, and assume the glow of exceptionalism once they've retired. That's due in large part to the fact that 99.99999% of these players have problems with injuries, which we've learned to hate the victim for, or fuck up personally, which just gets really old really fast (at least if you're trying to argue for their hypothetical place among the game's elite). Beyond that, there's the more complicated matter of what kind of legacy we're going off of. What I haven't figure out yet is whether, in the end, we view all these types the same way—many paths to the same honorary status—or the kind of career a player manages to have in fact decides how real, extravagant, or wishful our projections for them end up being. I also really want someone to tell me if certain of these scenarios are more common to one sport, or position, than others.
After much handwringing and chatting, I arrived at the following four categories, which for now lack snappy names:
1. Guys who, when all is said and done, somehow convince us they'd had an actual career. This one is startlingly subjective: Sandy Koufax, Gale Sayers, and Bill Walton all belong here even though each had a very different arc as a player. Maybe "non-player" is more appropriate. This is kind who make the Hall of Fame without anyone making a fuss.
2. One step below that, we have players who strung together several seasons of stardom, but either not to a degree, or without enough distinction, to elevate them to the top category. Sometimes, it's just a matter of us being unable to get over how incomplete their place in history seems; they're a strange mix of conjecture and actuality that's its own kind of purgatory. I put Pete Reiser and Maurice Stokes here; Stokes is HOF but it's largely sentimental.
3. Total flashes-in-the-pan, one-year wonders who sustain nothing but suggest multitudes. Herb Score goes here, as does Mark Prior. These are the real darlings of the "could've been" fetishists, at least those with the most preposterously Romantic streaks; that because Category #2 is generally classified as "tragic."
4. Pure potential. Never really got a chance for those initial assessments to be proven wrong. Len Bias is the obvious, and most extreme, example here. Ernie Davis. Shaun Livingston probably fits, as well.
With that, I open up the floor for discussion. Add names, critique the framework, give a sport-specific analysis. It's like a Wiki with the head cut off. Or the tail, maybe.