January 28, 2010

So Great, Faux Great

I'm currently reading through a fantastic book by Bill Simmons that is subtly titled "The Book of Basketball". The book is a 700-page epic that delves into nearly everything one could ever want to know about the history of the NBA/ABA. A good portion of the book is dedicated to ranking the top 96 players of all-time. As I was making my way through this list, I was struck by how much our culture is obsessed with ranking "greatness". What's more, we have a nearly insatiable desire to experience greatness first-hand. As Bill gave accounts of the careers of people like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving, there was a big part of me that couldn't resist wishing that I had the opportunity to watch those guys in their prime. What would it have been like to have been a basketball fan in the mid-50s and see Elgin come in and completely transform the game (he was apparently the first player to play consistently "above-the-rim" and brought about the first metamorphous of basketball into the game we know today) or to have been one of the few people with the privilege of watching Dr. J take the art-form of basketball to a level no one had ever imagined while playing in the struggling ABA in the '70s?

I had a similar thought last year when I read "The Breaks of the Game" by David Halberstam. In "Breaks" Halberstam chronicles the rise and fall of the '77-'78 Blazers. That book reads like a tragedy, with the protagonist being a once-in-a-lifetime basketball team that reached unimaginable heights by playing the game in its purest form, when everything suddenly fell apart and that "lightning-in-a-bottle" team was never the same.

[Quick Tangent: "Breaks" made Bobby Gross win the award for my "favourite-player-who-I've-never-seen-play-and-probably-never-will". Everything about his game sounded wonderful and encompassed everything I would ever want to be as a basketball player. Here's how Halberstam described him: He was the best passer on the team and his sense of movement, of when to cut and go against the flow in order to create opportunities, not so much for himself but for his teammates, was crucial to the system. It was more often than not Gross's movement and passing, a connection between the guards and the slower big men, which created the slight angle of advantage that led to a basket. In was an anticipatory sense, absolutely instinctive, something difficult to teach. Gross had it. Few others did. Gross could sense the flow of the play towards one side of the court and, even as the ball was moving that way, he could cut in the other direction. Then, if the ball came to him, the defense had to shift radically to catch up with the ball. Because of his movement and sense of angles, it meant that the defense was often a split second behind (Portland's coach Jack) Ramsay's offense. Wow... Halberstam was an incredible writer. I apologize that you have to experience that and go back to my comparatively "hackish" prose.]

"Breaks" gave me that same sense of missing out... like my life would have somehow been more complete if I had been around to witness those Blazers in action. It's admittedly a little silly, but there does seem to be this innate sense within human-kind and, perhaps, specifically in our society that draws us to the idea of greatness; not necessarily within ourselves, but we definitely desire to be surrounded by it. This clearly is not a desire that's confined to sports, but that does seem to be one of the areas where it is the most clearly visible. We are sublimely obsessed in our society with ranking things (I'm absolutely guilty of this; I love ranking my favourite albums/songs every year... and if the Colts win the Super Bowl next week and you don't think I'm going to write a hyperbolic blog post proclaiming them the greatest football team ever, than you don't know me). How many "best of the decade" lists did you see in December? Every time I log out of my Hotmail account, MSN has a new ranking of "Best Dressed" or "Worst Celebrity Drivers" or "Top 10 Things You Shouldn't Say to Your Pregnant Wife" or whatever. In general, our society eats this stuff up. What's crazy is that now we don't even wait for events to end before we start ranking them. I'm sure people have already tried to put George W. Bush's or even Obama's presidency into "perspective" historically. Isn't that something history is supposed to sort out on its own... after the effects of their leadership can be accurately analyzed? Simmons makes a note in "The Book of Basketball" about how ridiculous it is to try and rank LeBron James rationally right now (he's less than halfway into his career at this point), but that didn't stop him from including LeBron (and Wade, and CP3, and Dwight Howard) in his rankings. I heard recently that the 2010 Ford Fusion was named Motor Trend's 2010 Car of the Year... on November 17, 2009. That's right, 44 days before the year 2010 even began. This stuff is getting out of control, right?

I guess we can't really know for sure if this kind of stuff went on in the past, but I'm not convinced it's merely a recent phenomenon. I mean, there was a dude named Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar and the Pharaohs considered themselves to be deities. Stories of people like William Wallace, Joan of Arc, and Genghis Khan have endured through centuries. So I guess our obsession with greatness is nothing new, although it is perhaps a bit overzealous nowadays.

To bring my ramblings full circle, reading the aforementioned books caused me to think of the basketball greatness I have been fortunate enough to witness. Actually, let's step back for a moment (uh-oh, tangent alert!): some of you may wonder where my obsession with basketball came from... I have to admit that it's a little strange for a skinny white kid from rural Ontario to have such an affinity for a historically urban game. I blame/credit my cousins Tyler and Cody Greene for this. They loved basketball from the time they were young and every time I went to their house I was bombarded with all things basketball; whether it was shooting around out in the street, hearing stories about games they attended, seeing all their Bulls memorabilia, or playing NBA Jam, going to Tyler and Cody's place was always an experience in basketball immersion. Eventually I started following the NBA just so I would have something to discuss with them when we got together (we definitely weren't going to connect on music... I once brought Jars of Clay's self-titled debut to show them because I was so excited about it... and they countered by making me listen to The Presidents of the United States of America... ugh!). Thankfully, our TV antenna in Arkona was able to access a few of the major American networks, so I would tune in on weekends and catch the NBA on NBC whenever I could. This was the mid-90s, and since Tyler and Cody already liked the Bulls (and my modus operandi as a kid (and maybe still) was to gravitate towards things that were not necessarily the popular choice), I fell in love with the Gary Payton / Shawn Kemp Supersonics. Maybe it's just because I was young, but I remember those teams being something special... great, if you will. Shawn Kemp is one of the true forgotten basketball superstars of the my lifetime; mainly because he threw his prime away so quickly... cocaine will do that to you. He was quite possibly the most vicious dunker ever (at least in the discussion with LeBron), and at 6'-10" with a 47" vertical, certainly one of the most dynamic. What's more, "Reign Man" has got to be one of the better basketball nicknames... definitely better than the generic T-Mac, D-Will, C-Webb stuff we hear all the time now. At the time, I liked GP mainly because he had a cool accent and was a legendary trash talker, but over time I've been able to appreciate his extraterrestrial court vision and tenacious defence. If you round those out with great shooters like Detlef Schremp and Hersey Hawkins and thrown in an overpaid, awkward white centre like Jim McIlvaine and you have yourself a memorable team. GP and Kemp and those Sonics helped me fall in love with the artistry of the game of basketball. It really is a beautiful sport. Unlike football, which I enjoy for the chess-like strategy of the game, basketball is really about beauty and the poetry of five men working together in perfect harmony on the court. Instances of the highest level of basketball are rare, even at the NBA level, and that's why I'll always remember those Sonics teams fondly. They reached their peak in the '95/'96 season when they faced a juggernaut Bulls team (the famous 72-10 squad) in the finals. Although they lost, they fought valiantly, and provided one of the top sports memories of my childhood: down 0-3 in the series with two more games in Seattle, Payton said in an interview that there was no way they were letting the Bulls celebrate on the Sonics' court. They won the next two games with Kemp going absolutely nuts and GP playing MJ as well as anyone ever did defensively. For whatever reason, I remember that moment as vividly as anything from that time in my life.

Anyway, the '95/'96 season also happened to the inaugural season of the Toronto Raptors, so as Shawn Kemp went off the deep end and that Sonics team fell started to decline, I slowly shifted my loyalties over to the "hometown" team. Suffice to say, I haven't rooted for another great team since that time. As I was thinking about all this, it dawned on me that perhaps that is the reason Toronto fans still boo Vince Carter every time he comes to town; Vince was Raptor fans' first (and only) chance to experience basketball at its highest level. During the '00/'01 season when Vince made the leap (winning the dunk contest, trading 50-point games with Iverson in the 2nd round of the playoffs, dunking over a 7'-2" French guy at the Olympics) we finally had the sense that we had the chance to be part of something special. Vince was knocking on the door of becoming the next Dr. J -- a transcendent offensive player who took the artistry of the game to new heights -- and we were all too eager to be brought along for the ride. I think it crushed us when it didn't pan out -- we watched as little injuries and apathy derailed his promising career -- and we eventually gave up the dream of being part of something uniquely special... something great.

So yeh, Raptor fans boo Vince because he's a sissy and because he quit on the team/city, but we really boo him because he got our hopes up, then crushed us... and it never really seemed to bother him the same way it bothered us. That's why I don't think the same thing (i.e., the bad blood) will happen if Chris Bosh leaves this summer. Bosh is very good, and it's been a pleasure to watch him play, but he doesn't hold the promise of being great. And greatness is what sports fans dream about... it's what keeps us watching game after game. So we'll be sad to see him go, but not devastated... and we'll probably keep booing Vince; all the while wondering about what might have been.

I guess that's it. I really had no sweeping social commentary with this entry, just some observations... basically an internal monologue that I decided to spill out into cyberspace. Maybe one day I'll investigate what drives our obsession with human greatness... is it a result of our inner God-consciousness or a perversion of pride/covetousness? Right now, I'm just going to turn on some House of Heroes, watch Peyton Manning highlights, and eat a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

Have a Great Day,