Larry who? How YouTube changed the way we watch basketball
The NBA YouTube compilation is the millennial golden calf. Years of archival highlights, usually scored from other, lesser YouTube clips, organized with some sort of warm, tribunal beat:
Or perhaps a particularly resonant Nelly Furtado deep cut:
They serve as our generalized, group-sourced repository for basketball knowledge, the kids entering high school this year, (you know, the ones who were born in 2000) will learn about Allen Iverson from crossover mixes and late-00s Eminem songs. There’s just no way to “live through” Jordan on a secondhand basis. You were either there, or you weren’t, and for the residual generations, you’d best hope that those YouTube tributes articulate the era as precisely as possible.
There’s nothing wrong about that. YouTube mixes are an efficient, five-minutes-or-under way to recap exactly what made a specific player great. They’ll only become more ubiquitous as time goes on, but they have a fundamental flaw. In the 21st century, some players are more easily memorialized than others.
Allen Iverson’s game seemed explicitly designed for the internet-era: all those cartoony cross-ups and mean-mugs, the poetic storyline of the little guy with a big heart, constantly clashing with those demons. If I were to guess, I’d say more bandwidth has been expended to witness Iverson’s spotty brilliance than any other player not named Michael. His legacy is sealed.
But let’s think of Larry Bird, the gawky Hoosier who stands as arguably the third or fourth best basketball player of all time. He won multiple championships, wore the belt as best player in the world, and personally holds some of the most memorable moments in NBA history. Anyone who knows basketball obviously celebrates the Legend, but we’re not talking about those people, we’re talking about the kids who have absolutely no recollection of those years. You can already hear their footsteps. Can you edit together a video that significantly makes Larry Bird look like a badass? Can it go up against a Shaq mix? An Iverson mix? The answer, if we’re honest, is no.
But that’s not a big deal, right? Larry’s accomplishments speak for themselves and his torch will continue to be carried by those who were there. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be enough when basketball idolatry is being taught through YouTube. There’s certainly a market for insane, gravity-defying cuts to the rim, but a fundamentally sound post-game? An unguardable mid-range jumper? Who, exactly, is going to aspire to be just like Larry Bird based off of what they saw on the internet? He’s the opposite of Allen Iverson, and going forward, it’s clear who’s going to be remembered more fondly. Basketball accomplishments will become less and less important in the fogginess of nostalgia. In the social era, photogenic play is the only way to secure your future. I remember skulking around some god-forsaken forum a couple years ago, and reading some kid’s screed that Larry Bird was overrated, and his handles were garbage. Yes, this child was uninspired by Larry Bird’s “handles.” That’s the world we live in now, and it’s only going to get more severe.
To be fair, we’ve seen this happen already. By most definitions Bill Russell is the better center than Wilt Chamberlain, but only the latter is a household name. You could chalk that up to offense-only bias or Wilt’s legendary personal life, but I think it’s mostly because watching Chamberlain dunk was, and is, a lot more exciting than watching Russell touch-block lay-ups. It’s made Chamberlain an all-timer, and Russell a guy remembered mostly by stats nerds and the once-a-year television appearance he has presenting the Finals MVP. It’s an affliction that will only be accelerated the more our knowledge is directly borrowed from community video.
This probably bums you out, and that’s understandable. I’m guessing you’re old and remember those Larry Bird years very fondly, and any proletariat who can’t recognize his greatness gets you on some massive “kids these days” scolding. But don’t fret, it will happen to them too. Kobe’s career will continue to be crystalized in misty-eyed warrior mixes, and Tim Duncan will fade into the forgotten corners of the Hall of Fame. I’m absolutely certain the monumental, airborne talents of Russell Westbrook will loom higher than the better, but more boring accomplishments of Chris Paul in 20 years. Basketball is a game where individual prowess will always be more publicly appealing than well-rounded superiority. We’ve left our collective history up to the kids, and the kids will always prefer slam dunks. No amount of education and finger-wagging can change our fate. Get used to it, the era of the YouTube mix has already thoroughly taken hold.