Unfathomably, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become the most underrated player of all time. Among people born before 1975, he often tops the list of best players to ever lace em up. But as they do with Dr. J, many people under the age of 35 tend to see Kareem as an after-thought in the greatest of all time discussion and even stretch reality far enough to consider guys like Hakeem and Shaq yo be his superiors. Some people even regard him as the NBA version of Nolan Ryan — a guy who was really, really good at one thing and broke a bunch of records because he played forever.
Hopefully, most everyone reading this regards such opinions as the utter nonsense that they are. Kareem is at worst one notch behind Michael and Wilt along with other second-tier guys like Larry, Magic and Russell. The videos at the end of this post help show two of the reasons why. And kudos to both ESPN and JA Adande for putting together “Secrets of the Skyhook,” a must-view multimedia feature that includes a fantastic article, two great videos and several historical photos.
As a sports blogger, I guess I am for some reason not supposed to like ESPN all that much. Well, I certainly take issue with the direction that some programs on the Worldwide Leader have opted to take in the past few years, but, obviously, ESPN provides more amazing sports coverage in any given six months than the whole sports blogosphere has in its entire history. The collection of knowledge the network has amassed is staggering. To think that a Top 10 player of all-time like Magic Johnson qualifies as a throwaway talking head for the network is astounding. Every week, a truly great segment, article, production or creative endeavor of some other sort emerges from Bristol.
Maybe it’s just that the world has gotten accustomed to the great coverage ESPN (often) provides? Those of us who write about sports on the internet tend to be around the age where we don’t even know a world without ESPN. Hell, I read the NBA Daily Dime and TrueHoop almost every day but rarely even link to them because I figure you’ve already seen everything that they’re talking about. And while I enjoy Yahoo! Sports, SI.com, Deadspin and a few other “mainstream” sports sites, the idea that any of them have ever even come close to providing the same depth or breadth of coverage that the Mickey Mouse sports empire does is laughable.
Which, in a way, brings us back to Kareem.
In the videos below, Murdock from Airplane! and Jermaine O’Neal both suggest that one of the reasons the skyhook has gone the way of the telegraph is because it’s just not viewed as cool. It’s not “sexy” to emulate the skinny, bald dude with the goggles, they say. As a fan, it’s really not even cool to like Kareem. Not only did he gain a reputation as unlikable, but if you’re a Laker fan or just a hoopss head discussing the best players ever, it’s a lot more fun to talk about Magic. He has an unprecendented personal story, not only for an NBA player but for a human being. On the court, he was unique. He was dynamic. He was peerless. He threw fancy passes. peerless. He forced basketball to evolve. And, maybe most relevantly, his highlights don’t all look exactly the same.
What are you supposed to say about Kareem? He had the most unguardable move of all time. He was the maybe the most dependable offensive weapon we’ve ever seen. He was a great passer. He was a good rebounder. And he was a much better defender than he is ever credited as being because they didn’t always record blocks during his first five years in the League and because most of his regularly televised highlights were recorded after he turned 32 years old.
All true. All boring.
Because of that, Kareem’s legacy, while impeccable, loses some luster. Similarly, even if for different reasons, the fact that today’s ESPN has fallen below what everyone wants it to be has hampered its reputation. It is cooler to poke fun and discuss the network’s bygone glory days than it is to give ESPN credit for a great piece it puts out — let alone for being the unrivaled mass creator of great sports coverage.
With enough time, such perceptions start to infect reality. If repeated enough times, things like “ESPN sucks” and “Kareem wasn’t as good as Hakeem” permeate popular opinion. Then they start to became acceptable. As the views of those who actually saw Kareem in Milwaukee become less visible in public, that reality starts to fade.
They say history is an agreed upon fable. This is as true of sports as it is of political events. Today, however, we have video, analysis and countless written accounts of every sporting event, so our future understanding of the current era should be, at least somewhat, more aligned with what actually happened. Unfortunately, the footage and the first-hand accounts and essentially everything about Kareem’s prime is much less accessible to mass audiences. So we are left with the option of either believing or not believing what others say about it anecdotally for the most part. As a larger percentage of our cynical youth chooses the latter, popular opinion is reshaped. The truth is lost. History is re-written.
The solution to ensure accuracy and maintain a truer understanding of the Association’s past is accumulating more information and providing better access to it. That’s why we need more video of young Kareem playing basketball. That’s why we need aggregated written accounts of the past. That’s why we need the game’s legends to share first-hand accounts from their careers. That’s why we need the NBA to unearth all of its old footage and make it avaiable.
And, yes, despite what may be popular to say, that’s why we need ESPN distribute it to us.
Part I – The Skyhook
Part II – Unbreakable Record