A new trend has developed in our ever-changing online landscape. Social media users have posted NBA footage from the 1960’s with mocking captions, such as the following:
This is part of a larger generational divide. Millenials weren’t around to see Bob Cousy play, but the tape tells them that he wouldn’t stand a chance against today’s more athletic counterparts, such as Kyrie Irving.
Debate between the virtues of different eras is hardly new, or confined to sports. It applies to music, movies, and even more serious issues such as degrees of racism.
But it’s always been a particularly polarizing argument in sports, and especially basketball since the comments of older players, such as Oscar Robertson, on the success of Stephen Curry.
Here’s how it seems to break down: Younger fans believe that today’s players are too athletic and skilled for older players to have a chance at hanging with them. Older fans believe that today’s players live a life of leisure and wouldn’t have the mental or physical toughness to compete with older players.
Obviously those are generalized statements, and not applicable to all fans of those ages. Still, it’s very easy to find the 14-year-old who thinks that Larry Bird couldn’t hold a candle to someone like Paul George because he wasn’t explosive enough. Conversely, there’s no lack of 55-year-olds who are under the impression that LeBron James and his “flopping” wouldn’t last in the tougher NBA of the 1990’s and before, when hand-checking was allowed and hard fouls brought no extra penalty.
Here’s the truth: It’s impossible to say “If Player X played in Player Y’s era, Player X would be way better,” or vice versa. In fact, it’s a dumb conversation to have, and here’s why.
A player’s era plays a role in defining his skill set. A player cannot learn something if the concept doesn’t exist. It’s easy to say “If Kyrie was playing in the 1960’s, he would have averaged 50 points and 20 assists,” when you just look at the film, but Kyrie wouldn’t have been the same Kyrie.
For example, let’s cover that whole “Bob Cousy didn’t dribble with his left hand,” argument. The reason Bob Cousy isn’t shown using his left hand isn’t because he couldn’t do it, but because that wasn’t a point of emphasis as Cousy learned to play and developed his game. Watch the following video and tell me this guy couldn’t do what a second-grader can.
If it was Kyrie who was born in 1928 New York, trust me, he wouldn’t have been able to handle the ball like he does now. That was a result of the And-1 culture and advanced training techniques that Kyrie grew up with. As a kid, Irving famously dribbled balls covered with plastic bags to develop his handle. That type of information was not available to Cousy.
Improved training methods can also explain the physical advantages Kyrie holds over Cousy. We now know so much more about how exercise, weight training, and stretching can make athletes more explosive than we used to, and that’s an advantage for today’s players. While Irving can count exactly how many calories he’s eating and burning, players in Cousy’s era didn’t even know the dangers of smoking.
Here’s a list of some of the injuries Irving has sustained throughout his career: bone and ligament damage to his big toe, a fractured kneecap, sprained left and right shoulder, broken hand and finger, fractured jaw, hyperextended knee, bruised knee.
If Irving was playing in the 1950’s and 60’s, with medical and training services that would appear ancient by today’s standards, not only would Irving have lost a significant amount of explosiveness, he probably would have been out of the league.
There are endless examples of the advantages this generation enjoys. Larry Bird could have played five extra years if he had had something as simple as Pilates to help his ailing back. Bill Walton’s career was derailed by foot and ankle injuries, and Walton felt that the Trail Blazers’ medical staff was responsible enough to sue them for incompetence. And don’t forget players such as David Thompson, who never reached his potential due to drug problems in a less educated society.
This obviously goes both ways. If current players had been born decades earlier, they would have adapted to the differences. They wouldn’t have any experience of private charter flights, so they would be accustomed to flying coach.
Players of previous generations didn’t have to deal with such extensive and overbearing media. Current players have to worry about everything they say, lest they become a punchline. In addition, older players didn’t have the distractions of social media.
Perhaps Cousy just couldn’t shoot from distance, but if he played today, maybe the emphasis on that part of the game would transform his skill set. Likewise, Irving could make up for the loss of the three-point threat by taking advantage of a faster pace and becoming a better all-around player.
To claim that someone like Bob Cousy “couldn’t hang” or that LeBron James would get broken down for “not being tough enough” if they played in a different era is ridiculous. These guys were great players in their respective times in the league, and that’s all they can be judged on.
So by that logic, Bob Cousy was better than Kyrie Irving. Cousy was a six-time champion, an MVP, a ten-time All-NBA First Teamer, and a 13-time All-Star. He was the best point guard of the pre-Oscar era, and he introduced an exciting type of basketball with his no-look passes and dribbling that was certainly fancy for the time. That doesn’t change because his highlights don’t look as cool as Irving’s.
But Irving still has a lot of his career to play. If he keeps winning championships, hitting clutch shots, and making All-Star games for the next decade or so, he too will be remembered as one of the greats. But it will be because of his skill and accomplishments, not the time period in which he played.