Monday, February 9, 2015

The Hall of Fame

When Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Russell Wilson's pass a week ago, more was at stake than just whether or not the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks would win the Super Bowl. As we had breathlessly been informed in the run-up to the game, this was really about Tom Brady's quest to win his fourth Super Bowl title and establish a legacy as the greatest QB of all-time. Beating the Seahawks was the only way he could surpass Joe Montana.

I think we all recognize the fundamental unreality at some level. Brady and Montana are individual players in a team sport yet we insist on judging them by the same standards as Federer and Sampras. If there are 53 different players on an NFL roster, how valuable could any one player be, at least in comparison to a sport like tennis? A billion different factors go into the outcome of a game that a QB has absolutely no control of. What if the Seahawks coaching staff had decided to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch one more time? What if they hadn't been blessed by a miraculous catch to give them the ball at the 1-yard line a few second before?

No matter how you spin it, though, Brady has been the QB for the dominant team of his era, winning 4 Super Bowl titles, playing in the game 6 times and appearing in the playoffs in every season but one of his 13-year career as a starter.

When Alexander the Great saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds left to conquer.

Now, with Brady near the end of his journey, the only question is who will be next? What young QB of the next generation will one day join him atop Mount Olympus? Who will lead his team to the most championships? Who will bestow the most glory on all lucky enough to share a stage with him? In the history of the Patriots franchise, these years shall be called the Brady/Belichick era and they will be long remembered for the bountiful harvests of playoff victories they showered upon their devoted followers.

As someone who covers the NBA draft, I watch players at the other end of the process, raw lumps of clay not yet molded into the icons they will become. At last season's McDonald's All-American Game, I spent most of my time watching Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner going at each other. At this point, I think it's a pretty safe assumption to say that all three are going to make ungodly sums of money playing professional basketball over the next 10-15 years. The only thing they need to worry about is developing their games, staying healthy and not getting into too much trouble off the court. In the grand scheme of things, life is pretty good for guys who have been blessed with that type of size, coordination and athleticism.

In the world of the NBA draft, though, they are kept in a constant state of insecurity, as their value as basketball players - and ultimately their self-worth - is in a state of limbo depending on their most recent performance. Are they worthy of being taken at No. 1? No. 5? In the lottery? Where is their draft stock at this exact moment? What can they do to make it go up or down?

We treat the whole thing as if they are political candidates running for office. In order for Jahlil to go No. 1 overall, he will need to put up big numbers on a Duke team that makes the Final Four. If Towns is going to have a chance, Kentucky will likely need to go 40-0 while outplaying Jahlil in an NCAA Tournament game. Turner never had much of a chance given the team around him and the flaws of his campaign manager (Rick Barnes). What does it matter how good a candidate is if he doesn't have the team around him that can put him in a position to succeed?

Even once they have achieved stardom in the NBA, are they allowed to be content or be satisfied for even a moment? No. Being content, we are told, is the enemy. You have to constantly manufacture slights against yourself in order to reach ever greater heights of self-actualization. The greatest players must live in constant fear of whether or not they are respected by their peers, the fans and the basketball industry in general. What exactly does Damian Lillard have to do to get everyone's respect!? Nevermind that he was just in the All-Star Game last season. For him to be recognized as one of the greatest players in the NBA, he requires ever constant validation lest doubts and whispers start to emerge.

The result is a world where the greatest athletes can never humbly accept all they have been given and can never really be happy for the accomplishments of their peers. The world of awards is a zero-sum game - there can only be one No. 1 overall pick, one MVP and one GOAT.

No matter how many All-Star appearances you make, it is never enough. Kobe Bryant has been to 15 All-Star Games yet the biggest story surrounding him coming into the season is where he was voted on in the Big Board of Life aka NBA Rank. Instead of wondering how he would be able to stay healthy all season after seeing his last two seasons ended by injury, people were obsessing about whether Kobe would be able to prove his doubters wrong. Don't they understand that Kobe isn't human?

As it turns out, he was. Basketball players are just human beings like everyone else and they have the same types of issues that everyone else has except they have more money and people are constantly sticking cameras and microphones in their face in order to ask impossibly mundane questions about the most basic aspects of their job. The disconnect comes when we are confronted by the difference between the image of them we have built up in our minds and the reality of who they actually are. This is what most of Jay-Z's (aka Jay Hova aka The God MC) songs are about. This is what happens with every man who becomes President. First they love you then they hate you then they love you again. It's the gift and the curse.

How will you remembered when your career is over? For the guys at the highest levels of the game, everything is building towards one final judgment, when their fans weigh it all, good and bad, in order to determine whether or not they are worthy of the ultimate honor. Who will be on Mount Rushmore?

In a lot of ways, Hall of Fame voting resembles the process of sanctification in the Catholic Church. Which of these historic figures should be elevated to Godhood? It's the ultimate merit badge, the shiniest gold sticker. The mark on the resume of their life that elevates them above mere mortals in order so that we may have an inspiration to strive towards. The difference is the Church is elevating people who renounced their worldly possessions, changed the lives of thousands of people and died for their faith instead of guys who use a lot of performance enhancing drugs to hit a lot of baseballs really far for a long time.

History has judged Pete Rose as it will soon judge Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. All the money they made, all the records they broke and all the games they won - what would any of it mean if they didn't have a plaque in an office building in a small town in upstate New York? We can be sad for the legacies they have thrown away but we can never forget their own hubris is what prevented them from ascending to Olympus. The Gods of Baseball have cast them aside, forcing them to spend the rest of their wretched lives wandering the Earth while performing acts of penance and atonement in the hope that one day mercy will be shown on their souls.

When someone makes the Hall of Fame, we always want to ask them - what does it feel like? A former athlete is a former athlete, no matter what they did in their playing career. I went to school with a few brothers whose dad played for the Dallas Cowboys for three seasons, The Dallas Cowboys! All of the kids were in awe of him. Just by making it that far, he had already won the game of life. How does it feel to have your ego validated on the ultimate level? I imagine it feels pretty good for awhile and then you kind of get used to it.

For guys like Kobe and LeBron, the biggest carrot of them all is dangled in front of them. Forget the Hall of Fame. They could be better than Jordan. They could transcend mortality and achieve Godhood in the flesh as the Greatest Of All Time, the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. We must consult the ancient myths and legends - everything they do, everything they say, everything they are - it must all be compared to the Jordan standard. Is it something Jordan would do? Jordan would never team up with his greatest rivals. Jordan would never pass the ball in the final moments. Jordan would never subtweet his teammates. Well, he probably would have done that.

In this telling of the story, the city of Cleveland has been wandering through the desert for more than 40 years in search of the Promised Land. In their hearts, they were starting to wander if they would ever get there or if they were forever destined to fall short, the victims of some tragic curse. They couldn't go back and they couldn't go forward. Had they been lied too all this time? Did they live in a world where God kept his promises? Did they live in a world where God even existed?

LeBron leaving Cleveland was Moses abandoning Israel, deciding the only way he could overcome the enemies who were guarding the way to the land of milk and honey was by leading a different people, a people with more money and more cosmopolitan tastes. Or maybe LeBron was just a 26-year old who wanted to live in Miami with his friends for a few years. Then, when he got older and started thinking about where he wanted to raise his kids, he decided to move back home. It's all how you want to look at it.

The ultimate standard for any player is he a guy I will tell my grandkids about? Is he a guy with a timeless game, a game good enough to transcend his era and be passed down as folk tales to people who had never seen him play? MJ, Kobe, LeBron - maybe our grandkids will care about those guys and maybe they won't. We care about Babe Ruth. We don't really care about Jack Johnson. Will their grandkids care? And their grandkids? Soon enough, the basketball players of the NBA become the gladiators of Rome. Who was the best chariot racer in the Byzantine Empire?

What would I ask to the greatest athlete during the reign of Justinian The Great? I don't think I would ask him about his greatest chariot race. I'd probably ask him about how life back then was. Kanye West asked Paul McCartney if pussy tasted different in the 1960's. What is there to ask really? At a certain level, it's all the same. Nothing ever really changes.

The actions of 2015 matter a ton from the perspective of 2050, a good amount from the perspective of 2150 and a small amount from the perspective of 2650. We are a society constantly worried about the judgment of History - we sit in judgment of History and we do not wish to be judged so ourselves. The key fact to remember isn't the fact that History is written from the perspective of the winners. It's that it isn't really written at all. From the perspective of 4150, the actions of the year 2015 might as well not exist. From the perspective of 8000, they won't. Ancient Egypt has a history that stretches back thousands of years. The Jews were slaves in Egypt longer than the United States has been a country.

Maybe global warming or nuclear winter or The Singularity will change everything. People have always looked for signs of the apocalypse. For a society of narcissists, the only thing worse than thinking the world is going to end is knowing that it will keep right on spinning without us. All the world is a stage, everyone is a player and they all have their entrances and their exits. The music cuts, the light comes off, you get gently ushered off the stage and someone else takes your spot. Your entire career becomes a one-minute TV ad.

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" 
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go but the Earth remains forever. No one remembers the former generations and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired, I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun. 
The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? This too is meaningless. For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered. The days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!
That was written over 2,000 years ago yet it remains as true now as it will be 2,000 years from now. We are only this Earth a short amount of time and nothing we do here really matters. It's all going away one day. Make whatever peace you can with that fact but don't pretend there's some tragic nobility in striving towards an impossible goal. There is no such thing as immortality. Not for athletes. Not for kings. Not for any of us. From dust we came and from dust we shall return.

My name is Oyzmandias, King of Kings: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and Despair!


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