Keith Strudler: The Promise Of A Better Tomorrow
I believe in evolution. And I mean that not in the political context it’s often discussed, but rather simply I believe we progress over time. You get to see this at the Museum of Natural History, when you realize the shark of a million years ago is different than the one swimming in the Pacific – although for the record I’m afraid of both. Crocodiles, house cats, monkeys – they’ll all changed with the times. And if they didn’t, they’d become extinct. Just ask the Dodo bird or the Sabre-tooth cat.
Of course, this applies to humans as well. People of today are different than those of 100, much less 1000 years ago, when people might have actually fit in a modern airline seat. Today, we’re taller, healthier, likely smarter than our ancestors, although it doesn’t always show. But perhaps the most obvious exemplar of this process comes around sports. Roger Bannister first broke the four minute mile in 1954. Now, the record is 3:43, a mark that’s oddly lasted since 1999. The same goes for swimming, and cycling – both sports impacted by technology, but certainly driven by human physiology. It’s really easy in sports like those to quantify progress, basically by a stop watch.
In other sports, perhaps it’s not as simple. Basketball, football, even baseball, it’s fairly common to compare teams and athletes from one generation to those from another. Like how would the 1970’s Boston Celtics fare against the LeBron’s Miami Heat? Or the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers against Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. Or Hank Aaron against today’s pitchers. These are the debates that fill the days between games, and make sports talk radio the wasteland of endless hyperbole.
For the players themselves, perhaps it’s not so hypothetical. To be the best in your sport takes an equal dose of skill and hubris, enough to fuel an often irrational belief that you will rise to the top of a group of supremely talented and competitive individuals. So Michael Jordan didn’t simply need to be an amazing basketball player. He needed to be better than a group of his peers, who are also ridiculously good. That success takes more than skills and hard work. It takes the kind of self-confidence Donald Trump would admire. It means you’d never concede defeat to anyone.
Such is the juxtaposition of Oscar Robertson, the Big O, and one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. Robertson, now 77, was Michael Jordan before Jordan was Jordan. Or in some case, before he was even alive. Robertson has some particular beliefs about today’s premier NBA star, Stephen Curry, last year’s MVP, the leader of the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, and perhaps the most prolific shooter in the history of the game. He’s broken the record for 3-pointers in a season, a record he’ll break again this year. He is, by all accounts, nearly unstoppable. Yet according to Robertson, Stephen Curry’s success is a byproduct of a modern NBA that’s soft, where no one plays defense and the game lacks physicality. So if Curry played back in Robertson’s day, which mind you came primarily in the 1960’s, then they’d find a way to stop his offensive onslaught, perhaps simply by fouling him to pieces. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also a top ten player in NBA history, concurs that Curry’s success is a result of the system. There have been grumblings of others that also see Stephen Curry as a great player in an era of video game basketball, but certainly not better that sharp shooter of past generations, when similar talents were contained by strict defensive enforcement.
It’s understandable why former athletic greats feel this way – as do many fans. It’s hard to acknowledge the next generation will be superior to yours. It’s like acknowledging not only your mortality, but also your relative irrelevance, at least in the annals of history. Not matter how great you are, someone will be greater. For uber-competitive professional athletes, that’s a hard construct to swallow. Which is why some never will.
Yet it’s a reality. If Curry played in the shorter, less athletic 1960’s, he’d seem almost heaven sent. And if Michael Jordan played in the NBA of 2050, he’s be a lot less effective. That’s not an insult, it’s just science. It’s the same reason Mark Spitz wouldn’t medal in today’s Olympics. And why Bob Beamon’s long standing long jump record from 1968 was so remarkable – because that’s just not supposed to happen. Sports can only be truly understood in the context of their times, of which human physiology is clearly a part.
Athletes today are different than those of 100, 50, even 25 years ago. Which doesn’t make Oscar Robertson any less spectacular than he was in his time. But Robertson, nor his teammates couldn’t have stopped Stephen Curry any better than, say, the Dallas Mavericks. And, contrary to what he might think, Oscar Robertson can’t stop evolution, either.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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