GOAT Debates, Stupidity, and a Theological Connection

A few posts back I pointed out that I rarely write on purely political issues. I never write on sports related topics, because this is a blog on issues related to theology, and also because so few people share my brilliance in sports conversations that it would be embarrassing if I did so (joke!). Alas, most rules are made to be broken, and I find myself beside myself with frustration approaching apocalyptic proportions, so I figured I had better get this post out of my system.

As I write this the NBA finals are in progress, and so is a debate regarding who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the history of the National Basketball Association. During football season the same debate occurs, so it is not a malady that is restricted to the NBA. I find these debates inane, insane, vacuous, foolish, asinine, absurd, frivolous, fatuous – my thesaurus fails me. They are ridiculous. I make that conclusion based on three indisputable facts: (1) the overwhelming majority of those engaged in such debates are barely out of their second decade of life. Their “all time” basically amounts to what has occurred since the early 2000’s. (2) The players they think are the GOAT are playing now – duh. It is just “Chronological Snobbery” on steroids. It if is today it has to be the GOAT, there is no yesterday in these yokel’s life. That leads me to (3), these mouthpieces and their loyal minions have absolutely no sense of sports history – or of history at all, for that matter. Here is where the entire conversation breaks down because of its utter, complete, and total, absurdity, vapidity, and idiocy.

Consider the debate in the NBA – the two names most frequently put forward are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two made-for-TV stars who have piled up almost as many fans as they have millions of dollars. No Kareem Abdul Jabbar, no Bill Russell, no Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson, no Wilt Chamberlain no “Dr. J” Julius Erving, no “Pistol Pete” Maravich. The debate is so bogus as to be – well, see the adjectives above. The points of contention between the contestants are usually points scored, games won, championships won, and some other more esoteric stats. But, just for a history lesson for those of you who are uninitiated, let us consider how the game of basketball has changed:

  • Before 1954 there was no shot clock.
  • Before 1951 the free-throw lane was 6 feet wide. In ’51 it was widened to 12 feet, and then in 1964 it was widened again to 16 feet because of the dominance of Wilt Chamberlain.
  • In 1978 the officiating crews were increased from 2 to 3 officials. The number was then reduced back to two, and a few years later increased back to three.
  • In 1979 the three point line was introduced. It’s furthest point has varied between 23 feet 9 inches and 22 feet (the furthest it can realistically be placed in the corners of the court).
  • Before 2001 defenses had to play man-to-man defense, and a variety of rules regulated illegal defenses. In 2001 those restrictions were completely eliminated.
  • For some fascinating reading, check out double u double u double u dot NBA dot come slash analysis slash rules underscore history dot html.

The point is, a player in 1979 was awarded three points for the exact same shot he would have been awarded two points for just a few months earlier. Jordan and James are both the beneficiaries of a wide-open, perimeter game that did not exist prior to the three-point line being introduced. Players prior to 1954 were schooled in the “get ahead and ice the game” theory of winning games – after 1954 the pace of the game has increased, and with it the opportunities to score greater and greater number of points. The number of referees clearly has an impact on the game – those who played with two refs played a different game than those who have played with three refs. In terms of rule changes, eliminating the “illegal defense” penalty was huge. Once again – to compare offensive statistics today to those of decades past is to compare apples to oranges.  And, for my coup de grace, one single player was responsible for adding four feet to the width of the free throw lane – the afore mentioned Wilt Chamberlain.

Michael Jordan did not change the game. There will never be a “LeBron James” rule – well, except that players favored by the NBA/ESPN will never be officiated equally with the hoi poloi, the common masses. Wilt Chamberlain changed the game. “Dr. J.” Julius Erving changed the game with his unequaled athleticism. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson changed the game in a way that has had a profound impact for Jordan and James – moving the game from the post to the perimeter. All of this is lost in all the chatter about points and championships and blather, blather, blather.

Space does not allow an equal examination of the NFL, but let us just consider a couple of questions: do you honestly think Tom Brady or Drew Brees would have the kind of numbers they have if they had to play with the same rules that governed the game when Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach played? Or just reverse the question – what kind of numbers could Staubach or Tarkenton or Terry Bradshaw or Kenny Stabler have produced if they had played with the same kind of receiver friendly, “don’t touch the quarterback” kind of rules that benefit today’s tutu wearing prima-donnas?  I rest my case before I am thrown out of court for my obvious contempt for that very same court.

Before I get too far astray with sports, let me ask, is there a connection to theology here? Yes, and I’m glad I asked. The same incomprehensible lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, matters of church history is plaguing the church today. It it was said, or written, before, say, 1980 (just to be generous) whatever was said or written is bunk, garbage, worthless. I received my D.Min. in 2015, and the method of church growth that was the front burner issue for my classmates is now considered to be passé. The great theologians of the church are not just ignored, they are openly scoffed at – oh, the humanity!

My point, so brilliantly illustrated (by the facts themselves, not by me) by the GOAT debates in the NBA and NFL, is that without a firm knowledge of, and even a love for, our history, we make some of the dumbest, stupidest, most vacuous and ridiculous statements. We live in the present – to be sure there is no going back – but our present was created by the past. To argue in sports who is the greatest of one generation – that has some merit, as long as the rules of the game are the same and each “contestant” has had the same limitations/benefits as the others. So, to argue whether Jordan was better than James is a legitimate debate as is if Brady is better than Brees or Rodgers. But to argue who is the greatest of all time? Oy. Beam me up Scotty, there is no intelligent life on this planet.

In the church, we cannot return to a glorious “golden decade” or century or whatever, because one never existed in the first place. We do not have to fight the same battles our forefathers (and mothers) fought, nor could they have imagined the battles we must fight. If we try to keep fighting battles that were done and over with decades (or centuries) ago, we are only wasting our time. If we do not address the issues facing the church to day – well, who will?

We learn from our past in order to be better equipped to fight our battles today. We should not worship our past heroes, but let us never forget them, either. Let us love and cherish our history for one very important reason if for no other:

If we know our history, at least we will not be stupid enough to waste our time with debates about the GOAT.

Sports rant over, hopefully for ever. We now return this blog to its original intended purpose.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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