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Steiner: Hard to compare NBA’s generations (Feb. 19)

Peter Steiner | Monday, February 18, 2013

On Sunday, Michael Jordan turned 50 years old. To commemorate his birthday, ESPN and other media sources spent the day and the days leading up to Sunday replaying Jordan’s greatest plays and recalling his greatness.

While I had seen these highlights countless times and heard his remarkable career recounted before by others, the celebration helped me realize that I don’t really know exactly how great a player Michael Jordan was.

Back in high school, I read the book “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made,” a biography outlining Jordan’s life and career. However, I was only five years old when the he won his sixth championship. So despite reading the biography, watching a few old playoff games and catching reruns of his top plays, I still can’t fully grasp Jordan’s greatness because I, along with most people under the age of 25, didn’t get to watch the MJ dominate night in and night out.

Instead, we – referring to the group without the good fortune of watching Air Jordan during his playing days – have to rely on highlights, statistics and second-hand accounts to appreciate him and the other greats of yesteryear. Unfortunately, these sources don’t capture the big picture, as they are unable to convey the state of game and the zeitgeist in those years. Thus it becomes hard for the next generation to accurately evaluate the historic careers of players like Jordan.

For example, statistics often have difficulties expressing great individual performances and how those performances compare to other eras. Similarly, the media and its analysts/experts are prone to forget the greatness of the past players by exaggerating the players of the present. This happens in all sports, but applies especially to basketball where the stars are fewer, but arguably more prominent.

Take LeBron’s recent incredible stretch of games. The media and fans questioned if such a streak – six straight games of 30 points and a shooting percentage of better than 60 percent – has occurred in the past. But Michael Wilbon, in a recent column on ESPN, points out that the answer is easy:  Jordan in 1989. Wilbon, who is surprisingly calm on paper compared to on television, explains that people have forgotten the true greatness of Jordan. Because LeBron has been nearly unstoppable, Wilbon writes that “people are forgetting just how MJ terrorized every player and thrilled every fan for years.”

Wilbon also points out that there are a few other greats, like Wilt Chamberlain, lost in the history books. But just like I can’t accurately compare Michael Jordan with LeBron James, neither can Wilbon fully evaluate Chamberlain, as he was only a toddler during Wilt’s historic 1968 season.

So am I suggesting that we cease comparing the greatest players of different generations? Of course not, because that’s one thing that makes sports so enjoyable. Looking back in the record books and sizing up the current stars against those of the past usually makes for great debates. Plus, these conversations allow us to reminisce about the former stars and their amazing feats. But I do believe comparisons across generations need to be taken at face value and absolutes should be rare.

I, along with most college-aged kids, don’t have the authority to compare LeBron or Kobe with MJ. On the one hand, it’s a frustrating fact that I did not experience the greatness of Michael Jordan in his time. But on the other hand, it’s the nature of sports and the continuous cycle of great players in sports history. We can all share in the memory of LeBron’s performance in game six at the Garden last June. But when parents or TV broadcasters bring up Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” in 1997, those of us younger than 30 can’t totally understand the significance of the game.

I guess I will just have to wait until I turn 50 years old (a scary thought) until I can accurately compare the newest stars with those from my younger years.

Contact Peter Steiner at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.