Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Don't Look at My Finger, Look at the Moon

When I was younger I was not a fan of Michael Jordan. Back then I didn't really appreciate basketball the way I do now, the otherworldly athleticism and talent and dedication and beauty that comprises the pro game. There was more to it than that, though, because when I did focus on the NBA, I disliked Jordan, actively and routinely. Bear in mind too that this was when the Jordan/Bulls crested as a player and a team, during the mid-late nineties, so in all truth there were only infinitesimally small flaws to find. Even granted all that, though, I hated Jordan and never liked watching him play; hated his little dainty hand poses and first-step travels and anything else I could critique. I wasn't alone, either, and I can remember Rick Reilly penning an especially hateful column lambasting Jordan and the Bulls and Chicago fans (though for the life of me I can't find it online), and finding still more people who agreed with me, especially if their replica jerseys weren't red and black.

That's a pretty common thing, the pinnacle of one sport being hated by their rivals. But there's something corollary to that I've noticed and wanted to talk about: the indifference by modern media to that peak. And I mean this point very esoterically, because all my evidence is anecdotal and I'm sure a google search will clarify that the numbers skew even. So here goes:

It seems to me that most of our attention is devoted to players who have potential to be great, or who are on the descending side of their mountain. Meaning the periods of time where that player is among the all-time elite, where that player is doing things no one ever has, no one's interested in talking about them. It's (the ascent and decline) easy to talk about, I know. It's also more interesting to speculate than it is to give slightly differing opinions on what's already happened. Those two guys over in that bar probably have seen the exact same footage as each other, but one will tell you Ali was the greatest to ever dance in the squared circle, and the other will yell about how Frazier essentially went 3-0 against old Clay. It's the sort of opinion that gets compared to assholes. What-Ifs, though, are different. You get to imagine what would have happened if Wade and Caron shared the same backcourt, if Simms were drafted to the Niners instead of Montana, if Gibson played integrated ball, if Babe stayed a Sox. That's fun. Those two guys will bleed your ear with the numbers Williams would have put up if he never went to war.

I want to pay more attention to those few moments that really matter than I do hoping more monents will come. Because it's really easy to come back and punch up the numbers and go "yep, turns out there was never a better 4 than Tim Duncan," or, "finally, Federer lost the top ranking." That shit's easy. What's harder to do is appreciate greatness in its own time.

This, of course, is in no way specific to sports. Rolling Stone hated Led Zeppelin, and so forth. Perhaps there's a general laziness w/r/t intertia in the casual fan or sportswriter; show me the all-time numbers and we'll talk, or no one will listen to this crap, in another way of speaking. Or we just get to fetishize stuff we loved as younger version of ourselves, attaching with solemnity our allegiances to players and focusing our fandom with them at its center, thus hazing the next generation with impossible-to-top standards. I'll be the first to realize I grew up watching Griffey and defend him to this day as a top 10 all-time player so vociferously that it's clear my childhood passions are inflamed, rather than a rational sports conversation. But that hasn't stopped me from finding new players and recognizing genius when it steps on the field. Nor, I posit, should it hold back any of you.

What prompted this essay was a recent tweet by the FreeDarko guys about how they love watching Rondo play. And it occurred to me that recently I have read many pieces about Rondo, and his uniqueness and effectiveness over the last year and these playoffs. I am not doubting for a moment that Rondo is a baller, because he is. He's a player. But he's no Dwyane Wade. Not even for a second. And this season, while leading the league in points and averaging more assists than LeBron and having more blocks than anyone his height EVER HAS, Wade's been playing at what we have to assume are the physical limits of a basketball player/human being. Yet, outside of a mid-season SI piece, I haven't seen anything lauding Wade with the type of ridiculousness he's deserved; that praise has been handed to those douchey USC linebackers. Maybe that's a football-saturation problem, though the draft is a big deal in basketball, too.

We're all anxious to see what will happen.

So here's the real problem - we don't see what we've been waiting for when it happens because we're so consumed with what's about to happen. Put another way: Rondo maybe in 5 years develops the type of complete game that Wade has right at this very moment. Sanchez will probably never make that Pro-Bowl Peyton puts on his calendar every year. Or if we do come around to recognizing players, it's SI's mostly fawning piece on the Kid or the soon-to-be-written Tim Duncan appreciation posts that remind us how excellent he was. That's not good enough.

This hasn't been too focused on baseball, I know. It's almost harder than the other big two, because baseball's draft is small and the path tends longer to the MLB than the other two (or at least the process is quieter), and also in no small part because of the numerology that the words "All Time" creates. You can't just say in any serious baseball circle that you think Griffey is one of the all time greats, because his career average is hovering around .280 and his power numbers dropped and etc. But there was a year in 1996 when Junior played baseball as well as anyone in the history of the sport ever has. And I'm glad I was paying attention.

What shifted the waters for me most memorably was this benchmark NY Times article David Foster Wallace wrote about Roger Federer. It's a magnificent dissection of a world class talent at the absolute height of his game, and for me it was important enough so that I not only have been a fan of Roger's since, I have also now been casually following tennis - a sport I never watched even once - for the same period of time. It's a tribute to the late DFW's genius, to be sure, but it's also a compliment to Federer. When a player at that level bores the media with his dominance, then maybe, just maybe, we ought to demand more from our media. Or from ourselves as fans.

It's one thing to accept, however grudgingly, that player X on the other team is good. What this is about, and what I've been trying to say is that it's a far, far better thing to really appreciate that game for what it is. To not give a damn that you're born and raised in Chicago when you watch Pujols in those rectangular boxes, because sweet god he's one of the best to ever swing a bat.

That's part of the core of what JnM is about: We're for the breaking of false allegiances for the forging of worthy ones - stop rooting for the Rockies because you were born in Grand Junction, you should root for the Giants because... well, bad example. Root for a team because you like watching them play, you have a few favorite players with a shared jersey. Don't ignore Adrian Peterson because you wear cheese to football games. Don't dismiss King Felix because you're not from the pacific northwest.

These flashes of physical genius don't sustain themselves for very long, so let's make sure we're looking at the right thing.


Will said...

Is this why no one cares about Roy Halladay? He's just too good right now to recognize? I fully agree with your premise, however there are a myriad of other factors that cannot be excluded from the conversation.

George W. Bush picked the Doc as the player with whom he would start a team with, and it was laughed aside because GWB is an idiot. Context matters. If Barack Obama comes out and says Roy Halladay is an American Icon, the Yankees or Red Sox would purchase the Toronto franchise to get them (I jest, a little bit).

The Backwards K said...

That's exactly what I was getting at. Certainly Halladay is on the short end of a few of those other factors you mentioned - the fact that he plays in Toronto, for example - that no doubt hurt his media attention factor

I do think you're right, though. Halladay definitely fits the mold of what I'm talking about here.

Bethlehem Shoals said...

1. Wade was talked about by pretty much everyone who cares about basketball as a legit MVP candidate having the best season of his career.

2. If you're saying Wade is as weird as Rondo, that's just not true.

3. Of course Wade is better and more important.

4. The "shock of the new" moment for myself, and a lot of others, with Wade came during the Olympics this past summer.

The Backwards K said...

To be clear, I never meant to say you guys specifically were ignoring or shunning Wade, I was just struck by how much attention (again, not just from FD) is paid to Rondo. My beef is more with the SIs and other major media publications, I know your focus is much different than the major sports media outlets. Point by point below

1. True, but it was usually in relation to ESPN clips of him hitting a game winner, it was never a full-on article or segment or whatever else. A half segment of "Who's the MVP?" with Wade being mentioned isn't enough.

2. Definitely not saying that

3. Yes, which is the primary crux

4. My general point is that sustained excellence is notable. The ascension of Wade at the Olympics shouldn't - to me - make the season he put forth old hat.

David said...

I'm coming a little late to this thread, having just found this site from FD via Boxiana, but while the debate touches on the (formerly) sublime skills of Federer on the tennis court, we should also not forget the perfection that Pete Sampras brought to the game. Playing in an era where booming serves and lightning fast courts were the order of the day, he was just better than anyone else. His straight sets win over Andre Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon Final is my own personal touchstone. Agassi was at the height of his great comeback, but Sampras played tennis that was beyond comprehension, and won in straight sets. Dazzling. Like the Pacman's destruction of the Hitman, it's not supposed to happen like that. But it did, it happene. Ascension.

What happens when immortal talent returns to mortality will be interesting to see in Federer's case. Jordan left a winner with the Bulls (the Washington years were a footnote). Sampras bowed out with his 14th Slam at the US Open. How will Federer respond?

Obscenity Bat said...

So, Wade, despite getting more first-place votes, actually came in third in the MVP vote behind Bryant. Hmm...

Wade: 30.2 pts, 5.0 rebs, 7.5 asts, 2.2 stls, 1.3 blks, 49% fg

Bryant: 26.8 pts, 5.2 rebs, 4.9 asts, 1.5 stls, 0.5 blks, 47% fg

Not enough for Wade?

Heat wins, 07-08: 15
Heat wins, 08-09: 43 (+28)

Laker wins, 07-08: 57
Laker wins, 08-09: 65 (+8)

Still not enough?

Seven-foot teammates: Bryant 2, Wade 0 (Mark Blount doesn't count)

Hall of Fame coach: Bryant 1, Wade 0

Rookie starters: Bryant 0, Wade 2

Number of appearances in ESPN's Top Ten Best Games for 08-09: Bryant 1 (#9), Wade 4 (#2, 4, 6, 8).

Etc., etc.

(It's also total garbage that Lebron finished second in Def. POY when Wade finished with more steals AND blocks.)