Something special happened last night. The San Antonio Spurs achieved a feat that we get the pleasure of witnessing no more than five times a year in the sports world. It happens so rarely that at time fans and athletes alike forget that it even exists in sports. Coaches preach of its virtues and try their damnedest to instruct their teams in the way of attaining it. Most fail. Last night, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs achieved athletic perfection. Watch (scroll to the 1:46 mark of the video, if it doesn’t start there automatically):
It began around the 11:06 mark in the third quarter and lasted until about the 5:15 mark. During that span, the Spurs were a breath-taking juggernaut, scoring 25 points on 9/11 shooting including a startling 5/5 mark from the three-point line. The spacing, cutting, and ball movement among the Spurs players was something that led many a NBA analyst remarking that he had never witnessed passing at such an elite level. And what’s remarkable about the passing is not only each player’s ability to read the defense and make the correct play, but also that the passes arrive in exactly the spot that a shooter needs it in order to take a good shot. Remember that a half second can mean the difference between a wide-open three and having your shot blocked on a close out, given the speed of NBA players (think: Westbrook).
Every Spurs read and subsequent pass was perfect during this stretch. It all culminated in that excellent behind-the-back pass from Manu Ginobli to Tony Parker in which the Thunder’s transition defense was so taken aback by the wide-openness of Parker that they let him take the three without a single player running out to challenge the shot. Parker took his time, squared his feet, and knocked it down. Of course he did.
The three readers of this site know by now that my favorite sports article of all-time is a David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religous Experience.” At its most simplistic level, the piece details Wallace’s fascination with the greatest tennis player in the world at the peak of his powers. Better than perhaps any individual who ever attempted to do so, Wallace is able to describe what it is that makes witnessing Federer so powerful to a sports fan. He discusses the impossibility of his shot-making and the brilliance of his decision-making. The genius of the piece, to me, eventually defines what’s appealing about watching competitive sports played at a level like that, to which Wallace writes:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
What Wallace describes is athletic perfection. We’re attracted to it because it happens so rarely. We delight in it because of the sheer impossibility of it all. For about six minutes last night the Spurs were able to achieve that. To be honest, I could not even tell you the last time I witnessed it on a basketball court. I’ve seen it happen in soccer multiple times in the last three years with Barcelona and Lionel Messi. The St. Louis Cardinals found a little bit of it in their World Series run last year. Eli Manning seems to find it once every five years or so, but only when his team is trailing late in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl to the Patriots.
To a sport dork like myself, it’s why I devote so much time to consuming sports content every day. Although I admit that I do take a sicker, darker pleasure in seeing my home-town teams succeed, there is nothing purer as a fan of sports than witnessing something like that. I’m reduced to being a fan of the game itself which is really what it should be all about in the first place. It’s also far easier to reconcile the countless hours spent watching, reading, and studying. For most people a championship every decade or so suffices. For me it’s these sporadic glimpses of greatness.
I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re any kind of a fan of basketball or sports in general, you should be tuning in right now to watch the San Antonio Spurs to see how long this lasts. They have a legitimate shot at sweeping the entire playoffs, a feat which has never been accomplished. More importantly for you though, you might get to witness a breath-taking stretch like occurred last night. When you finally are able to let go of living and dying with your team and enjoy the purity of rooting for great sports, you’ll learn to love the games in ways that are infinitely more rewarding.
Trust me, I’m a sports dork.
In the age of Twitter, it is almost unforgivable that I waited a week to finally address the issue of last week’s Super Bowl in a column. I apologize up front for that. Since the big game though I’ve been throwing a couple of ideas around that I’m going to try to make some sense of in this piece. In my opinion, it was the most fascinating Super Bowl ever from a sports dork/debating/evaluation perspective. The chief issues for this come about as a result of asking any one of the following questions: How were the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick affected by the outcome? How does Eli Manning rate compared to the other elite quarterbacks in this league? How can an athlete be considered the best ever at his profession but be so utterly out shined by a fellow athlete at that same task (also known as: the Federer/Nadal conundrum)? Who is the better quarterback among the brothers Manning? Is it even worth the time and effort to try to debate all of this in the first place?
The idea for this essay was conceived as the result of reading a series of random pieces in the past couple of weeks. So as to not come across as though I’m stealing their ideas, I’d like to credit those three pieces now and I’ll refer to them at the appropriate stages. The first is Bomani Jones’ Super Bowl column which details the challenging dilemma of attempting to evaluate quarterbacks against one another. The second is Malcolm Gladwell’s review of the Steve Jobs book in the wake of his untimely death which, among many things, contrasts Jobs to Bill Gates. The last is Eric Freeman’s column on the aftermath of the classic Federer/Djokovic Australian Open final this year. It is my suggestion that you read all three of those before proceeding.
The issue I want to examine is trying in some manner to describe greatness as it pertains to athletics. More specifically, being the greatest. To say it is a complex undertaking is a gross understatement and does no justice to the amount of thought various writers and thinkers have done tackling this subject. I have no allusions about how difficult this is and how highly subjective the analysis will be.
True confession: like many other sports dorks the Michael Lewis book Moneyball forever altered how I look at sports. I don’t know how many other readers were led to explore the principles of advanced stats as they applied to other sports, but count me among those who took their bachelor’s in sports dorkdom from Moneyball and went to study for the full PhD by mining the darker corners of the internet for content.
One of my first questions was what organizations were utilizing the same philosophies in the other major sports? I soon learned that the Houston Rockets pretty much pioneered it for the NBA. I learned that European soccer clubs like Arsenal are investing in the use of advanced stats but that it’s increasingly difficult to come up with metrics in a sport like soccer that has infinitely more measurable events taking place in a game than say, baseball. I then learned that Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were way ahead of the curve for using it in the NFL and suddenly the dominance of that organization over the last decade made sense.
And thus was born one of the more improbable man crushes in the history of sports. Prior to this past season, I cannot tell you how much I loathed the city of Boston and, more specifically, Bill Belichick. I found his press conferences insulting, I believed his success was fraudulent due to Spygate, and I thought the hoodie look was a disgrace to the game. I felt a personal bitterness that resonated as a result of his Patriots so quickly grasping the dynasty title just a few seasons after my beloved John Elway retired with back-to-back Super Bowl wins. I detested anyone who thought of Tom Brady as being in the same sentence with Elway. The more you delve into the Belichick story though, the more it becomes clear that this man is not some short-tempered loser with the ego of a big program college football coach, but rather one of the greatest innovators and thinkers in the history of football.
After some reading I learned the reasoning behind his press conference performances. It wasn’t so much an arrogant display as it was a hilarious and ironic protest of the monotony of sports coverage. I eventually learned the story behind the hoodie, and instantly I saw a man with wit and charm rather than a bad taste in clothing. Combine that with learning about his lifelong friendship with Ernie Adams–a man who can only be described as the football whisperer–and Bill Belichick might be the single most fascinating coach in the history of American professional sports. If you have no idea what I’m talking about in any of those instances, please drop me a line in the comments and I’d be happy to elaborate.
What became increasingly clear though, in my mind, was that Bill Belichick was the greatest football coach ever. When you combine the titles, the prolonged success, the innovation, the draft strategy, the players he’s coached, the embracing of advanced stats, the personality, the knowledge of the game, etc., I don’t think it’s even a contest. Hands down Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all time.
Which is what makes it all the more confounding to me that Tom Coughlin (Tom Coughlin!) has his number when it comes to these Super Bowls. No offense to any Giants fans or members of the Coughlin family, but at face value, Tom Coughlin might be the least interesting coach in the history of football. For one, he’s really old. Two, I can’t get past the way his cheeks turn all kinds of red when a) it gets cold and/or b) the Giants pull off one of their patented “what in the f— were they thinking there” plays. And three, there’s nothing particularly innovative about the New York Giants roster except that they got extremely lucky with Victor Cruz and seem to have a penchant for collecting as many defensive linemen as possible.
And this brings me to my first comparison. In that Malcolm Gladwell piece I mentioned, the author of the book talks about how Steve Jobs used to get infuriated with Bill Gates. It is no secret at this point that Jobs thought of himself as the greatest innovator/inventor of our modern times and took great personal lengths to assure that anything associated with him and his company were “perfect” in his eyes. While coming across on the surface as being completely arrogant, I don’t think anyone outside of the city of Seattle and the walls of the Microsoft office is going to disagree with his view. Jobs was a genius. People were attracted to that genius. As a result Apple, to put it mildly, is a successful business.
Which is what makes it all the more fascinating that he would let Bill Gates get him so worked up. As Gladwell recalled from the book:
In the nineteen-eighties, Jobs reacted the same way [as he did to the release of the Android phone in recent years] when Microsoft came out with Windows. It used the same graphical user interface—icons and mouse—as the Macintosh. Jobs was outraged and summoned Gates from Seattle to Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. “They met in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him,” Isaacson writes. “Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. ‘You’re ripping us off!’ he shouted. ‘I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!’ ”
Gates looked back at Jobs calmly. Everyone knew where the windows and the icons came from. “Well, Steve,” Gates responded. “I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Jobs was someone who took other people’s ideas and changed them. But he did not like it when the same thing was done to him. In his mind, what he did was special. Jobs persuaded the head of Pepsi-Cola, John Sculley, to join Apple as C.E.O., in 1983, by asking him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” When Jobs approached Isaacson to write his biography, Isaacson first thought (“half jokingly”) that Jobs had noticed that his two previous books were on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and that he “saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence.” The architecture of Apple software was always closed. Jobs did not want the iPhone and the iPod and the iPad to be opened up and fiddled with, because in his eyes they were perfect. The greatest tweaker of his generation did not care to be tweaked.
What the author is essentially saying is that Jobs found Gates’ success insulting even though they both seemingly committed the same act. Neither of these men originally came up with the ideas that would revolutionize computers, but both saw the potential in Xerox’s original idea. Doing a little more reasearch, one discovers that later on Jobs would vent to others about how Microsoft drove him crazy by intentionally omitting beauty and grace from the process of creating computers. The way Windows could be used on thousands of different computers and laptop styles that were created only for the sake of being created seemed to offend Jobs’ very existance. He took great personal pride in the design of his products.
When I watch Bill Belichick lose to Tom Coughlin, I feel Steve Jobs’ pain described in that story. How dare the Giants go ruin something as beautiful as the New England Patriots as designed by Bill Belichick! They don’t understand the greatness that they are impeding upon! Tom Coughlin should feel lucky to even share the field with the great Belichick! And so forth.
To delve into the Belichick story is to become obssessed with a great man and a great coach. I’m telling you, don’t do it unless you are prepared to fall absolutely head over heels in sports love with the man. The way I feel about him is the way the legions of Apple fans feel about Jobs.
And yet, how do I defend him as the greatest coach of all-time when Tom Coughlin has his number?
One of the better developments in recent years in terms of journalism has been the trend towards what is known as “Long Form” journalism whereby the writer gets thousands of more words than she typically would to report her story. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s journalism, only longer. I would argue it’s better as well. It’s inspired a number of websites, among the more famous are Longreads.com and Bill Simmons’ new site Grantland.
It’s unfair to really attribute all of this form’s recent success to one person, but if you put a gun to my head I’d credit its modern popularity to the late David Foster Wallace. Wallace is considered perhaps the greatest novelist of modern times and what further endeared him to his fans was that he wrote several fantastic magazine pieces in addition to the great works of literature he published. For some reason, Wallace made the conscious decision to make his magazine pieces far more readable than the complex issues of his books. But while the magazine pieces might have been relatively more simple (especially when compared to a Wallace novel), they had a uniqueness about them that absolutely grabbed the reader and kept their attention throughout. If you don’t believe me, read his take on travelling aboard a luxury cruise, his reporting from a regional lobster festival, or most importantly, his famous tribute to Roger Federer.
That last piece, I would argue, inspired a whole generation of sports dorks. What Wallace accomplished in that piece redefined the expectations of what could be accomplished in sports writing. I’ll make the claim that it’s partially responsible for the success of sites like Deadspin and Grantland, as well as writers like Bill Simmons, Tommy Craggs, and Will Leitch.
Beyond the exceptional writing, the biggest miracle of the whole piece might be that it has actually turned tennis into a sort of cult sport for sports dorks. You may not know it, but the who’s who of the sports blogosphere follows the tennis majors with religous intent, staying up all hours of the night to not miss the beautiful tennis that Wallace turned them on to so many years ago.
I bring all of that up because what’s peculiar about that unique group of writers/fans is that we (yes, I proudly include myself among these sports dorks) all universally agree that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. To watch Federer play is to view firsthand the limitations of man’s body being challenged and redefined. His brilliance and knowledge of the game is unparalleled within the sport and the beauty and grace with which he plays is likewise unrivaled. I’m also willing to admit that we’re all likely biased because of Wallace’s writing on the topic and what can only be described as a sort of contempt for Nadal and the gall with which he challenged something as beautiful as Federer.
The challenge though, as Eric Freeman notes in his piece about this latest Australian Open, is that it is now seemingly impossible to define greatness, or more specifically, who is the “greatest.” We all agree that Roger Federer is the best of all time, but how can he be the best when he couldn’t defeat his chief rival during his prime? And in the most fascinating twist of all, how can Nadal possibly be the best of all time when his reign was so utterly interrupted by Novak Djokovic’s recent brilliance? Djokovic certainly hasn’t sustained his success long enough to enter the greatest of all-time conversation yet, but the way with which he does away with Nadal is shocking to witness just as Nadal’s dominance over Federer came as such a surprise a couple years ago. To make things even more interesting, Djokovic was of course mostly dominated by Federer last year. So just to sum it up, Federer is definitely the best ever except for that he could never defeat Nadal during their primes, while Nadal could have been the best ever except that he can’t defeat Novak Djokovic who just so happens to lose to Federer. Tennis, everybody!
And in that description you pretty much described the entire scenario facing the current slate of elite NFL quarterbacks. Tom Brady was definitely the best of the bunch, but he can’t defeat Eli Manning. Peyton Manning was definitely the better of the brothers, but for some reason he has less Super Bowl rings than baby bro and was completely dominated by Tom Brady during their respective primes. Aaron Rodgers and/or Drew Brees might be playing the Djokovic role because they’re breaking all the passing records, but neither of them has sustained their current success long enough to unseat Brady as the best quarterback of this generation. And thus you enter the confusing circle of trying to define greatness.
Tom Brady has the most rings of any active quarterback (3), but he also has the most Super Bowl losses (2). Peyton Manning has the most MVPs of any player in NFL history (4), but he’s about to be cut by his team and has less Super Bowls than his little brother (1 to Eli’s 2). Aaron Rodgers seems like he’s going to rewrite all the records, except that his backup (Matt Flynn) stepped into his shoes and had the greatest statistical game ever by a Green Bay quarterback leaving many to wonder if his success is due to the system and/or the receivers rather than the QB. Drew Brees just broke the record for passing yards in a season, but he plays in a dome at least half the year and passes the ball more times per game than any player in the history of football. And round and round it goes.
How do you possibly define greatness? I’d still argue that Tom Brady is the best of the bunch. However my buddy and co-founder of the site Eddie would no doubt make a great case that Brady’s legacy is forever impacted (negatively) by his losses to Eli in these Super Bowls. I’d wager to say he’d even be willing to argue that Eli is better than Peyton as well. And how could you not at least hear him out? Eli carried the Giants sad sack of a roster this year and single-handedly led them to the title with the worst rushing attack in the league. He’s probably the best third down QB in the league now and the control he exhibits over drives is remarkable to watch. But again, this was all in a year in which Aaron Rodgers nearly went 16-0 in the regular season and in which Drew Brees rewrote the passing records. Do you define greatness by titles only? By awards and records? By wins? By some super secret formula combining all of those?
Good luck defending any one of those guys.
I’d like to come to a conclusion that somehow none of this actually matters, but that’s impossible. This stuff does matter to sports fans. It fills our thoughts and conversations and one day it will eventually define each of the athletes mentioned in this piece. As long as sports continue to be played professionally in this country, the debate over who is the greatest of all-time will continue.
And it should.
The reason this debate has importance is that sports affect fans, both positively and negatively. Being able to debate things like greatness validates that somehow all the time and effort we devote to sports was somehow worth it. Even better if we experienced that greatness firsthand by being a fan of a particular athlete. As an example, I’m sure most Patriots fans out there would argue that Brady is the greatest QB of all time, but they’d be hard pressed to convince any Broncos fan that he was better than Elway. Just as any Broncos fan could never convince a 49ers fan that Elway was better than Montana. Older Cowboys fans would argue for Staubach. Younger Cowboys fans would point to Aikman.
And in that endless debate over what man is actually the greatest of all, I think the answer reveals itself.
The purpose of greatness is not to define or limit it to a single individual, but rather to continue to experience it for yourself.