Remembering greatness

Feb. 3, 2008: Eli Manning and the New York Giants go on one of the most thrilling game-winning drives in one of the most heart-pounding games in football history, defeating the then-Goliaths of the National Football League, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The victory was all the more stunning since the Patriots entered the game looking to become the second undefeated team in NFL history.

You may (or may not) be asking yourself, where was your favorite columnist during this monumental occasion? He was on his living room couch, screaming his 12-year-old head off. Watching David Tyree make what would be known as the “Helmet Catch” still ranks in the top 10 moments of my life.

For diehard sports fanatics, there are some games, some miraculous moments in which their favorite team took part, that will be forever imprinted in their memory. Even for the casual fan, events like Ali-Frazier, the Miracle on Ice or Michael Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russel won’t soon be forgotten. Some would say that any game of sports, no matter what level, has little bearing on the “real world.” But history has shown us that a great individual or a great team, like some awe-inspiring force of nature, can affect us profoundly.

With that in mind, what defines a “classic” event? Broadcasters often say that they can see greatness reveal itself before their very eyes. They’re prone to say things like, “We have just witnessed an all-time classic,” but such a statement only reveals the presumptuousness of those commentating. The seven-game duel between Vince Carter and Allen Iverson back in 2001 was certainly amazing to watch live, but it is now hardly considered one of the all-time great battles of basketball. With such spectacles, only history can be the judge of their greatness, not the ones watching.

Live events are certainly tricky to judge, especially since in order to get an accurate view of their “greatness,” they must be replayed over and over. No replay can every capture the feeling of watching a glorious battle take place right before one’s very eyes. If this is so, can we, the fans, only act as passive observers, merely remarking on how nice it was to watch a certain game without ever trying to match it against other great games of the past?

The answer, of course, is no. For many, half the fun of sports is admiring the players and games in real-time, and the other half lies in asking questions like, “How does this game compare against the greats of the past? What are differences between today’s gameplay and rules that make such a performance different? (For example, have rule changes in the past 20 years made it easier to score, making this player’s 50-point outburst less impressive?)” My personal preference is trying to understand the career arcs of players and put those in a historical context, as opposed to looking at, say, a smattering of games over the span of a season. Analyzing the career of a player is similar to analyzing a given game in that in both cases, you’re watching a continuous show. In some rare cases, you realize you’re getting the opportunity to watch once-in-a-lifetime talent. In watching the careers of great players, however, you’re stringing together great events and smaller events, many different showcases of brilliance both loud and soft, and coming up with a more complete picture.

Take, for example, watching the career arc of LeBron James. I can point out to you his domination of the Pistons in Game 5 in 2007. I could put on a tape of his unbelievable Game 6 against Boston in 2012 that kept his team alive in their run toward the championship. Year after year I could offer you stat sheets that would clearly indicate his brilliance. But my favorite part of his game, and the part that I think truly indicates greatness, is the fact that I could take you, dear reader, who may or may not be deeply invested in basketball, and have you hop online and watch a few Miami Heat games with me. Instead of recalling great deeds of the past, we can just sit and watch him dominate in all facets, in big ways and small, game after game after game. Even a casual fan without much difficulty could pick out some of the great stuff that he does over those 48 minutes.

To me, memorability lies in the little things. Great players are remembered just as much for their occasional shows of absolute dominance as they are for the consistency they show day in and day out. The mental acumen Ali showed in one of his more famous victories, Rumble in the Jungle, was a mark of his whole career, not just in that championship bout. Ultimately, we remember less the event, but the bodies of work containing them.

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