Posted Mar 15 2011 12:21PM
Every generation has its own music. Its own fashion. Its own slang, its own celebrities, its own sensibilities.
Every generation does not get its own version of history, however. Or its own records.
Records -- sports records in particular, those special blends of circumstances and statistics that remind us who ran the fastest, scored the most or won most often -- are made to be broken, yes. They're meant to be targeted, cursed, marveled at and respected, right up to the point where they're eclipsed.
But they aren't made to be boxed up and stuck in a closet somewhere before their time. The old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," applies here, except that the word fix needs some air quotes around it.
There was a "fix" afoot last week in the NBA that not only seemed silly and unnecessary but threatened to do harm to some of the league's greatest players and moments. All in the name of (grrr) marketing. Fortunately, it fell as flat as New Coke.
When Minnesota forward Kevin Love went for 16 points and 21 rebounds in a rare Timberwolves rout of Indiana March 9, it marked the 52nd consecutive game in which Love had posted a double-double (at least 10 points and 10 rebounds). It was an impressive streak, maybe not up there with DiMaggio's 56 but solid all the same, a bright spot for the Wolves in another dreary season and a link from Love to some of the NBA's legendary big men.
Except that "legendary" got jettisoned in a rush to proclaim Love's streak an NBA "modern-era" record. Huh? Modern era? Apparently, a lot of fans, other media folks and I missed the memo informing us when this modern era began. Or for that matter, how long it would last before yielding to some sort of post-modern NBA era. Or what we were supposed to make of all people and things suddenly relegated to the league's, hmm, "ancient" era.
Minnesota's media-relations department was very careful to say only that Love's streak was "the longest since" Moses Malone reeled off 51 such games from December 1978 to October 1979. But some of the team's marketing folks and a careless Twin Cities media outlet or two overreached, going with the "modern era" nonsense to make Love's achievement seem a little more fresh and somehow bigger.
As if, just like that, people were supposed to ignore Wilt Chamberlain. And (ahem) his 227 consecutive "double-double" games.
From 1964 to 1967, Chamberlain, the NBA's answer to Babe Ruth, managed at least 10 points and 10 rebounds -- Liliputian numbers to him, really -- for the equivalent of nearly three full seasons. He also had streaks of 220 and 133 consecutive double-doubles. Seeing as how the Dipper averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds across 14 seasons, 10 and 10 wouldn't have been even a productive half most nights.
But because Chamberlain's stats are crazy-bloated, because he and Bill Russell (15.1 ppg, 22.5 rpg) put up numbers unlikely to be matched or surpassed, someone apparently tried to just shove them aside.
"Wilt Chamberlain? Wow. How do you not count what he did?" said Dominique Wilkins, the Atlanta Hawks' Hall of Fame forward said when told of this statistical gerrymandering.
"The 'old' record? A record is a record," Wilkins said. "I don't care if it was in a damn Pee Wee league, Wilt Chamberlain averaged a lot of points and a lot of rebounds. He was the most dominant player in the history of this game. What Kevin Love's doing is remarkable. But what those guys did from that 'era,' their toughness, their physicality, you can't discount it. You can't. ... What standards are they going by?"
And there's the problem. The moment you concoct and embrace multiple standards, you essentially diminish them all. Major League Baseball is suffering from that now. For more than a century, it acknowledged just one chronological break in its traditions, stats and records: Everything before 1900 and everything after. It was a logical pivot point, given the arrival and configuration of its leagues, significant rule changes and a shift away from the hacky-sack dead ball that Cap Anson and his mates had to throw and swing at.
More recently, though, baseball has legitimized a bunch of "eras" within its history. The Expansion Era. The Integration Era. The Lively Ball Era. The High Pitching Mound Era. Regrettably, the Steroid Era. And now, of course, the Post-Steroids Era. At this rate, every officially recognized MLB "era" will have lasted approximately 3 ½ seasons and will have its own set of records.
The NBA largely had been free of such rezonings. Until last week, frankly, the only demarcation had been "pre-shot clock" and "post-shot clock," a recognition that the basic game was transformed, dramatically and for the better, by the introduction of the 24-second clock prior to the 1954-55 season. Offensive and defensive standards were forever altered. Fair enough.
But then, out of the blue, came this "modern era" nomenclature. Pressed for clarification as Love racked up No. 53 (24 points, 12 boards vs. Utah Friday) before his streak stalled ( six points and 12 rebounds vs. Golden State Sunday), the term suddenly morphed into "since the 1976 NBA/ABA merger." Really? "Merger?" An 18-franchise NBA absorbs four teams from the dying ABA and that constitutes a merger? Even though it takes another 23 years before one of those four (San Antonio) is good enough to win an NBA championship?
Might as well go with some other arbitrary turning point. Like the eradication of belts on shorts, the post-Spencer Haywood hardship "era," the recording of assists and blocked shots as actual statistics in 1973 or the moment the lights turned on at ESPN.
At the risk of going all "Get off my lawn!" on this topic, there don't seem to be enough degrees of separation to write off one era as, say, "classic" and tout another as "modern."
George Mikan played against Bob Pettit, who played against Wilt, who played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played against Hakeem Olajuwon, who played against Tim Duncan, who still is playing against Kevin Love. Before LeBron James, before Michael Jordan, before Wilkins, before David Thompson, before Julius Erving, before Connie Hawkins, there was Elgin Baylor dazzling folks below and above the rim.
And just because Chamberlain on many nights towered over a bunch of the men who tried to contain him doesn't mean that he didn't have his hands full against others, such as Russell, Walt Bellamy, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier and Elvin Hayes. Good luck naming eight centers today who could challenge Wilt like that.
Change in the NBA has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. That's a big part of the allure of the NBA, the fact that its game and so many factors within it -- the ball, the rim, the court, most of the rules -- have been constant. The numbers aren't always easy -- Kareem's number of all-time points (38,387) doesn't exactly trip off the tongue -- but at least they're comparable.
Otherwise, we'd better be willing to designate Kobe Byrant's 81 points in January 2006 as the "modern" scoring record. And consign Russell's and the Boston Celtics' 11 titles in 13 seasons to some dusty curio box.
Minnesota's Love, to his credit, didn't fall for the "modern era" claims. Given that his father Stan played in the NBA and ABA in the 1970s, gave him the middle name Wes in honor of his old teammate, Unseld, and influenced his son to wear No. 42 a la pal Hawkins, the Wolves' worker bee has an appreciation for those who came before him.
"Whether you put is as, like, a modern-day or as NBA/ABA merger, but when you look at the grand scheme of things, you have to look at that 227," Love said after No. 52. "Wilt the Stilt ... he's something special. It's not like I have my eye set on that too much. I'm pretty happy in 2011 where I'm at."
Besides, in the haste to tout something else as "new," "fresh" and "improved," Love's next streak might get the "modern" label slapped on it, compared to that 53-gamer he got so very long ago.
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