Stuck in the Past

By Chris Lehman

What does it mean to be the greatest of all time? The GOAT. The Mohammed Ali of your sport. Who decides who will be forever immortalized in a shrine of greatness?

This should be solely determined by what happens during the game. Whichever athlete steps up and makes the biggest splash, wins the most and most importantly, performs the best should be the best.

But this isn’t the case. Instead, people form emotional ties with certain players, and usually those ties connect back to who they watched when they were younger. The same way we look back at movies from the past and regardless of what new movie it is compared to, it is automatically said that the older movie is better. A prime example is The Exorcist. This movie is still considered the scariest movie ever. I’m sure at the time that it came out it was decently scary. But looking back at it now, it’s kind of a joke. It’s poorly filmed and the dialogue between the possessed girl and the priest borderlines that of a strange pornographic video.

This parallels perfectly with sports, minus the pornography part. Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant player of an era ever. No competition. While I don’t doubt his greatness, I have a hard time believing that he would be able to pull down 27 rebounds a game going against guys like Dennis Rodman, Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. No disrespect to the short white dudes in the picture, but they probably didn’t pose much of a threat to steal away the big black guy’s rebounds. He was simply ahead of his time.

For football, the argument is generational. The old-timers are stuck in the belief that the way they grew up watching it was the way it’s supposed to be. The belief that if a football player didn’t wear a leather helmet, they can’t even be in the GOAT conversation. Johnny Unitas threw for 40,000 yards in his 18-year career, but to older sports fans, those were the best-thrown 40,000 yards ever. He would have had more had he completed more than 55% of his passes. I have a hard time believing that the greatest quarterback ever would throw an interception for every 1.1 touchdowns he threw. Personally, I would rather have a quarterback who in 12 seasons already has 40,000 yards. This is because he took my advice and completes 63.8 percent of his passes and throws 2.6 touchdowns for every interception. His hair isn’t too bad either. But to them, Johnny U will always be the best.

Then we have a guy like Jerry Rice. While looking at his career stat line, there’s no way to argue that he is the best. He holds practically every receiving-related record. But was he the beneficiary of having two hall-of-fame quarterbacks? Or were they lucky to have him? Either way, I then look at a player like Calvin Johnson and wonder how there could be a more well-rounded pass-catcher. Not to forget that last year was his first year with a legitimate quarterback throwing to him. I can’t imagine Megatron not exceeding Jerry Rice’s stats had he been put a similar situation. This comparison isn’t as much a generational debate as much as one of longevity. Is it justified to give a player “all-time great” recognition after only such a short time?

Last time I checked, Gale Sayers is considered to be one of the best running backs ever after only playing for 4 NFL seasons. In those 4 years he was the most dominant running back to ever put on a helmet and take a handoff from a quarterback. The fact that he was plagued by injuries didn’t stop people’s recognition of his greatness. So why should the length of a player’s career in this generation limit them from the same talk?  In my opinion, this is another case of old-timers being stuck in the past. I’m sure that down the road, we’ll look back at guys like Adrian Peterson and Lesean McCoy and recognize them for their consistent, versatile dominance. But for some reason, people aren’t okay with labeling present players as great, but instead wait until we’re dealing with their legacy.

In basketball, we have the Godfather effect. Sure, it’s a good movie. Do I think it’s the best ever? Not at all. I found it boring; but a lot of people consider it to be the best. When asked why, the answer is – Because it’s The Godfather…It just is! Michael Jordan is the GOAT. That is a commonly accepted fact among sports fans, and one I’m hesitant to agree with. He’s shouldn’t be on a pedestal. The gap is not as far as everyone says. Many of the people who say he’s the best have never seen him play. They’ve seen the highlights – the buzzer beaters and the dunks. They’ve seen him walk on air. But they haven’t seen him throw a poor pass. They haven’t seen him get beat on defense. They haven’t seen him miss an open shot that he should have made. I grew up watching and studying Kobe Bryant. I’ve also gone back and watched many Michael Jordan games. The two are scarily similar. Without any previous knowledge, hype or outside opinions, I would honestly say that Kobe Bryant looks more impressive when playing. One main reason people say Jordan is better is his stats. But if we’re basing greatness off of stats, then Wilt’s 50 point, 25 rebound season would make him the greatest ever, easily. But this is for another time…I have a hard time believing that there’s anything that Jordan could do on the court that Bryant or even LeBron can’t. But none of that matters. Any time someone challenges Jordan being the greatest, they are bombarded by angry mobs of uninformed fans screaming, “BUT IT’S JORDAN!” As if I forgot his name… My attention is then drawn to their strangely shaped and colored sneakers, but I see that it has a tiny logo of Jordan flying and I am supposed to all of a sudden understand why they spent $150+ for them. You can’t honestly like them…

While I can accept the argument that Jordan is the best to ever play, his game was not unmatched. Only the idea of Jordan is. It makes me wonder if the world realized what they were witnessing when they were watching Jordan, or if they were saying that he’d never be as good as Wilt.

A lot of the time, people get so caught up in history, they don’t realize that history is already staring them in the face.

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