There were two high-profile comments in the last month from former NBA players-turned-analysts that perfectly encapsulate the “revere the past, fear the future” mentality. The first was from Charles Barkley who, when asked to compare the 29-1 Warriors with the 1996 Bulls, claimed “It’s a much easier game” than it was in the mid 1990s. He went on to add that teams during Barkley’s era would “maul” the Warriors. Barkley’s primary platform, TNT’s Inside the NBA, makes his commentary a focal point of the show, and often what he says on the show influences NBA fans around the world.
Whereas Barkley is idolizing the past, Mark Jackson seems to be fearing the future. During the Warriors’ Christmas Day game Jackson opined about the fallout of the playing style of Steph Curry. “To a degree, he is hurting the game. And what I mean by that is I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids, and the first thing they do is run to the three-point line.”
It’s worth catching the full transcript of Jackson’s comments, which were both attacked and defended by fans and writers in every corner of the internet for the days immediately following the game. While his statement almost certainly wasn’t meant as an affront to Curry, it still shared a view of NBA basketball that the idea of the the past was perfect, the present is flawed, and the future is scary.
But these well-worn ideas are often over-stated and in some cases, just plain wrong. Many players, Kevin Durant for example, have excelled in the NBA after just one season in college. Others, like Tyreke Evans, have come into the league much less polished and failed to develop. On the flip side, some three and four year players, like Tim Duncan, develop incredible fundamentals after years at the NCAA level. Other players, like Hasheem Thabeet or Cole Aldrich, never develop at all.
There are perhaps other reasons that play into the sense that the game is getting worse. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have affected the way that players are analyzed, praised, critiqued, and celebrated. No player can make it through his career unscathed by the watchful eyes of a million fans. Every one of them is ready, willing, and able to share their thoughts on why Russell Westbrook’s 40-point triple-double was actually overrated or why Andrew Wiggins is already a bust.
There is beauty in the fact that the game of basketball is constantly evolving. Like a living being, the game can never be conserved or prevented from expanding.
But despite the cultural and technological influences of the modern era, the most powerful driving force for the discontent with the present is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a real, psychological phenomenon in which the emotional connection to the past is augmented and memories of the past are filtered to create an idealized version. The human brain is incredibly effective at augmenting the most enjoyable parts of our memories over time, filtering our own memories so that they seem more significant. Often, nostalgia is the brain’s way of finding refuge from the imperfect world of the present.
In the modern sports world, where every tiny imperfection is placed under a microscope, nostalgia fills a void by bringing back perfectly filtered memories of a past whose emotional core has been refined. The sloppiness and grinding pace of the Knicks-Heat series in the 1990s gets filtered out, all while the passion and competitiveness grow more substantial. Barkley himself laments the era of bigs spending too much time out on the perimeter, yet nostalgia has filtered out the fact that he spent several of his prime years hoisting two or three three-pointers per game while making fewer than 30 percent of them.
At its worse, nostalgia can be a defense mechanism for a person’s inability to accept the imperfections of life. The flaws of the present are never hidden, they’re in plain sight. Even the fear of the future, which Mark Jackson articulated and which many intelligent basketball fans have shared, is just the next logical step for the nostalgic perspective.
Players are doing new things and kids in the future won’t know how to properly analyze them, unless, of course, they go back to the way we did things in the past.
Yet, despite the uncomfortable concept of a league in the midst of rapid changes, the league is saturated with unique and exciting talent. The top 10 players in the league are as diverse and unique as ever before. Steph Curry is a skinny 6’3 while LeBron is a muscular 6’8. Durant is 6’10 and has a handle like Allen Iverson and a jumper like Dirk Nowitzki. Russell Westbrook plays the point guard position with fury while Chris Paul does it with precision. Even the new class of rookies ranges from wildly different skill sets and builds.
There is beauty in the sport’s imperfection. And there is beauty in the fact that the game of basketball is constantly evolving. Like a living being, the game can never be conserved or prevented from expanding. Rule-changes act as environments, creating pressures for teams and players to alter their games. New training tools influence the development of teams and players, steering them in new directions. And the size, build, and skill of the players that arrive will form the new parameters for how the game is to be played.
The game has evolved into something different, and it will continue to transform year after year. The only guarantee for the future of basketball is that it will be marginally different than what it is today. Instead of lamenting the inevitable change and reverting back to distorted memories of an idealized past or fears of an uncertain future, try instead to enjoy both the flaws and beauty of the game as it evolves right before our eyes.