One of the worst byproducts of today's 24/7 sports media culture is our collective inability to put things in perspective. Today's breaking story becomes tomorrow's afterthought. Any attempt to put things in its proper context is swallowed up by a cynical whirlpool of snark and manufactured debate.
That brings me to ESPN's latest 30 for 30 short film, Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop. It's the story of a young Chamberlain, the summer before his senior year in high school, working as a bellhop at a Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In between hauling luggage and dealing card games, the resort's athletic director, one Red Auerbach, mentors Chamberlain on the court.
The archival footage is incredible and the story a wonderful one, but it reminded me of an argument often heard in basketball circles, namely that Player X from the 1950s or ‘60s would have no chance of competing in today's NBA.
It's always struck me as an extremely shortsighted argument, one that lacks the perspective necessary to understand the evolution of basketball over time. Sure, there were a lot of slow, white players that played in the NBA in the early ‘50s that would have no chance of playing in the league today but that doesn't mean the greats would have similarly struggled.
Let's take Chamberlain. In the summer of 1954 he was unquestionably the best high school basketball player in America, a freak of nature who was only a few years away from dominating the NBA and being named league MVP as a rookie. Then let's remember that he spent the summer before his senior year working as a bellhop at a Jewish resort in the Catskills.
That simple fact reveals the biggest mistake people make when they argue that old-timers couldn't compete in today's NBA; they assume that Wilt Chamberlain in 1963 would look the same as Wilt Chamberlain in 2013, but nothing could be further from the truth. For the top basketball recruits today, the sport is more a lifestyle than a game. Phenoms like Andrew Wiggins are identified at the age of 13 or 14 and spend the next four or five years being analyzed, poked and prodded. They spend their summers traveling the country with AAU squads, not carrying luggage for rich tourists from New York City.
It's a completely different world and it should come as little surprise that players today are generally bigger, faster and stronger than their contemporaries from 50 years ago; it's not that today's player is naturally more athletic, but simply that that athletic potential is being maximized to the fullest extent. Better nutrition, training, coaching, it's all part of what makes today's NBA player an absolutely supreme athlete.
If we look at Dwight Howard as the physical specimen we see today and imagine him playing against the centers of the 1960s, it's easy to say he'd be even more dominant than Chamberlain was. The problem is that the Dwight Howard we see today wouldn't have existed back then. He would have been a much more normal teenager, albeit a particularly tall one. He wouldn't have spent countless hours on a basketball court; maybe, like Chamberlain, he would have dabbled in track and field. While it might be fun, transporting Dwight Howard back in time as he is today establishes a faulty premise, because 2013 Dwight Howard simply doesn't exist in 1954 or 1964. Instead of making millions as a teenager in the NBA he'd probably be hauling bags or cutting grass.
Keep that in mind the next time you watch tape of Bill Russell and think he'd be little more than Thaddeus Young in today's game. Perspective is everything, even if it's hard to come by these days.