Basketball Culture 101: A Students Perspective Part 8

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 was quite exciting. On Tuesday, the author of our class textbook Nathaniel Friedman a/k/a Bethlehem Shoals a/k/a Free Darko graced us with his presence. This visit happened to come a mere two days after both the release of ESPN’s Fab 5 documentary and Selection Sunday, the day we learned that Michigan would be seeded 8th in the tourney with a potential matchup with hated Duke in the 2nd round (the team fought hard). Thus, we spent a good deal of time discussing the Fabulous Five that once upon a time roamed the streets of Ann Arbor (even though if you look around campus you would never know they existed). It was pretty cool having the images of Jalen, Chris, Jimmy, Ray, and Juwan flying through their air fresh in my head as I heard about how the current U of M squad felt about that team. However, what really struck me as we discussed everything from Grant Hill vs. Jalen Rose to Chris Webber’s “tragic” career arc (I put tragic in quotations as there is only so much sympathy you can have for an individual who made approximately $176 million in salary alone over a 15 year career), was how much fun it was to discuss the concept of “potential.” Interestingly, I think the Fab 5 are a perfect example of both the beauty and danger of America’s favorite ambiguous, yet omnipresent obsession: potential.

What exactly is potential? Is potential defined by unprecedented ability at a young age? Is potential an attribute bestowed upon an individual or group by outsiders who believe that individual or group will go on to accomplish great things? Well, according to Dictionary.com, potential literally means, “possible, as opposed to actual…capable of being or becoming.” I think that definition hits the nail right on its head: possibility is everything. Where is the fun in accepting one’s present possessions as the best one will have? We are constantly searching for greener pastures, the next “big thing” because we both feel the need to be ahead of the curve and know what’s coming, as well as improve upon what we already have. Take the following as an example –

  1. The iPhone 4 is incredibly popular and has opened up new doors for communication and technology.
  2. The iPhone 5 has the potential to completely revolutionize cellular technology and the way we live our lives – possessing unparalleled usability and offering unforeseen data capabilities.

Now, as far as I know, there is no iPhone 5. However, to me at least, the thought of something even better than what we have – the possibility of a further upgrade is greatly intriguing. THAT, in my opinion, is the beauty of the Fab 5. They were the ultimate iPhone 5 – an unforeseen cultural phenomenon that, according to many, forever changed the landscape of basketball. I believe what was so exciting about the Fab 5 was exactly that potential they possessed, nobody knew what was coming, so the possibilities for the future were endless. They were changing the game as freshman, imagine what they could do once they matured and grew into their own bodies and selves – they could change [shock] the world even further!

Of course, in the long run, the Fabulous 5 as individuals did not really change the world. They certainly impacted style and on-court demeanor, before the latter was restrained by the NCAA, but their actual careers post-Michigan were far from earth shattering. Yes, the Fab 5 as a unit made an obscene amount of money as professionals, with Juwan, Jalen, and Chris parlaying their talents into long NBA careers, but how could anyone live up to the absurd expectations placed upon the once 18 year old freshmen? This brings me back to my original thoughts on potential – why are we so addicted?

I believe our collective addiction to potential is rooted in the fact that we constantly need that next thing to believe in. Why else do we spend so much time talking about, for example, the NFL or NBA drafts? We need to know who has the potential to be like someone from the past, or better yet, even better. We as a society are never satisfied. This is partly understandable, as it is certainly more fun to imagine what could be than to simply assess the current landscape. However, I believe placing too much value into potential it is extremely dangerous (hello, Darko). Yes, certain outliers like LeBron are able to take an unfathomable amount of attention/media spotlight/pressure at a very young age and still find success, but the weight of expectations created by too much “potential” can be lethal.

I think too much weight is put on the shoulders of young athletes today. When children show flashes of talent in middle school they are instantly expected to make the NBA. There is so much more that goes into a becoming a successful athlete than on-court talent (for example, a great deal of luck), yet when one earns the label of potential, it almost feels like championship(s) or bust. I am not advocating that we abandon our focus on young or rising stars. Rather, I simply think we all must remember the danger involved when we create expectations based on the perceived potential of athletes.

As usual, I’d like to end this post with a question – which current NBA player do you think has the most potential to become a superstar? Who deserves the brunt of our ideally realistic, but most likely lofty and unfair expectations? Until next time…

Matt Gordon is a senior at University of Michigan. His posts will be appearing weekly here at Hoopism.com on Tuesdays (or close to it). You can follow Matt on twitter @matogo18.