Quality of actual play since the 50’s has seen dramatic growth it is dwarfed by that of the fan. Casual fans today possess knowledge about basketball that’s grown astronomically past the point of even GM’s from older eras.
Not that fans are inherently ‘better': the environment has changed. Following hoop and knowing anything about it has just evolved. Consider these 4 factors pushing fandom to the next level.
1. NBA Availability/Visibility
In the early 1950’s the fan experience existed at the stadium, on the radio and in the newspaper. 1 in 10 people actually owned a “picture box”. I’ve often heard “You weren’t there, you don’t know what it was like!” Not really true: here’s a revelation: people who say that were not there either.
No one was. Who really followed The League. A stadium holds 10-20,000. Catching a random NBA game on TV, if you were lucky enough to have one, was almost 0.
By the end of the 50’s more then 9 in 10 homes had a television. Fair enough but no difference. Circa 1964 all we have of the most famous game ever is a picture of Wilt with a piece of paper someone had written ‘100’ in black marker. Oh, a radio call of the last 3 minutes someone recorded in their dorm room that was released 30 years later. And the 1000’s of anecdotes by fans claiming they were there at Madison Square Garden when Wilt scored 100!!!! The irony is thick.
Its the most exhausted and tired reason driving 1,000’s of Wilt is the best arguments. Its inconsequential if Wilt is not the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), or that his game is not the best in NBA history. Its possible. The point is no one who makes those claims saw it and therefore anything spoken about it is a pure fabrication.
I’m betting the people who arrogantly pull rank and say “You weren’t there man!” are not even slightly aware that the oldest entire recorded event is game 7 of the 1963 finals. That means Bill Russel’s prime is evidenced by inflated stats and anecdotes because the vast majority of his career has only been seen once, if at all, by the smallest percentage of the population.
People had no choice but to make things up to fill in coverage gaps. 95% of the league was not available. Talking sports meant telling creative stories about the few games you saw or about how your fave player won an arm wrestling contest. ESPN classic games ‘are‘ the things they watched. If they did actually see a game they didn’t watch it again for 30 odd years until ESPN classic replayed them.
Impressions were garnered from a single viewing, with no instant replay, with no casual post-game re-examination, then reinforced by discussion of memories and unverifiable facts. Chinese telephone is not exactly a bastion of accuracy.
I re-watched Rocky 1-2 decades after I saw it the first time. I was amazed I had forgotten that Rocky didn’t beat Creed. Memories of emotional moments are an incredibly poor substance for a basis of anything factual. Today’s fans can refresh their memory 100’s of times compared to someone in the 50’s who didn’t even have instant replay. Its not even close.
2. Data Collection
Basketball opinions have bias created by attachment to the players/teams people think about. Without data its incredibly difficult to formulate an informed opinion on any topic because you will naturally lean towards the result you want. Entire careers for ESPN’s John Hollinger and Houston’s GM, Darryl Morey come from beating back that bias. More then anything else a solid statistical basis combined with traditional opinions can propel an idea about sports from homer fanboying and actual insightful observance. Using data properly is integral to any understanding of sports.
The less data you have the more narrow your perspective. You have to rely on flawed human experience for more of your analytical foundation. Combine this with point 1. You are one of the lucky few who had season tickets in Philly. You saw games: you have a great opinion. But without season splits do you really know if the home production of Wilt is equal to his road production? Not really. I bet you not a single home fan of Wilt’s ever made the concession “granted, I’ve only seen him play at home.” It probably does not enter an fan’s brain in the 1950’s as the home/road concept came from stats. Even if Wilt played better on the road the opinion is weakened by home play dwarfing other influences.
Lack data narrowed what fans considered when they thought about sports. Points, dimes and boards only scratch the surface. It was not until 1973/74 that the NBA even started to record blocks and steals. Per 36/48 mintues, PER, all splits, head to head stats, rebound percentages, assist to turnover ratios, adjusted plus/minus, win shares and a plethora of stats just did not exist in older eras.
There is still an abysmal lack of defensive stats. Steals… and thats all. Tomorrow’s fan will be able to base their opinions on things like blow bys, open shot percentage, altered shots, contested shot percentage, drive rate, points per pass, forced double teams, unforced turnovers, shot contests, shot contest percentage, step back defense, show/hedge percentage. For all the stats that we have today on older fans, I’m convinced tomorrow will have at least twice on us. And their stats will be much more relevant to showing exactly why a player is valuable.
The best someone can factually say is “I guess we’ll never know, because that information does not exist.” Which is no knock on Jerry West, we don’t know so he gets the benefit of the dobut, but it is a damning indictment of 50’s/60’s fan sophistication. Thinking their players are great, but its based on intangible memories of unquantifiable events. If we learn anything from stats its that what we think from watching the game can often be grossly bias without us even intending to be. How many times have you looked at a box score of a player you don’t like to be surprised he’s shot 60%? If you formed opinions in an era with 0 stats, that bias had 0 counters, and raged on unchecked.
3. Data Availability
Having data is nothing without access. Growing up a witness to the birth of the internet you have an acute appreciation for life before and after. In elementary school if you wanted to learn about anything it took a trip to the library. You find right right volume of the encyclopedia and if the subject was around long enough it was covered in your edition. The process could take hours. Today accessing that data takes less then three seconds, or however long it takes me to type the name in and hit enter.
In the 50s and 60s, access to stats were limited to what was reported during broadcasts and printed in the newspapers. A sports almanac was handy but really a collection of the former two sources. I know this because during the 80’s when I started watching ball, its all I had.
My own NBA almanac still sits at home on my shelf dog eared from years and years of use. I used to sit studying records of players like Wilt and Russell as I learned the history of the game for hours. I’m guessing it was even more limited in the 50’s and 60s with a comparatively limited sources of stats to put in such books.
I Learned lots, but all past tense. Real time, even simple shooting percentages from current seasons: forget it. If your paper published those stats (unlikely) and the player was not in the top 10 (who cares) you’re limited to points, assists and rebounds per game. No pace, minutes played or any of the other ultra relevant per game stat factors.
Fast forward. www.basketball-reference.com. What kind of season is LBJ really having to win MVP. I can call up the total number of games shooting over 50% he’s had. Compare it with other players in history. 30 seconds. Career field goal % compared to this season. 5 seconds. Head to head matchups vs Shane Battier to see how he is under that pressure, then compare to how Kobe deals with Shane. Then compare those stats to how he plays against a weaker defensive team like the Suns. 1-2 minutes. That’s just one site. There is also 82 Games, Database Basketball and many others.
Access/stats have not so much as increased, the magnitude sky rocketed to the point that the significance of stats used in the past is truly approaching 0. Almost meaningless. You could get away with making statements so long as lots of people agreed with you. Since it would take a few hours, days, weeks or months to gather/generate information to challenge a general statement (say, that West was a better shooter then Bird) opinions were created/rejected/accepted with little to no verification.
For the above, the answer would be based on something like number of big time shots they made. Not that even but the ones they remembered, big time shots being useless as an indicator in the first place. Without the numbers and 10 minutes of math on paper to make even cursory adjustments theres nothing else. Would a shooter like West be at the level he’s considered today if B-Ball Reference existed when he played? Its an interesting question.
GMs did not even have that access. No one did. People seriously need to think about the signifigance of homeless people having better information then Magic Johnson.
4. Expansion/Sophistication Of Sports Media
Dedicated sports reporting was attempted in the early 1980s. ESPN was scoffed at as a gimmick. What could you possible discuss about sports for 24 hours? Detractors missed. Deeper analysis would not bore but challenge us to keep up. Supply fed back into demand. Fans learned more, fans wanted more and these two institutions formed an ever expanding symbiotic relationship.
Previously, newspapers paid beat reporters to take quotes, go on road trips, and shadow the team reporting their insights. That’s how people related to their team. Today every game is followed by a press conference and players are sending tweets to fans at half time. The middle man is being replaced with direct communication to those interested in how they do their jobs.
These are real people like us. Mark Cuban, to my total surprise, responded to a random e-mail I sent regarding the great Seattle Stern/Clay Bennet Gang Rape. He has his faults… but he’s easily one of the best owners in sports. Modern fans don’t want middlemen, they want to sift information themselves.
Isiah and Magic’s failed booth attempts had much to do with timing. Fans would not understand the details/lingo so they were caught in endless chatter about ‘running the right lanes’ when you know he had to hold back how to break a match up zone on the break.
Its evolution. Steve Kerr, now GM of the Suns, was having advanced basketball conversations for fans before running an NBA team. Van Gundy and Jackson can now pull up a 360 degree camera still, move players around in 3 dimensions showing a play it it’s natural environment, reset, roll tape, and fans see the real time play.
Casual fans who had never even seen a play diagram were getting confused by x’s and o’s in the announcer’s hen scratches with a light pen. Comprehension of a pick/roll was considered advanced. With educated fans dribble jabber is now replaced with serious discussion of what makes and breaks games.
5. So Whats the overall result?
Today’s average/slightly above average NBA fan comprehends advanced concepts like defensive hedging/shading/funneling, intricacies of complicated sets like the Triangle or the flex/princton offesne. Defensive advantages of zones and presses that were glossed over in the past as merely ‘double teams’.
In the front office matters fans are actively aware of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to the point where they can create totally feasible trades that make sense on the court and on paper. They’re acutely aware of scouting reports from college to the high school level, player contract details and can make educated guesses on the moves of every team in the league for the next 5 years.
Discreet knowledge of all sorts of medical knowledge regarding specific tendons, liniments and joints is common. Details of how to solve many issues with arthroscopic and micro-fracture knee surgery and the estimated recovery times specific injuries will have. Fans know Wade tore his labrum and it’s much more serious then Kendrick Perkins’s rotator cuff who can play through the pain. Rotoworld will report on each player’s status daily.
Modern fans are not ‘better’ then older ones per se. No change in dedication. Its obvious in 1960 didn’t benefit from these advantages. My dad watched the games I PVR through store windows and thats not his fault.
You still have to consider how ideas and thoughts work though. Once a person believes something its very unlikely to change and the longer ago that idea was formulated the more its encased in mental cement.
If that idea is based on a relative lack of information something has got to give. Its not even that those opinions are wrong but more the people who hold them are not sure why they are right, or think they are.
Being sure has changed over time. You could say something and back it up with an anecdote of a game you attended. All there was to challange it was yet more anecdotes. Ironclad arguments didn’t really exist. They somewhat do today though in a sports universe who’s perspective expands with every game played and you tube upload.
Remember to be kind. Even though the most hard core era fan axioms appear merely casual in modern times our own time is coming. What fans can digest is only being discovered. We want a more intelligent informed approach. There is demand and it will once again drive supply.
In years to come I’m not going to enjoy talking sports with my kids. My MJ will be my father’s Wilt. They’ll wonder why I can’t just ‘show’ why MJ was the best defensive player in the league. I won’t be able to show that, there is nothing to show, and they’ll tell me that’s okay, when they run a defense/MJ tag search on all his games ever played and see his top 100 rated defensive plays ever, he looks like he might still be an ok player. Then they’ll add “but he played before Asian people even played in the league.” They’ll be right: 60 years old, this sport and league is still in it’s infancy.
Part of me wants to be the good guy. Just smile when someone who’s 60 remembers their heroes a little creatively. Their rose colored era glasses are more of a time warp to when being a fan had a little more ‘fanaticism’ for your team and a little less ‘understanding’ of the game. Fandom is changing. The rate of that evolution is increasing continuously. While I’ll be sad to realize one day everything I think now is fit for the pit I appriciate the legacy of just ‘getting better’ and welcome it. I seriously can’t wait to see whats coming next.