Has Social Media Killed the “NBA Legend”?

As a sports fan in today’s day and age, we are extremely blessed (and outrageously spoiled) with an unreal amount of access to our favorite athletes. If you want to see the Uncle Drew level highlights from Kyrie Irving’s latest game, you can check YouTube. If you want to check the stats on Lebron’s latest hyper efficient, do everything game with some power tomahawks peppered in, you can open up ScoreCenter on your phone. If you want an unfiltered look into Joel Embiid’s opinion on Rihanna from the comfort of his home, check Twitter. If you want to see what the Atlanta Hawks starting five spends their money on, you can check Instagram. (Actually I’ll save you some time; you’ll see a lot of pictures of family and teammates. Selfless on the court and grateful off of it? Bunch of show-offs.)

This amount of insight into the everyday lives of our favorite athletes accomplishes a very commendable purpose: it makes them human (well, rich humans). We truly connect on a deeper level with the players that many young athletes consider to be their role models. We see all sides of the superstar athlete lifestyle, through their social media decisions. You’ll see the fancy cars and nights at the club on Instagram, right next to the pictures of an empty gym and a single basketball to accompany them during a solo early morning workout. You see pictures and tweets congratulating teammates, both new and old, on accomplishments and awards. You see the inspirational quotes about working hard along with the dedications to their moms and pops.

But who decided that, this the humanizing and numberizing (not a word, I know) of the sport, would be the best thing for us, the audience, in the long run?

I may be alone in this, but I miss the days when the best way to find out about basketball was through word of mouth. If I missed a spectacular game, you know damn well I was waiting for a report from one of my friends or from the news. This system was how the wildest exaggerations about a player’s game were born, and how essentially, legends were created within the NBA.

What would happen is that the players would gain a more mythological aspect to their brand based on how their story was told by the fans. They became more than human. Imagine the hyperbole that followed Kobe’s legendary 81-point game. Now imagine not having the immediate social media outlet for you to release all the feelings that you are feeling as the game went on and his scoring total climbed higher (this might have just been me, but we’ve covered how I feel about Kobe). So, it results in the next day discussion that elevates Kobe’s offensive arsenal to the status of a god.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I much more enjoy hearing the expletive-filled, exaggeration-laced, breathless, wide-eyed recap of an average Laker fan than most newscasters and sports analysts (except Skip Bayless during one of his wild rants about greatness).

Think back even further in NBA lore to the legends like Russell, Chamberlain, Baylor, West, etc. Why else do you think that the oldest fans still hold true to their beliefs in these names as the greatest, despite the overall rise in athleticism? What about the Sky Hook of Kareem, the illest finger roll of Gervin, the gazelle like flow of McAdoo. Think of how the best games of Bird, Magic, and Jordan are described during the various documentaries and interviews. The memories of being in awe while watching these pioneers of the game have evolved in the same way that everyone feels about the 90s now.

What social media has done to today’s stars is make it impossible for them to reach that cherished-figure-from-childhood status of legendship (I know, not a word, how many times can I do this?). We’re so oversaturated with statistics and analysis that suddenly everyone has taken the mantle of armchair expert (myself included) rather than innocently amazed young fan. We don’t stop to appreciate the physical prowess and greatness of skill being exhibited on the hardwood every night, because we are too busy arguing who the MVP should really be, or how Lebron matches up with Kobe matches up with Jordan.

Everyone is quick to crucify Lebron/Westbrook/Griffin for a mistake that almost everyone won’t remember 5 years after their careers. (Actually when Lebron retires, that tribute video would be so unreal that it will probably make us think the guy never made a mistake in his entire life.) We all want to be the guy that understands why the Hawks are surprisingly so good, but we never stop to just watch in awe at the way the ball moves. There’s all the statistics to support why Curry is the MVP (I’ll admit I was rooting for Harden), with all the math and all the analysis. But what gets ignored is how breathtaking it is to watch him catch fire and literally take over a game with a string of 4-5 shots (even though I’m a Laker fan and hate the Warriors).

With highlight mixtapes littered all over YouTube, any player being just a click away, it has stripped us of the closeness we used to enjoy with these memories of witnessing pure talent on the court. It’s great to be able to watch them again and again, but it would never replace the rush of adrenaline and the heart pounding nature of watching it on your TV or in person in real-time (Kind of like the first time I heard the Beatles. Superbad, anyone?). We all have the math and commentary to support who is a good player and who is not, who contributes actual value to a team and who puts up empty stats (Detroit-era Josh Smith, cough cough), but when did it become so common to dictate stats when discussing your favorite player, rather than how you as a fan feel every time you watch them take the court?

By enumerating every possible facet of the game that makes a player great, many people tend to ignore what I always feel is the most important part of being a fan: the emotion. I’ll go to my grave with Kobe Bryant fully cemented as my favorite player, my childhood idol, my man crush everyday (wait, what?), my personal pick for GOAT. But why does it have to be so statistically based to argue the contrary? You can argue against the volume shooting, the reluctant passing, and the rough treatment of teammates. But nobody can argue how I felt during every single game winner he’s hit, that wave of euphoria mixed with that feeling of relief like after you make it to the bathroom just in time after sitting in traffic for 2 hours with just a bottle of water to keep you awake (this maybe has happened to me a couple times or several). Nobody can tell me they never dreamed of a game as a kid where they outscored an entire team in three quarters (and then proceeded to create themselves in a video game with maxed out skills and accomplish it). Nobody can take back the chills in my spine when he shot those free throws with a torn Achilles. Nobody can replace the time when I pumped my hand at the TV (pause?) counting out five rings along with Kobe after the victory over the Celtics.

This is the trend that has taken over today. Everyone wants to be right, and everyone wants to convince everyone else they’re right. We’re all experts, when we should just be fans. Sure, I love the accessibility of the sports world today. We’ve never been closer to the stars of the game that we love. We’ve never been so allowed to get a look into their personal lives (fast cars, big houses, side chicks, and all). And for a self-proclaimed basketball nerd like me, sometimes I love the stats and data driven discussions. I admit all of that.

But when can we stop being analysts and just be fans? When can we let these players showcase their greatness for their (about) 15 years, then let their games live on fondly in our memories like we used to? Let’s allow them to take our breath away without worrying about why exactly the double baseline screen with the fake pin-down action on the weak side allowed Curry to hit another three in the corner off a fade cut. Let’s allow the Grizzlies to play suffocating defense without posting every measure of points/FG%/3pt% that they allow. Let’s allow Derrick Rose to attack the basket with flashes of how he used to, without worrying about the Bulls’ offensive efficiency with/without him during his injuries. Let’s let these great players evolve into the legends that some of them can become.

At least for the rest of these exciting playoffs, let’s forget who’s better than who, numbers-wise, and do one simple, simple thing:

Enjoy the games like the innocent, wide-eyed, impressed 8-year old we all once were.