Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the Death of the Generational Athlete

The U.S. Open is once again upon us and, as usual, the love & adoration party for Tiger Woods is in full swing. That bothers me not because I don't like Tiger Woods; rather, I do like Tiger Woods and want him to do well. Not "do well" in a "hey, he's a cool guy and would be awesome to grab a beer with" kind of way, but more in a "once in a generation player who can break records and I get to see it" kind of way. My dad's generation had Arnold & Jack, and now I've got Tiger. Since I hated Michael Jordan, I pretty much missed the awe and adoration boat with him, but with Tiger I want to see him break Jack's records. I want him to win twenty or thirty majors. I want him to win every time he tees it up because, frankly, and I know this is cliche, but I don't think anyone will ever come along ever again that can do what Tiger has done and will do in the future.

As I got to thinking about what Tiger has accomplished, I began to think that it's essentially impossible for another athlete in the Tiger or Jordan mold to come along again. We live in a world that is afflicted with ADD; we are a satisfy-me-now world that wants everything to have been done yesterday. There just are too many outlets that can distract us from our daily activities; if you are over 30, imagine your life at 15 years old if you had a PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, the Internet, and 500 cable channels to watch. How concerned would you be on working on your fielding? Or taking batting practice? Would you even care about an offseason workout program? You might, but you wouldn't be as focused on those activities as you would on MLB: The Show or NCAA '08.

Tiger Woods is a member of a soon-to-be extinct breed that focuses on one thing: being the best at their craft. Kobe Bryant does it in the NBA. Peyton Manning does it in the NFL. All three share something in common: fathers that guided them into a game they either played and/or loved. Kobe's dad is a former NBA-er. Archie Manning built his own legacy in the NFL. And Tiger's dad, well, he was teaching his son about golf before he could walk. All three of those guys are now around the age of 30; Kobe is 29, while Peyton and Tiger are both 32. The only video games these guys knew about growing up were either the old NES or the local arcade. There was no internet, and if you had cable, 50 channels was awesome. Kids played outside more. They enjoyed the physical competition of sports more. Nowadays, I don't think that they do. Kids can play their home-based video games or take their gaming on the road with them via a Gameboy or PSP. They can watch one of dozens of channels programmed just for them. I fear that the simple joy of a backyard football game will be lost on thousands of today's kids because of the multitude of outlets available to occupy their time.

Take, for example, LeBron James. The man has serious basketball skills; there is no doubt about that fact. But, while watching him play, I often get the feeling that his mind is elsewhere, that subconsciously he is thinking about his next big commercial shoot or television appearance. LeBron James may one day be the classic example of an incredibly gifted athlete that didn't accomplish what he could have. That, in and of itself, may suit him and everyone else just fine, me included. However, imagine if LeBron had Kobe or Tiger's drive and will to win? I don't think he does, although it may not have manifested itself just yet. Time will tell.

But, there is hope, I think. The common denominator among Kobe, Tiger & Peyton is this: their fathers. As a new dad myself, I think about what effect I can have on my son's life. I hope that I can guide him away from the indoor activities that seem to plague so many of today's youth and at least get him interested in baseball, football, or my first love, basketball. I don't think that the kids today lack the competitive drive to be elite-level athletes; I just think that they don't care as much about it because there are so many other tugs at their time. There are other things to satisfy that competitive drive, and they often involve a video game controller.

So, enjoy those elite athletes that are simply obsessed with being the absolute best at their craft while you can. Kobe, Tiger & Peyton won't be around forever. When they retire, we may find ourselves with plenty of capable athletes that just don't care as much about what they do. Which may mean, of course, that instead of being glued to the television for the U.S. Open, I may just be playing my PS3.


ncsumatman said...

Sir, I am appalled by this post. Put aside your Laker bias, and answer me this, how old is Kobe, how old is Lebron? How many championships has Kobe won with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom? Ok, how many did he win with Shaq? Ok, how many would Jordan win with Ben Wallace and Boobie Gibson? Seriously, Lebron is like 23, and to say he is disinterested in taking the Celtics to 7 (which btw will whip your Lakers), or to go to the NBA finals just last year. Geez, give the kid a break, he essentially has me as a point guard and you as a center.

But, to get back to at least the title of your post, if not the actual content. Generational athletes come along more often than generations, only perspective comes into play. We're kids of the 80's, name players: Malone, Jordan, Magic, Bird, Zeke, Olajuwon, Ewing, Barkley, Mchale, Parrish, Perkins, Worthy, Payton, Montana, Rice, LT, Orel, Mattingly, etc. etc. etc.

Now, compare that list, with accomplishments included to this one: Kobe, Duncan, Parker, Lebron, Shaq, Nash, Ginobli, A Rod, Jeter, Emmitt Smith, Brady, Manning, Strahan, Pujols, Bonds, etc. etc. etc.

All are extremely talented athletes, many with championship credentials. I think when you speak of the generational athlete in this time of NBA playoffs, you speak mainly of the NBA. I would agree the star has lost its luster, and this is not to say the athletes are any less talented than todays athletes. In fact, put the Dream Team against USA Basketball today, and the Dream Team gets waxed. That's not a knock on those guys, just a nod to how the world has caught up. Point being, we base our opinions on personal experiences, and we had it good. But who is to say that kids 20 years from now won't be talking abou Gilbert Arenas and Dwight Howard as if they were Bird and Magic. Generational athletes are a matter of opinion, and generation, and sir, you just showed yorus.

Edwin Jarvis said...

I never said that Kobe was better than LeBron. I also never said that LeBron would never be better than Kobe (or MJ). I just said that it wasn't likely to happen. My point was that with all of the distractions nowadays and with all of the opportunities afforded professional athletes, we will likely never see the likes of an MJ again.

Why, you ask?

Because kids nowadays don't give a damn about being the best at their sport. They're too busy texting or playing video games or what have you instead of learning the fundamentals of baseball, such as "the pitcher covers first on a ball hit to the right side of the infield." The raw athletic ability and talent will ALWAYS be there; but, frankly, the mental aspect of it will not.

You may get to see a Kobe or LeBron every once in a while, but my point is that they won't live up to their potential due to the way they were brought up combined with the other outlets that are available for their pursuit.

Guys with Kobe's talent won't be shooting 1000 jumpers a day in the offseason in the future because they just won't care that much about being great. They'll get by on their talent, for sure; but they won't reach the level of an MJ.

Edwin Jarvis said...

Also, Mattingly? He had five "great" years in the '80s, so I hardly would consider him an "elite level" athlete.

If he would have played for the Mariners you hardly would have heard of him.

Another retort: I agree with you that a 2008 Dream Team would probably beat a 1992 Dream Team, but not because the 2008 guys are better basketball players; rather, they're better athletes. Kind of like Duke playing UNLV back in the day...oh wait...Duke did end up beating UNLV that one maybe '92 would beat '08. Who knows, right? That's what arguments are for!