Friday, December 18, 2009
By Bill Simmons
You know Malcolm Gladwell as the best-selling author of "The Tipping Point," "Outliers" and "Blink." You know him because "What The Dog Saw," his latest best-seller, has been flying off bookshelves for the past two months. You know him from his award-winning New Yorker articles. You know him because we tried this gimmick two other times for ESPN.com: in 2006 and earlier this year.
And now? We're trying it again. Like you didn't have enough distractions over the holidays, here are nearly 10,000 words of e-mails Gladwell and I exchanged about Kobe, Tiger, concussions, Donaghy, capitalization rates, celebrity sightings and everything else you can imagine.
For Part 2, CLICK HERE. This is Part 1. Gladwell leads us off.
Wait. How did I get roped into this again? Oh, right. Because both of us released books this fall and we thought we should engage in a little shameless self-promotion during the Christmas rush.
Yeah, this could end badly. I also worry about the third act of anything. For instance, when Hollywood follows a sequel with the dreaded "III," the concession is usually, "We knew this was going to suck, but we couldn't resist cashing in on this franchise one last time." I hope that's not us. But you got me thinking
third movies (re-sequels?) can veer in one of four directions:
No. 1: Really, really, excruciatingly bad.
"Halloween III" didn't even have Michael Myers in it. "Karate Kid III" was so inexplicable that it's now one of the funniest comedies of the '80s. "Godfather III" had the single biggest casting misfire of our lifetimes (Sofia Coppola as Michael Corleone's daughter). "Home Alone III" made the fatal mistake of not bringing back Macaulay Culkin. The third "Naked Gun" was sneaky horrible. Same for "American Wedding" (the third "American Pie" movie). History will tell whether "Matrix III" joins this group; right now, it's on the fringe. Of course, the worst re-sequel of all time was "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan." Everyone just seems really sad, as if it's an elaborate kidnapping video. It's deeply disturbing. I don't think this is us even on our worst day.
No. 2: Watchable, but ultimately leaves you cold.
And it leaves you cold for this reason: From almost the first scene, it becomes abundantly clear that all parties are involved simply because (A) someone wrote out gigantic checks to lure everyone back and/or (B) the studio was trying to establish a franchise. Some good examples: "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," "Rush Hour III," "Robocop III," "Ocean's 13," "Batman III," "Spiderman III," "Beverly Hills Cop III," "Child's Play III," "Mission Impossible III," "Shrek III," "Saw III," "Terminator III," "Pirates of the Caribbean III," "Scream III," "Back to the Future III," "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," "Alien III," "Friday the 13th Part 3-D" and "Harry Potter III: Post-Puberty & A Little Horny." I'd say that 70-75 percent of all re-sequels end up here.
No. 3: Entertaining and worthy because it ties up all loose ends and/or reinvents the franchise to some degree.
I refuse to sit through "The Lord of the Rings," but apparently that's a great example for this. Whatever. Examples I have seen (and liked): "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Return of the Jedi," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Lethal Weapon III," "Fast & the Furious III," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Goldfinger" (the best of Connery's Bond movies).
No. 4: Rocky III.
The holy grail of re-sequels. Gets its own category.
I don't know, Gladwell. I mean
I would love to give the world a "Rocky III" here, and I'd even settle for "Goldfinger," but the percentages point to this becoming our "Die Hard: With a Vengeance." It's Christmas time, and we have books to sell. Our motives are pretty clear. If it's OK with you, even though I'm the white guy and you're the biracial Canadian, I'd like to be Sam Jackson and you can be Bruce Willis.
The ultimate re-sequel? Jenna Bush running for president in 2040. I'm not sure we're at that level yet.
Shall I kick things off? I know we're only a few weeks into the NBA season, but I was curious if anything has happened so far that makes you want to rethink your Hall of Fame pyramid. Do you have any regrets about "The Book of Basketball"? I know I do. I botched the introduction to your book. I was trying to suggest to the reader, as gently as I could, that you were a kind of Rain Man when it came to pro basketball -- someone whose extreme basketball knowledge might be considered, as the psychologists like to say when they are treading delicately, a "compensation strategy" -- and I left out my two best examples!
First story: I go to a party in New York and run into a man who proceeded to tell me a long story about this affair he had when he was a teenager with an older man who, it turns out, happened to have been an NBA star at the time. If memory serves, I gave you the city where the affair took place. First guess: bull's-eye!
Great, you just started a 17-day frenzy on the Internet of people trying to figure out that player's identity. Also, I think my editors just had a collective heart attack. Hold on, I have to revive them. I'll be right back.
Second story: Maybe three years ago, I'm in Paris, walking through the lobby of one of those seriously swanky and stuffy Parisian hotels on my way to meet a friend, and I run across an NBA player deep in conversation with the concierge about what shows were up at the Louvre. I e-mailed you immediately. Remember? I believe the exchange went something like this.
Me: "There is a 7-foot NBA player talking art in the lobby of the George V."
You: "Adonal Foyle is in Paris???"
Did you ever wonder how much better off humanity would be if you had put your brain to more productive uses?
Come on, who else would it have been? It wasn't going to be Chris Kaman. I also think I tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade you to do a feature on him. He grew up in the Grenadines, graduated summa cum laude from Colgate with a history degree, founded a nonprofit organization called Democracy Matters that tries to curb spending in political elections, and was more intelligent and well-rounded than anyone covering him. Putting Foyle in the NBA was almost a social experiment. Why hasn't he written a book? Why hasn't someone written a book about him? At the very least, NBATV should give him a reality show in which Foyle takes Marcin Gortat, Ryan Anderson and Dwight Howard under his wing on road trips and broadens their horizons in various ways. I would watch this show. Although that's not saying much.
This is what the whole Tiger Woods mess has made clear, I think (and I'm sure we'll get back to him later): We have such incredibly narrow views of what sports celebrities are like. We just can't imagine them as having the full range of human needs and interests. I mean, why shouldn't Adonal Foyle be an art lover?
It reminds me of the time those three guys came up to you in a restaurant in Chicago and told you that they were reading "The Tipping Point" in their book club and were big fans.
How could I forget?
Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes.
Greatest moment of my life.
You know who was on that Warriors team? Adonal Foyle! I guarantee he started the club. See, that could have been a whole episode of his reality show, "Foyled." This week, Adonal tries to start a book club on the Warriors, but things go terribly wrong when Stephen Jackson and Andris Biedrins get into a heated argument about "Slaughterhouse Five." Anyway, I think you're right that sports fans are guilty of "athletic profiling." Allen Iverson has cornrows and tattoos, and he shows up late for practice, and he takes too many shots, so this means he isn't articulate and self-aware (even though he is). Rasheed Wallace was the leader of the Jail Blazers, and he yells at refs and has tattoos, so this means that he doesn't have a high basketball IQ (even though he does). Mariano Rivera keeps a low profile, is super-religious and doesn't say much publicly, so this means he has nothing to say (even though Peter Gammons, in his farewell piece for ESPN.com, called him the single most distinctive athlete he covered). Bill Belichick gives monotone answers in news conferences, so this means he doesn't have a sense of humor (even though everyone who knows him swears he does). In all of those cases, our learned perceptions were wrong.
Years ago, I did a story on Tupac, and I tracked down some poems he wrote when he was in high school. They were all about flowers and sunsets and warm kisses. Before there was thug life, apparently, there was hug life. Who knew?
I can guarantee that "Hug Life" would not have sold 5 million records. With all of that said, though, if you had told me that Chris Kaman was in Paris asking about shows at the Louvre, I would not have believed you and would've started glancing around to see if I was being videotaped for some pranking pilot.
My friends and I used to play a game where we rated celebrity sightings according to the "sight-site" index. The celebrity was ranked on a 1-10 scale. Then the place where you saw the celebrity was ranked on a 1-10 scale, according to its unlikeliness, and the two numbers were multiplied to rank the sighting; 100, of course, is a perfect score. No one's ever gotten that. Chris Kaman talking art in the lobby of the George V would have been close.
My most unlikely celebrity sighting ever: During the horrible Super Bowl week in Jacksonville, I was attending the Maxim party in 50-degree weather that had barely any celebrities attending because, again, they decided to hold the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. At some point during the night, I was next in line to use one of the port-a-johns, which were stacked behind the party in some seedy, dark field. So I'm standing there thinking, "This sucks," and the port-a-john door opens. Who comes out? Katie Holmes. Taller and much more beautiful than I expected. We locked eyes, and she made that cute/crooked Katie Holmes "Some weird dude is staring at me incredulously" smile that she used to flash all the time before Tom Cruise got ahold of her. Then she walked by me and headed back to the party. And I headed into the disgusting port-a-john. Not even a month later, she signed with Cruise. Whoops, I mean, she fell for Cruise. I'm saying that "Katie Holmes + port-a-john + a few weeks before Cruise got ahold of her" was at least a 92 on your scale.
I've actually shelved the sight-site index. John Hollinger's celebrity rating system is way better.
To answer your rankings question about my book from five tangents ago, I have many small regrets (to be expected) and one big one: Putting Iverson (No. 29) too high. That was the one Pyramid-related instance of my affection for someone clouding my judgment to some degree. If I could do it over again, Level 3 of the Pyramid would start with George Mikan at No. 36, then the George Gervin/Sam Jones combo, then Iverson at No. 33, then Kevin McHale, then Dave Cowens and Willis Reed. But as I rattle off this group again, I'm realizing that Dirk (the league's best clutch scorer and its third most important player behind LeBron and Kobe) and Nash (having a vintage Nash season and reinventing the whole "D'Antoni's offense made Nash" argument to the point that you could make a much better case that Nash made D'Antoni) are enjoying such renaissances that they might have bulldozed their way into Level 3. So maybe Nash jumps to No. 36 and Dirk vaults past Iverson to No. 32.
One of only two changes I can guarantee for the paperback: Adding a footnote in Iverson's section about the jaw-dropping parallel between A.I. hitting rock bottom, then making an emotional, sobbing return to Philly and Dirk Diggler hitting rock bottom, then making an emotional, sobbing return to Jack Horner's house in "Boogie Nights." At least 20 readers e-mailed me about this. Sure, adding that point will require me to remove another "Boogie Nights"-related footnote from a different part of the book because we were at capacity, but it has to be done.
How much would I fall in your estimation if I admitted I've never seen "Boogie Nights"? Go on
I can't say that I'm surprised. You're the same person who fell in love with the NBA as a kid by reading Sports Illustrated issues in your local Canadian library. The other obvious change: Kobe's section needs to be rewritten. I can't remember anyone reinventing himself historically as well as Kobe did these past 16 months. The Olympics, then the 2009 Finals, then the media victory lap that everyone ate up
and then, when it seemed as if we were headed for a decline, he reinvented himself as the second coming of post-baseball Jordan and developed an even nastier, more physical post-up game than MJ had. I can't believe what I am watching. It's staggering. He's like a 6-foot-6 Hakeem Olajuwon. I went into this season thinking Kobe would be able to last just one or two more seasons at a high level; now I'm wondering whether he could play like this well into his late 30s. Why not? I mean, Karl Malone did it. Like Malone, Kobe is a workout freak who takes care of his body and seems predisposed to staying healthy, anyway. Malone averaged a 26-10 and made second-team All-NBA in the 1999-2000 season when he was 36 years old
and then he played four years after that. Kobe is only 31. Could he replicate Malone's longevity and consistency?
Let's say he plays five more years at this level and averages 25-26 points a game, plays in two more Finals (winning one) and makes three first-team All-NBAs and two 2nd-team All-NBAs. (Conceivable.) Here's how his hypothetical résumé would look after the 2014-2015 season: five rings and eight Finals appearances in all
34,000-plus points (third all time)
1,300-plus games (the record is 1,611, held by Robert Parish)
nearly 6,000 playoff points (close to the record of 5,987, held by MJ)
10 first-team All-NBAs, four second-teams and two third-teams. Again, that's a reasonable scenario. So if he stays healthy and keeps playing at this level, he would eventually become the Kareem of non-centers: either the third or fourth best player in the history of the league. Meanwhile, just 26 months ago, the Lakers were shopping him and he seemed destined to leave. I think this is startling.
I think you're right. As a general rule, I think we should always give special consideration to longevity, and weight a good season late in someone's career more than a very good season early in his career. To me, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres is far and away the greatest athlete of our generation. She's been a world-class athlete for 25 years, in a sport where women often peak in their late teens. She set an American record in the 50 free when she was 40. And the finest athletic performance of the past decade has to have been Tom Watson's win at the British Open this year at age 59, with an artificial hip no less -- and I say "win" because even though he finished second in a playoff, I think we can all agree that the difference between his play and Stewart Cink's play that weekend was effectively zero. When you revisit the Hall of Fame pyramid, I'd love to see you factor in age-weighted performance: Surely the ability to compensate for the inevitable effects of getting older is a hugely important part of the definition of a great athlete.
But age-weighted performance is era-specific to some degree. Think of the advantages for today's athletes with dieting and nutrition, personal training, exercise equipment, athletic equipment, medicine, sneakers, surgeries and first-class travel. Is there any way Dara Torres could have had her career in 1955? Of course not. We have infinitely more information about our bodies than we once did; we have better ways (and sometimes illegal ways) to keep them strong; we have much better ways of fixing them if anything goes wrong; and we have better equipment to help them reach optimal efficiency.
Back in Bill Russell's era, those guys were eating unhealthy food, smoking cigarettes, wearing crummy Converses, avoiding the gym and flying coach. None of them played past 33 to 35. It was impossible. Now? You can play until your early 40s if you take care of yourself and are predisposed to staying healthy. You can bounce back from any injury unless it's one of those Shaun Livingston-like knee explosions. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, if you blew out a knee, you were never the same. These days, someone like Al Jefferson can be back in 10 months.
Yes. You can only do longevity comparisons within generations. Torres' accomplishment is that of the swimmers who first went to the Olympics in 1984, she's the only one who was still an Olympian in 2008 -- where, I should add, she medaled. That accomplishment deserves special consideration. Same with Tom Watson. Every other senior golfer of his era has access to the same training techniques as he does -- but he was the only one in contention at this year's British Open. (By, the way, that Derek Jeter and not Watson was Sports Illustrated's athlete of the year was a crime. For Jeter to have had the year Watson did, he would have had to lead the Yankees to a World Series title in 2033.)
I can't wait to see how this plays out in the NBA. When you consider the influx of foreigners, the extended shelf lives of quality careers, the medicine/health strides, the positive impact of the rookie salary scale, the successful drug policy and the equally successful one-year waiting period for high schoolers, for the first time since the early '90s, you can make a case that the NBA finally has enough talent to stock every one of its teams. Recently, I watched my Celtics almost lose to Memphis and found myself thinking, "Wait a second
is Memphis secretly good, or did my wife spike my drink?" And they're 10-14. Really, there are only two hopeless teams right now: Minnesota and New Jersey. Every other team has enough talent to beat any other team on any given night.
So why is this? Well, an unusual number of stars from the 1995-99 drafts (Nash, Dirk, Duncan, Pierce, Kobe, etc.) extended their peaks past the typical drop-off point. An unusual number of under-24 potential stars (Durant, Howard, Paul, Rose, Roy, etc.) are coming through. And nearly every "franchise player" in the 25-29 age range (LeBron, Melo, Howard, Bosh, Wade, etc.) have seized their primes and almost-primes. And if you want to dig deeper, potential stars rarely get sidetracked by drugs, money or injury anymore. This decade, have you noticed how few Derrick Colemans or Ralph Sampsons we had? Gilbert Arenas and Amare Stoudemire never became superstars, but you wouldn't call them busts. Yao Ming's body broke down, but he wasn't exactly this generation's Bill Walton. T-Mac and Vince failed to fulfill their potential, but they weren't exactly disasters. Other than the usual slew of draft busts such as Darko and Morrison (who were improperly evaluated to begin with), there just aren't many talents about which we can say (as we did with Kenny Anderson once upon a time), "I'm still confused
why didn't that guy make it?"
And it goes back to those era-specific advantages. Athletes have a significantly better chance of succeeding now. And for longer. To a degree, this goes without saying. But it's something we always forget. Kobe will enjoy a longer prime than Jordan did because of his era and only because of his era. And because Jordan got suspended for gambling.
(Just kidding, just kidding. I couldn't resist.)
What we're talking about is what are called capitalization rates, which refers to how efficiently any group makes use of its talent. So, for example, sub-Saharan Africa is radically undercapitalized when it comes to, say, physics: There are a large number of people who live there who have the ability to be physicists but never get the chance to develop that talent. Canada, by contrast, is highly capitalized when it comes to hockey players: If you can play hockey in Canada, trust me, we will find you. One of my favorite psychologists, James Flynn, has looked at capitalization rates in the U.S. for various occupations: For example, what percentage of American men who are intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting a job like that. The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so. That suggests we have a lot of room for improvement.
What you're saying with the NBA is that over the past decade, it has become more and more highly capitalized: There isn't more talent than before, but there is -- for a variety of reasons -- a more efficient use of talent. But I suspect that in sports, as in the rest of society, there's still an awful lot of room for improvement.
Case in point: Everyone always says what an incredible advantage it has been for Peyton Manning to have had the same offensive coordinator and the same offensive system his entire career. Football offenses are so complex now that they take years to master properly, and having one system in place from the beginning has allowed Manning to capitalize on every inch of his talent. On the other hand, someone like Jason Campbell has had a different offensive coordinator in virtually every season of his pro and college career (and I'm guessing he'll get another this offseason). I'm not convinced that it's possible to say, with certainty, that Campbell has less ability than Manning. I'm only sure we can say that Campbell has not been in a situation that has allowed him to exploit his talent the way Manning has. We just don't know how good he is capable of being -- and we may never know.
I like the capitalization concept. The best NBA example: From 1990 to 1996, the league's lack of a rookie salary cap combined with skyrocketing salaries led to absolute chaos. Younger stars were earning too much money too soon and had too much control of their own destiny; not just who coached them but where they played and who played with them. And the league removed any incentive they would have had to improve by making them filthy rich immediately. Nearly all of them handled it poorly: C-Webb, Coleman, Anderson, Marbury, Big Dog, LJ, Kemp, Baker
that's a lost generation, to some degree.
Flipping it around, Kobe is the best overcapitalization example other than Malone (who came along in the right era and had the perfect teammate and coach for his game). Kobe works harder off the court than anyone in the league; we have so many ways for him to improve in 2009 that he's like a kid in a candy store. We've all heard the story about how he worked out with Hakeem all summer to refine his post game, so here's one you might not have heard: When I visited Nike last month, we toured the development building (in which they customize sneakers for specific athletes), and the guy who ran it told us that Kobe was their favorite client. Why? Because he kept pushing them and pushing them to make the right shoes for him, even flying there for days at a time just to put himself through grueling workouts with sensors all over his body. This past summer, he pushed them to create a special low-top sneaker that also would prevent him from rolling his ankles -- which seems incongruous on paper -- yet they feel as if they pulled it off. And only because he kept pushing them. Forty years ago? He's wearing crummy Chuck Taylors like everyone else.
That's why it was so hard to measure players against one another in my book. Every era has some sort of monkey wrench, and going forward, I think the advances of the past 25 years are going to throw everything out of whack. We need a formula to prorate the longevity of pre-1990 careers. Kareem, Nolan Ryan, Gordie Howe
their careers were the equivalent of someone playing 30 years in today's era, right? How did they do it?
In that generation, the people with extraordinarily long careers were true outliers: They were physical freaks. Roger Craig has run a half-dozen or so marathons since retiring from the San Francisco 49ers. Can you believe that? I've been a long-distance runner my whole life. I weigh 100 pounds less than Craig, and I did not spend my formative years getting beaten up on a football field -- and I would never race at that distance. It's too punishing. But I'm not Roger Craig -- who somehow emerged from 10 years of getting pounded on every play in the NFL feeling so spry that he decided to take up marathoning. What's happening now is that medicine is allowing the rest of us to catch up with the outliers. The impact of scientific progress on human performance is greatest not at the top but in the middle: It helps the guy who would have played five years play 10 years. It doesn't help the Nolan Ryans or Roger Craigs all that much. They don't need any help.
This topic can even extend to Hollywood. Sandra Bullock is still carrying chick flicks and heartwarming Disney-esque movies at age 45, with no signs of slowing down. She's like the Nolan Ryan of chick flicks. As far as I can tell, she hasn't had any major work done. And even though you'd never put her peak against Meg Ryan's peak, at this point, you'd have to give Bullock the career edge, the same way I gave Malone the slightest of edges over Barkley in my book. But comparing her historically to other leading actresses from earlier generations, it becomes unfair. For instance, look at Goldie Hawn's best movies from 1974 to 1980:
1974: "Sugarland Express"
1978: "Foul Play"
1980: "Seems Like Old Times"
1980: "Private Benjamin"
At this point, she's 35 years old. With today's advantages, she would have had a monster 10 years ahead. Instead, the wheels came off: "Best Friends," "Swing Shift," "Protocol," "Wildcats," "Overboard," "Bird on a Wire." You can have bad luck with scripts for an entire decade, but not that bad. The truth is, she peaked from a looks standpoint by 1980, followed by Hollywood turning to other actresses for the best roles. In Bullock's era, female stars are more ageless than ever because of teeth whitening, better hairstyling, better dieting, weight training, yoga, Pilates, liposuction, Botox, implants and everything else. So she's still chugging along at age 45. Does this mean she had a better career than Hawn did? Not when you factor the eras in. OK, I need to get off this -- I could go on all day.
***CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO***
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.