For one reason or another, we all innately want to believe that things were somehow better or tougher when we were younger.
Our grandparents repeat the classic “walked to school through the snow uphill both ways” stories to make sure that our parents understand how easy they had it growing up.
Our parents then criticize us and our technology, pointing out that they never had the opportunity to use computers, calculators, and other “think for you” devices when they were in school. My father has even taken out this weird contraption called a slide rule before – just to prove a point.
Now that I’m a high school teacher, I constantly have the urge to criticize my high school students. Whether it’s cell phones, iPads, or laptops…doesn’t matter. They have it easy. And you know what else? They aren’t anywhere near as smart as I was.
It’s that last statement that’s the problem.
Whether or not today’s youth really is less intelligent than it was in the past is irrelevant. We live in a results-oriented society. It doesn’t matter how you came to know that 1+1=2. All that matters is that you answer the question correctly, consistently, and efficiently.
Of course, I want to believe they are dumber. I am predisposed to believe that they are dumber. They have to be dumber – it makes me feel better about myself. Still, they can figure out problems and equations at a much faster rate than my father could when he was in school.
My students get the job done. Do they do so differently? Of course. But that really only matters to those who didn’t have those same advantages.
The fact is this: If my bias is correct, then that means we aren’t moving forward. Does anyone really believe that?
This predisposition to criticizing the present is one of the most difficult biases to overcome when discussing sports.
Too Quick To Criticize the Present?
Somewhere along the line, it became blasphemy to criticize Michael Jordan in any way, shape, or form. Because we don’t want to step on his toes, we constantly degrade and belittle everyone who is playing today.
I will never understand why.
Whether we are listening to one of the most hateful and bitter Hall of Fame speeches of all time, or reading about one of the worst marriages ever* – it is clear that the guy is far from perfect. But that doesn’t matter.
*Did you know that he and Juanita only got married after months of a paternity battle in which Jordan swore over and over that the kid wasn’t his? And after that, he took her to Vegas where they got married at 3:30 AM at some random wedding chapel? And after that, she divorced him for $168 Million because he was cheating? Of course you didn’t. You love Michael Jordan…none of these things could ever possibly cloud your judgment about him.
Anyone that was old enough to appreciate Jordan at his peak is stuck with our grandparents’ mindset concerning him.
Nobody, no matter what, could ever possibly be as good as he was.
Of course it is possible that things were better in the past. That people were smarter. That guys were tougher. That argument could go on in perpetuity without ever coming to an answer.
But there is one area that athletes today easily and clearly outperform athletes of the past: speed. This is an inescapable fact.
In 2008, Usain Bolt ran faster than Maurice Greene ten years prior. And in 1999, Maurice Greene ran faster than Carl Lewis did eleven years prior. No matter how much you love Carl Lewis, you can’t possibly argue that he was a faster human being than Usain Bolt.
In the 60s, people thought that running a sub-ten second 100m was humanly impossible. A few weeks ago, two US runners ran sub-ten second 100m races and didn’t even qualify for the team.
In the 90s, people went gaga over the fact that Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan had vertical leaps that measured a staggering 40-inches. But according to DraftExpress.com, since 2000, 51 players have tried to enter the NBA that had at least a 40-inch vertical leap.
Now trust me, I’m not about to argue that that possessing a massive vertical leap automatically makes a person a better basketball player. Any lover of the past will transitively use these numbers to assert that guys from the past were better basketball players.
This is an argument for another day (although I challenge you to check out 3-point percentages some time throughout the last 25 years…the results of “Legends” like Larry Bird may shock you). And of course there are reasons that explain the advances in athleticism. Better diets, better training programs, enhanced medical procedures, and other things have all benefited today’s athletes greatly.
In the same way, cell phones, laptops, calculators, and all of the other advances in technology have benefited today’s students.
Here’s the question though – should we hold these advantages against them?
The LeBron-MJ Debate
Here is a classic example:
Go find a Michael Jordan fan, and then ask him this question (you will want to brace for the exploding reaction): Do you think that 2012 LeBron James is better than 1992 Michael Jordan?
Over the past two weeks, I have attempted to have this conversation with three different people. It always ends like this:
Me: I will give you that 1992 Jordan is a slightly better scorer than 2012 LeBron James (he averaged 3 more points a game), but I think that LeBron is a better passer, a better rebounder, and can defend more positions than Jordan could.
Jordan Fan: Oh come on. First of all, Jordan was a WAY better scorer than LeBron will EVER be. Secondly, I’m not convinced LeBron is a better passer than Jordan. And thirdly, the only reason LeBron is a better rebounder and can defend more positions is because he’s bigger and more athletic than Jordan was! That doesn’t make him better.
Me: Well, concerning passing, LeBron’s career average of 6.9 assists a game is higher than any single season Jordan ever averaged except for one.
Jordan Fan: Jordan’s team needed him to score. End of story.
Me: Ok. Well, that still makes LeBron a better passer. And further than that, why are you holding LeBron’s size and athleticism against him? Isn’t that part of the equation? I mean, if I told you that we weren’t allowed to take Jordan’s strength and athleticism into consideration, wouldn’t that make Jordan considerably worse?
Jordan Fan: Whatever. Jordan has six rings, LeBron has one. Stop wasting my time.
Me: I know, but I’m talking about 2012 LeBron and 1992 Jordan.
Jordan Fan: JORDAN’S THE GREATEST!!!! LEBRON SUCKS!!!!
In every single conversation, the topic of athleticism invariably comes up. Almost just as invariably, the lovers of the past want to use it to penalize today’s athlete.
That’s just unfair.
Times change. Technology improves. Training accelerates.
Then, the past gets placed on an untouchable pedestal.
Maybe bitterness is the catalyst. After all, part of me wishes that I had a cell phone when I was 14 – just like the students I teach today.
Perhaps Jordan, Barkley, and Bird are jealous of all the advantages that today’s athletes have. After all, if Larry Legend could have flown to Germany and received some Kobe treatment for his back, he may have been able to play for four or five more seasons.
Regardless, today’s players are criticized repeatedly for their athleticism. The funniest part, to me, is that if you really could take athleticism out of the equation, I think Jordan’s career would suffer a lot more than LeBron’s.
Sure, LeBron is a freak of nature, but is he any more of a freak of nature compared to his peers than Jordan was? Let’s just compare the matchups that each guy had in his first championship run.
In 2012, LeBron matched up against Carmelo Anthony in Round One, Danny Granger/Paul George in Round Two, Paul Pierce/Michael Pietrus in Round Three, and Kevin Durant/Thabo Sefolosha in the Finals.
In 1991, Jordan matched up against Trent Tucker in Round One, Hersey Hawkins in Round Two, Joe Dumars in Round Three, and Byron Scott in the Finals.
Now regardless of your feelings about warriors like Byron Scott and Joe Dumars, remember that this conversation is about athleticism. Which guy had the bigger athletic advantage over his peers? LeBron or Jordan?
It’s not even close.
Hersey Hawkins, Joe Dumars, and Byron Scott were all 6’3″ or shorter – giving Jordan at least a 3 inch height advantage in every matchup. The immortal Trent Tucker was 6’5″, but was giving Jordan close to thirty pounds.
Meanwhile, LeBron never once had a 3-inch height advantage over anyone that guarded him in the playoffs. Past that, as uninspiring as their defending might sometimes seem, Carmelo, Granger, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Thabo Sefolosha are all great athletes.
I think one could easily argue that athletically, they are much closer to LeBron than Dumars or anyone else in 1991 was to Jordan.
LeBron had to beat his peers with his superior basketball IQ, his incredible passing, and many of his basketball skills. While of course Jordan possessed an incredible skill set as well, I think it’s safe to say that Hersey Hawkins and Byron Scott never had a chance to defend him.
I could go on and on trying to compare LeBron and Jordan’s specific skills while trying to take athleticism out of the equation, but the point is this: no matter how you slice it, athleticism has to be part of the equation. It’s part of sports. It’s crucial to basketball success. It’s unfair to everyone involved if you simply take it away.
And if athleticism is part of the equation, then today’s athletes look pretty good.
Maybe they do things differently. Lovers of the past bemoan the fact that today’s players can’t hit midrange jump shots. They despise the “one-on-one” style of play. They mock the lack of big men in today’s game.
Of course, they also refuse to acknowledge that layups and dunks are higher percentage shots than 15-footers.
They fail to admit that the three-point shooters today are far and away better than they were in the past.
They “forget” that nearly all of Michael Jordan’s greatest moments resulted from “one-on-one isolation” plays at the end of games.
They refuse to acknowledge that basketball is simply moving in a different direction – where size doesn’t matter as much as speed and quickness.
Once again, times change.
Do you really think that basketball has gone backwards in the last 20 years?
Embrace the present for what it is: great basketball, just a different vintage.
(Stay tuned for tomorrow when we break down the Dream Team one more time.)