This isn’t just about Pierce versus Bird, though. Earlier this week I planted a couple seeds on DimeMag.com suggesting Kobe Bryant and LeBron James might outrank Bird on the unofficial list of the NBA’s all-time greatest. The majority of the feedback from readers was what I would’ve expected had I walked into a Bronx barbershop saying Pitbull is a better lyricist than Big Pun. A sampling:
“Lebron has no chance at guarding Bird. One on one, two on two, 5 on 5, or however you want to break it down, Larry would rape LBJ offensively.”
“I just started cracking up thinking about people saying that Kobe is better than Bird nonsense.”
“Larry is way better than what LeBron James will ever be as a basketball player and probably as a human being.”
“It’s not even a (expletive) argument. The fact that anyone who considers themself a basketball writer or fan would think Kobe is in the same gym as Larry Bird is infuriating. Larry Bird? Bird? Kobe ain’t even better than Tim Duncan or Shaq!!!! And you trying to talk LARRY (EXPLETIVE) BIRD!!!???”
What I saw then is the same as what I witnessed earlier this year, when debates surfaced comparing the 1992 Dream Team to the 2012 U.S. Olympic roster:
It’s the towering height of the pedestal on which players from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and especially the ‘80s and ‘90s, have been placed. The pedestal is, as my man Jimmy McMillan would say: Too. Damn. High.
Our sports culture has a nostalgia problem. While I’m glad sports hasn’t gone the way of hip-hop and deemed its legends irrelevant upon their 35th birthdays, the reverence shown for the old school over the new constantly moves from respectful to delusional.
Maybe it’s for the same reasons that, no matter when you grew up, the music we listen to as teenagers is the music that resonates with us for the rest of our lives. Or it’s for the same reasons that our first loves are unforgettable.
If you grew up watching Isiah Thomas in your formative years, when everything just meant so much more, it’s going to take a lot for you to ever put Derrick Rose above Zeke on your hierarchy. If you were raised on Clyde Drexler, you don’t want to hear that Dwyane Wade might be a new and improved Glide.
I’m not immune. I grew up in Seattle during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I still get offended when anybody starts putting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the same conversation as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. We all do it. Some of us have just lost a little touch with reality.
Nostalgia run amok is why too many NBA fans and media talk as if Scottie Pippen could’ve kept The Iron Monger scoreless for 48 minutes; as if Kevin McHale had 4,001 post moves in his arsenal and 163 more that he never found time to use; as if Bill Russell blocked 20,000 shots and never let ANY of them sail out of bounds.
It’s why ridiculous claims are made that Hakeem Olajuwon would’ve dropped 60 on Dwight Howard; and Charles Barkley would’ve left Chris Bosh in a quivering heap; and John Stockton and Karl Malone combined for 36,000 points using nothing but picks and rolls – and that CP3 and Griffin could never execute the same play as perfectly because, well, they’re not Stockton and Malone.
It’s why a talent like Pierce – or Kobe, or LeBron, apparently – cannot enter an argument against a Bird or Magic Johnson and get a fair shake on the scorecards. (And don’t even try poking a hole in the invincibility of Michael Jordan’s legacy.) It’s like a never-ending road game in hostile territory; like going into the heart of Culiacán hoping to win a decision against Julio Cesar Chavez. It just ain’t gonna happen.