Sunday, June 14, 2009

History Ain't Arithmetic

John Hollinger of ESPN, one of the pestilential tribe of analysts who are attempting to make basketball as overloaded with statistics as baseball, recently set out to rank all the NBA franchises in terms of their historical accomplishments. He had the Lakers number one, and the Celtics number two. That is erroneous, which in itself would be of no interest. It's WHY Hollinger's rankings were wrong that is of wistfully sad concern to yours truly.

All history reflects the mind of the historian who creates it. I assume that Hollinger downgraded the Celtics because of their long, horrid sojourn in the wilderness from around 1993 to last year, when the team had some seasons of memorable misery. I also assume that since Hollinger works for ESPN, which refuses to admit sports existed before it did, his rating reflects the bias, which is shared by many (including David Stern), that the NBA began in 1980.

Because Hollinger is neither stupid nor insane, he did include "intangibles" in his methodology. History, after all, is about people, not numbers. And that's where rating the Lakers over the Celtics is pathetically incorrect. The Lakers are a sports franchise with a meritorious record of success over decades. Their history is an honorable, even legendary one. But it's sports history, pure and simple. Outside of basketball, Laker accomplishments are as follows-gave Paula Abdul her start.

To the small extent sports relates to real life, the Celtics have a record of accomplishment only one other franchise (the Brooklyn-LA Dodgers) can match. Red Auerbach and Bill Russell deserve at least their own footnotes in the history of U.S. race relations.

Russell was the first African American coach in U.S. professional sports. The Celtics were the first team to put five African Americans on the court at the same time, another milestone. In a delightful bookend, the Celts were, as far as I know, the last team to put five white guys on the court at the same time during one of their playoffs series against the 76ers in the early '80s. That factoid highlights the seminal fact about how the Celtics hit all those racial milestones. The franchise made history solely through the narrow perspective of winning and losing.

Auerbach judged his fellow humans on how they could help him. He was ruthlessly honest about that, and even applied the standard to himself. As Phil Jackson acknowledged yesterday, Auerbach kicked himself upstairs to make Russell coach solely because Red felt that's how he could keep his superstar interested (Russell's restless mind often found basketball kind of silly).

Progress is rare enough that we shouldn't care how it happens. Progress achieved through the pursuit of idealism speaks well for us humans, and so gets a lot of pub. In my experience however, the Auerbach brand of progress, that which is achieved through self-interest, tends to be both far more common, and far more permanent.


At 11:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. Hollinger is a stat driven clown anyways. Both Boston and LA are very successful franchises but the only stats that matter are these:

Championships: Boston 17
LA 15

Head to head in Finals:
Boston 9-2 vs. LA


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