In April 2003 there was no YouTube. There was no Facebook. DVR’s were in their infancy. ESPN Motion (the first method of watching videos on ESPN, not via streaming, but by downloading a separate program that played the content) would debut later in the year. We were on the brink of 24-hour, multi-media, sports overload. But, thankfully, we weren’t quite there yet.
Sure, you could watch the highlights of an event on SportsCenter 15 times within in a 24 hour period, but once that cycle ran through, it was gone, never to be seen with your eyes again. The only way to share the experience with someone else after the fact was via spoken word. By talking about it, and hearing other people’s takes, it stayed with you. You reflected and thought about what you had seen and heard. As with most things told via the “telephone” method, the stories grew majestic over time and legends were born.
In 2003 the legend-making capability of the public had already been diminished thanks to ESPN and the World Wide Web, but it hadn’t fully vanished.
Ask me about the 2003 NCAA championship game and I’ll tell you all about how Hakim Warrick ran 25 feet across the court to block a last ditch effort by Kansas to tie the game. I’ll tell you how his arm’s kept stretching out for miles as he glided through the air to save our season. I’ll tell you about Gerry McNamara and his six three-pointers in the first half. How he was draining them with guys on top of him, practically hanging off of him, and it didn’t even faze him.
I’ll tell you a whole bunch of things that are mostly true, but with gaps largely filled with hyperbole and exaggeration. That’s what makes a good sports story isn’t it?
The Syracuse championship is the last sporting event that has that magical, legendary status for me. A story that even though I witnessed in person has grown into something more over time. It was the last event I watched that I allowed to simmer and become a permanent fixture in my memory, accurately portrayed or not.
I’m a Los Angeles Laker fan. I am a Syracuse Orange fan. I am a New York Yankee fan. Don’t ask how, I just am. I can tell you all about the 2001 NBA Finals, the 2003 NCAA Championship game, and the 2000 World Series. All from memory. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the 2008 World Series or the 2009 NBA Finals. I remember Kobe went 6-for-24 in Game 7 of that series, but I don’t remember the specifics. I can’t pinpoint the important moments. Whereas my memories of the earlier events are still vivid in my imagination, it’s like I never even watched the later events.
Thanks to the influx of technology and the ability to find information, and watch a video of a past event with the click of a mouse, it’s as if our brains have shut down. I subconsciously know that I don’t need to remember these things anymore. If I ever want to recall an earlier event, I can just watch it. Why reminisce with an old friend about the 2009 Finals when we can watch the entire series online and Facebook share it? Our short-term memories are gone. We are an ADD society, focused on the webpage or app in front of us, retaining very little and always searching for the next thing. There’s no time to reflect and as such, there’s no time to tell a story. There’s no down time to build the legend.
When I was a kid, my father would tell me about Jerry West, his favorite player. I would sit there and listen to him tell me about the 50-foot buzzer beaters, the perfect jump shot, the incredible vision. He told stories that couldn’t possibly be true, but I believed him and it created a hero for me. An idol. Even knowing today that there’s no way some of those things happened, I still believe because it was so ingrained into my childhood. I like it that way. I like believing in the impossible. Life needs magical moments.
Why do I rant and rave about this now? As a 32-year-old curmudgeon? Well, the sports landscape is just frightening these days. Stories about Fantasy Football cheaters, athletes drinking and beating up women and children, PEDs, boosters, and so much more dominate the headlines.
Coach Jim Boeheim, an icon in coaching and in the Syracuse community, is suspended for the first nine games of ACC play this year, and people are more interested in talking about his retirement three years from now than the upcoming season. More interested in his end than reflecting upon and honoring all that came before.
I know plenty of people would say that we were wrong for worshipping athletes in the first place. Their indiscretions were hidden from the public during their playing years, either by design or indifference, but it allowed the legends to grow. False idols, perhaps, but still, something to believe in.
Fast forward to today’s sports landscape and the idols and heroes are gone. Every athlete is beaten down, picked apart, and reviled for their flaws instead of celebrated for their abilities. That’s the result of the 24-hour news cycle, smart phones, so on and so forth. This is not news to you, of course. But it saddens me that my nine-month old son will never ask about a player I’ve watched. He can just Google him or her, or whatever the kids are doing 10 years from now.
And you know what? Even if he did ask me, how would I respond? If he asked me to explain Kobe Bryant to him, what would I say? I could tell grand stories of a second year player who put on a show in the All-Start game. I could tell him the tale of the perfect team he made with Shaquille O’Neal, killing opponents inside and out en route to three championships. But, even though sometimes I wish I didn’t, I know so much more than that. I could also tell him about the rape trial in Colorado, the ugly break-up between he and Shaq, the contract that has hobbled the Lakers.
In the end, I’m a victim of the times as well. I could tell him stories of perfection and grandeur, but he’d know I was full of it with one click of the mouse. He’d see all of the negative press and the advanced stats diminishing Kobe’s talents. I want to tell tales of the great Kobe Bryant, but I’d probably save myself the embarrassment and say son, you should just look online.
I guess the magic really is gone forever.