It's very common that we find ourselves comparing the greats of today to the greats of yesteryear.
How does the impact of Barack Obama’s "Hope" compare with the impact of Martin Luther King’s "Dream"? For that matter, how does the raw power of America compare to the dominance of the Roman Empire?
The sporting world is no stranger to such comparisons, either; however, in sports, we tend to look upon the greats of our past more favorably.
We are completely blind to the fact that the greats of our past had a key advantage that today’s greats can only dream of: they were the first of their kind. Unfortunately, too many of us believe that that singular fact automatically makes today’s athletes inferior until proven otherwise.
Those who exalt the greats of yesterday often take shelter behind particular statistics or successes. For instance, Jerry Rice has four Super Bowl Rings to Randy Moss’ zero. Joe Montana has four rings to Tom Brady’s three. Michael Jordan averaged 30 points a game compared to Kobe Bryant’s 25.
We somehow forget that the leagues of yesterday are altogether different than the leagues we watch today. Players are stronger and faster, and coaching schemes have been built upon and improved over the schemes of the past.
So how can one accurately tell which generation boasted the greatest athletes?
Simple: one can’t.
Statistics don’t exactly transfer over from generation to generation. After all, it’s a safe bet that a young Wilt Chamberlain wouldn’t average 50 points per game coupled with 25.7 rebounds playing in today’s NBA, right? Would the mid 50’s—late 60’s Celtics win eight consecutive Championships, appear in 10 consecutive NBA Finals, or win 11 Championships in 13 years? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.
If we’re really being honest, only a select few of the "all-time" debates are as clear-cut as they may seem to be on paper. For instance, Barry Bonds can never be the true home-run king. All the steroid accusations surrounding his success have stripped Bonds of that right.
Another easy call is that Tony Romo has not yet earned the right to be called the next Brett Favre. Sure he’s a playmaker, and sure the kid is about as talented as they come, but he needs to gain some level of postseason success before those comparisons can really begin.
These are among the only "all-time" great debates that are easy to put an end to.
It's much more difficult to pick Jerry Rice over Randy Moss, or vice versa. While Rice may have more yards and more rings, he also spent the lion’s share of his career being thrown to by Hall Of Fame quarterbacks. Moss has only had a single year with one, and it just happened to be the same year that he broke the all-time receiving TD record... just saying...
However, the Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant debate is even more difficult to conclude. People are quick to point out that Shaq was the No. 1 go-to guy in Kobe’s first three Championships, while Jordan was the No. 1 option in all of his Championship victories. Still, how are we to know that Shaquille didn’t stunt Kobe’s growth?
Kobe Bryant has flourished in his role as the No. 1 option since Shaq left, even when his team wasn’t flourishing around him. Is it that far of a stretch to suggest that Kobe might have actually become an even greater player had he become the No. 1 option sooner?
If put in Kobe’s situation, how would MJ have responded? Would a Jordan/Shaquille tandem have won even more Championships? Possibly. It's equally possible that MJ could have never even settled for being a No .2 option to begin with, and that the dynasty would have never happened. Or maybe, just maybe, Jordan would be nearly identical to what Kobe is today.
I won’t waste my breath asking the "all-time" comparisons to stop. They never will. They’re as much a part of the game as the cheerleaders, stadiums, and franchise apparel. They simply add to lore.
Instead, what I will ask is that people learn to respect these greats for what they are.
Like it or not, Kobe’s skill level right now rivals that of MJ’s in his prime. Their shooting ability, athleticism, and overall desire to win are, as Phil Jackson said, "very similar"; and if I had to guess, I’d say that Phil knows a little of what he’s talking about, considering that he’s coached 100 percent of the Championship victories of both Bryant and Jordan combined.
It's no insult to say that Bryant and Jordan are closely matched. Neither is it an insult to say that Jordan is Bryant’s superior. Still, if MJ himself doesn’t take offense when Kobe is mentioned in the same breath that he was, neither should you.
It's up to us to respect and fully appreciate the athletes we have today while we still have them, as those before us appreciated the athletes of yesteryear.
Besides, you never know, we may never see talents like these again.