Editor's note: This column appears in the June 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
When NBA TV replayed John Havlicek's final game last April, the only people watching were probably me and the Havliceks. I found myself riveted for three reasons. First, the opening tip-off was delayed for over eight minutes because Celtics fans wouldn't stop cheering after Hondo was introduced. Second, after Buffalo's Randy Smith was ejected, I could see my tiny self sitting on my father's lap as Smith walked through the tunnel. And third, according to CBS's ancient-looking halftime graphics, Havlicek's statistical résumé on April 9, 1978 looked like this:
Most games played (1,269). Most playoff games played (172). Only player to score 1,000 points in 16 straight seasons. Third, career scoring (26,895 points). Second, career minutes played (46,407).
Seeing those numbers 29 years later, my gast was flabbered. Yeah, I grew up in Boston and vividly remember Hondo carrying us to the 1976 title on a bad wheel. I knew he was one of the best players of his time, a physical freak of nature, someone who routinely played 42 to 44 minutes a night without ever stopping or seeming tired. Throughout his final season, I remember opposing teams showering him with gifts at every stop. But third in scoring, second in minutes and first in games played? John Havlicek?
I did some digging after the game and found that Hondo made 13 straight All-Star teams, four All-NBA first teams and seven second teams; he played for eight title teams and won the 1974 Finals MVP, and he earned one of 11 spots on the NBA's 35th-anniversary team, in 1980. To this day, he ranks 10th in points, eighth in minutes and seventh in playoff points. By any measure, he remains one of the 20 best players ever. But if you asked 100 diehard NBA fans under 30 to name their top 20, how many would name Havlicek? Three? Five?
Which begs the question: Does greatness have a shelf life?
This issue gained steam for me after LeBron's "48 Special"last week. Clearly, something monumental had happened: Not only did Marv Albert bless the performance as one of the greatest in playoff history, but it felt like a tipping point for LeBron's career, the night he fully tapped into his considerable gifts and lifted to another level. When talking heads, columnists, bloggers and fans raced to put the night into perspective, for once all the hyperbole seemed justified. More than a few people played the "MJ was great, but he never had a game like that!" card, as if Jordan's remarkable career needed to be demeaned for everyone to fully respect what LeBron had accomplished. I even wrote online that Jordan never physically overpowered an opponent the way LeBron ramshackled the Pistons and compared him to Bo Jackson and the way he wreaked havoc in his prime.
By Saturday, after everyone had calmed down, I found myself recalling some of Jordan's killer moments -- how he coldly destroyed Clyde Drexler in the 1992 Finals, how he prevailed against the rugby tactics of Pat Riley's Knicks, how he stole Game 7 against the 1998 Pacers by repeatedly getting to the line (like a running back moving the chains), how he ended his Chicago career with the incredible layup-steal-jumper sequence in Utah -- and regretting that, like nearly everyone else, I had fallen into the "Let's degrade the old guy to coronate the new guy!" trap.
That's something I've always sworn I would never do. One of my favorite books is Wait Till Next Year, in which a sports columnist (Mike Lupica) and a Hollywood screenwriter (William Goldman) trade chapters about a particularly crazy year in New York sports. Writing as a fan, Goldman submits an impassioned defense of Wilt Chamberlain's legacy, called "To the Death," which is one of my favorite pieces. He argues that great athletes fade from memory not because they're surpassed by better ones but because either we forget about them or our memories are tainted by things that have nothing to do with their career (like Bill Russell's being a lousy announcer, or OJ's being an, um, lousy ex-husband). Goldman writes, "the greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware that it's begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death."
This piece was published in 1988, when Bird and Magic were at the height of their powers and Jordan was nearing the same tipping point LeBron reached in Detroit. Already saddened that we'd be poking holes in them some day, Goldman predicted, "Bird and Magic's time is coming. It's easy being fans of theirs now. Just wait. Give it a decade." Then he wrote an entire mock paragraph of fans picking apart their games in the year 2000, complaining that Magic couldn't guard anyone and Bird was too slow. He ended with this mock quote: "Sure (Bird) was good, and so was Magic -- but they couldn't play today." I remember reading that piece in college and thinking, Come on, that's ludicrous. Nobody will ever forget Bird and Magic! Those guys saved the NBA!
Well, you know what? It's 2007, and no one gives a crap about Bird and Magic anymore. Goldman was right. The phenomenon was in full swing after 48 Special -- again, a magnificent event, but one that paled in comparison with a 20-year-old Magic jumping center in Philly, slapping up a 42/15/7, playing five positions and leading the Lakers to the 1980 title. Imagine if something like that happened today? There would be pieces of Skip Bayless' head scattered across the entire city of Bristol.
So why do we pump up the present at the expense of the past? Goldman believed that every era is "so arrogant (and) so dismissive," and again he was right, although that arrogance/dismissiveness isn't entirely intentional. We'd like to believe that our current stars are better than the guys we once watched.
Why? Because the single best thing about sports is the unknown. It's much more fun to think about what could happen than about what already has. We don't want LeBron to be as good as MJ; we need him to be better than MJ. We already did the MJ thing. Who wants to rent the same movie twice? We want LeBron to take us to a place we've never been. It's the same reason we convince ourselves that Shaq is better than Wilt and Steve Nash is better than Bob Cousy. We don't know these things for sure. We just want them to be true.
There's a much simpler reason that we're incapable of fully appreciating the past. As the Havlicek broadcast proved to me, it's easy to forget anything if you stop thinking about it long enough, even something as ingrained as "My favorite basketball team employed one of the best 20 players ever when I was a little kid." Once upon a time, the Boston Garden fans cheered Hondo for 510 seconds. And I was there, in the building.
But that's the funny thing about noise: Eventually, it stops.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.