Matt Gordon, a student in Professor Yago Colás’ “Cultures in Basketball” class at the University of Michigan , and research contributer at Hoopism.com, has generously agreed to share his experience of “Cultures in Basketball” on our blog. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @matogo18.
Last week in class we began a fascinating discussion on the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time), Michael Jordan. What I found to be most interesting from this discussion, however, was not the enormity of Jordan’s awe-inspiring talents. Rather, I was struck by how greatly perception and memory differ from reality.
If you were to ask a random person what they thought about Michael Jordan, you would probably hear a lot of the following: Corporate Spokesman, High Flyer, Insanely Competitive, Winner. Interestingly, these answers tell only part of the story – the end of the story. What’s missing is the real story – that which includes Jordan’s time from 1984-1991, Jordan’s 7 long years of wandering in the wilderness, searching for his elusive NBA championship. The trail created by Jordan was not filled with camaraderie and friendship, as Jordan butted heads with seemingly everyone, shooting his name into the record books, but not the hearts of many teammates. This contradiction between the unofficial evaluation of Jordan’s career long after it has passed and the reality of the majority of his NBA years interests me not because I am angry with it – I am one of Jordan’s biggest fans, hooked since I was in first grade and met him during the 72 win season. Instead, I am more interested in the way memory works – specifically, basketball memory. How do we remember players?
As I learn more about the history of the NBA, it seems apparent to me that what you see is far from what you will get (this bodes especially well for Kobe, in my opinion). Once players are long gone and their careers are evaluated, we remember only certain things. For some players, most notably Jordan, we remember him flying through the air or hitting his famed shot over Ehlo – we don’t remember him feuding like a 10 year old with Jerry Krause or refusing to spend much (if any) time with teammates off the court. On the other hand, other players seem to have their magic disappear over time – take Reggie Miller for example. There is no question that Reggie was an exciting player to watch – he lived for the moment. I remember running around taking crazy three pointers in my driveway as a kid and yelling, “Its Miller Time.” However, it is unclear how kindly history will treat Reggie and his so-so numbers. In this, his first year of eligibility for the Basketball Hall of Fame, he failed to even make it as a finalist. I’m not saying Reggie won’t be remembered for the magic he brought to big games (love him or hate him), but I feel he is certainly a major threat to slip away.
Back to Jordan – in addition to our class discussion of 80’s Jordan, I recently read “The Jordan Rules,” a fantastic book by longtime Bulls scribe Sam Smith. (The Jordan Rules covers the entire 1990-91 season – Jordan’s first championship season) and also had the good fortune of attending a Bulls-Jazz game last Saturday, which included a halftime ceremony honoring the 20th anniversary of the Bulls first title. While I obviously loved seeing almost the entire Bulls Roster from that 90-91 championship season, what struck me the most was seeing how much time (and winning) heals all wounds. In “The Jordan Rules” it is made very clear that the road to the championship was no cakewalk. Essentially every player on the roster wanted to be traded at one point or another, Jordan struggled immensely throughout the season with trusting and respecting his seemingly inferior teammates (even including Scottie), and players often feuded like little girls. However, of course, none of this was apparent last Saturday at the reunion. Players were cheered as though they were kings, joked around – received commemorative plaques, and so on. All of the old petty fighting and craziness just kind of disappeared with time and winning. When Dennis Hopson was announced and welcomed with raucous cheers, there was no mention of the fact that he literally cried after the Bulls swept the Pistons to enter their first NBA Finals – not out of elation, but because he was playing so sparingly.
Again, my intention is not to harp on my favorite team, but rather to point out just how sports memory works. For all the Miami Heat “haters” right now, you must understand that if they win a championship (let alone several) none of this in-season nonsense about crying will be remembered, let alone the now infamous “Decision.” If you are a marketable star and win an NBA championship, all else falls by the wayside. The easiest way to learn about the present is to look at the past – when Kobe is long gone do you think people will remember his rant about getting Andrew Bynum traded or his intense competitiveness and stack of titles? We remember those that win. Obviously, “The Decision” will never be forgotten, especially not in Cleveland, but if the Heat win a title – “The Decision” instantly becomes a footnote to Champion.
Of course, “history” and the way we remember things is changing as I write this sentence. With Youtube, Twitter, NBA League Pass, and more, we can actually watch any player in the league whenever we want. Rather than simply reading about games in the newspaper or waiting for a nationally televised game or 1-minute Sportscenter highlight, player’s exploits are being captured worldwide on a nightly basis. This clearly has an impact on the way we interpret these players both now and in the future. If there had been nightly Youtube uploads of players like Dominique Wilkins or Bernard King 30 years ago, how different would their legacies be? With the remarkable accessibility to the NBA in the 21st century, it is not completely clear how today’s stars will be remembered, but again, I can say with certainty that winning trumps all.
I’d like to again end with a question: Who do you think is the most “mis-remembered” NBA player of all-time? This could be any player, great or terrible, whose legacy has strayed from his actual accomplishments and play on the court. Until next time…