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Sports Fading Into Memory

In this week's copy of ESPN the Magazine, Bill Simmons published a great article on "the depreciation of sports memories" that almost makes me forgive him for the hatchet job he wrote on the Patriot League after the NCAA tournament. Its subject matter is really the NBA, but it's really the subject of sportswriting and sports memories that is the subject matter.

One of my favorite books is Wait Till Next Year, in which a sports columnist (Mike Lupica) and a Hollywood screenwriter (William Goldman) trade chapters about a particularly crazy year in New York sports. Writing as a fan, Goldman submits an impassioned defense of Wilt Chamberlain's legacy, called "To the Death," which is one of my favorite pieces. He argues that great athletes fade from memory not because they're surpassed by better ones but because either we forget about them or our memories are tainted by things that have nothing to do with their career (like Bill Russell's being a lousy announcer, or OJ's being an, um, lousy ex-husband). Goldman writes, "the greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware that it's begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death."

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So why do we pump up the present at the expense of the past? Goldman believed that every era is "so arrogant (and) so dismissive," and again he was right, although that arrogance/dismissiveness isn't entirely intentional. We'd like to believe that our current stars are better than the guys we once watched.

Why? Because the single best thing about sports is the unknown. It's much more fun to think about what could happen than about what already has. We don't want LeBron to be as good as MJ; we need him to be better than MJ. We already did the MJ thing. Who wants to rent the same movie twice? We want LeBron to take us to a place we've never been. It's the same reason we convince ourselves that Shaq is better than Wilt and Steve Nash is better than Bob Cousy. We don't know these things for sure. We just want them to be true.


I think there is an awful lot of truth to this statement. Specifically, the "debate over Wilt Chamberlain's legacy" is something I was surprised to note was discussed by such luminaries as Simmons and Mike Lupica. It's something I had been thinking about for years as well.

Keep in mind that when I young, I was a big a fan of the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird as any white basketball-playing kid who couldn't jump was, so I grew up as a Celtics fan. I was into "Havilcek stole the ball", Auerbach, the Celtic mystique, and everything. But when all of a sudden stories started showing up in Sports Illustrated pereptuating the myth that Wilt Chamberlain was somehow a lesser center than Bill Russell, I sensed a "sportswriter conspiracy".

Would any GM in their right mind take Russell over Wilt in a pickup game in their primes? Russell was a Hall of Fame center and a hard worker, for sure. But Wilt was an all-purpose scoring machine, being almost impossible to contain. Sure, Russell did a better job than most. But initimating that Russell is better just defied belief.

When you think of it in terms of the "battle for memories", though, it makes more sense. Russell played for my team, but he's managed the "battle for memories" much better. He's gotten the attention of more sportswriters saying how great he actually was, where Wilt has not. It has nothing to do with their stats, or if you'd actually take them in a pickup game.

In terms of college football, there are lots of names that get forgotten in memory. In ways, football is worse since the nature of the game has changed so significantly. The "seven blocks of granite" are from a time when there were few forward passes and the game would hardly be recognizable today. Many folks kind-of remember the reference. Fewer can name one. A very small number of people can name them all.

Like Simmons says, many people want the athletes of today are better than the athletes of yesteryear. That makes it even more important to make the football past alive, especially for schools with such decorated histories like Lehigh, Lafayette, the Ivy League or other schools.

I think it's partially my role as a sportswriter to keep the memories of these past greats going. Folks ought to know the story of Lafayette's 1896 team which had two football pioneers on it. People should know what the "flying wedge" was and why it almost killed college football. They should know the heroes of the rivalry like "Pat" Pazzetti, Rennie Benn, Dick Doyne, Brian Kilngerman - it really does need to be preserved, and their stories retold, for another generation.

To do this, papers like the New York Times are leading the way. By making their pre-1980 archives available online for subscribers, a whole new world is opened up for folks who are interested in the early days of football. A great example of this is the account of Lehigh's first-ever meeting with Colgate in 1922, which is brought alive by the Times' accounts of the pre-game preparations and the description of the games:

Showing a splendid brand of football, Colgate smeared Lehigh this afternoon in a hard-fought battle by a 35 to 6 score. In the first period Lehigh threw a scare into the Maroon supporters when Springstein (sic), Lehigh's star centre, snatched up a Colgate fumble and dashed across the Maroon goal for a line score.

With papers like the Times making their archive available to all (and searchable in Google, no less), the history not only comes alive, maybe it makes it easier for everyone to remember the names and the stories of these greats. I don't know about "Springstein", Lehigh's star center in 1922, but you can make damned sure after reading this archive that I will learn more about him from someone who actually saw him play. (The first thing I learned that his real name is "Big Bill Springsteen.")

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