Endings are always hyperbolic. It’s just a natural product of our behavior. When NDP leader Jack Layton passed away recently, it was met with universal praise of his life and achievements. I opened the newspaper to find an editorial which called upon future Canadian politicians to follow the acronym: WWJD—What Would Jack Do? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but was there a Jesus comparison in there?
I’m not trying to marginalize Layton’s life—in fact, I do believe that he was dedicated, passionate and caring as politician. But when he was applauded in every form of media for an entire week, you begin to ask yourself: wasn’t the one knock on this guy that you could never see him actually running the country? The vicious world of campaigning took a complete 180 once the news of Layton’s illness became spread.
This has nothing to do with Layton but instead is an assessment of our general attitudes towards death—or simply endings in general. The same has happened in sports. When Drazen Petrovic—a European super-duper-star turned NBA underdog story—died in a car accident at 28 he was remembered as a basketball legend (and in Europe, he was). But whenever Petrovic gets brought up, the concept of him battling Michael Jordan toe to toe is always discussed. He always gets billed as “the one guy that gave Jordan fits”. He may have done well against Jordan, but his death propelled him into another stratosphere. And because nobody else ever gave Jordan any serious problems (see: six championships) combined with the fact that Petrovic could never lose that status—he would always be the guy that was just as competitive as Jordan. Hyperbolic statements are easy to defend because Petrovic can’t get burned by Jordan anymore the same way Jack Layton has no opportunity to get burned in Parliament.
The greatest example of this is without a doubt Len Bias. For those who may be unaware, Bias died the night of being drafted by the Boston Celtics because of a cocaine overdose. Whenever the Bias story is retold, he is branded as the next greatest NBA legend. He was strong, he was fast and Red Auerbach was hell-bent on getting him. And because Len Bias never played an NBA game—we’ll never know if he was bound to be an NBA legend. But in our minds, he was supposed to be—heck, he was as surefire as the Yankees or Red Sox winning the AL East. He was going to be the next big thing. And you know what incident gets attributed to the United States intensifying their cocaine laws? Len Bias.
Look, I’m not trying to say that Layton, Petrovic and Bias didn’t deserve any of this credit. That’s far from the point. The thing we tend to do around endings is over exaggerate. We turned Layton, Petrovic and Bias from exceptionally skilled and passionate people into mythical beings.
And there’s nothing wrong with it.
When Yao Ming was forced to retire from basketball this summer, in many ways it was a death. Far from the tragedies I discussed in the previous three stories—but it mirrors them to some degree. The heartbreak with Yao is that he didn’t even reach 500 career games and found his seasons cut short due to constant lower body injuries. And Yao was an amazing talent. He finished his career averaging 19 points, 9 rebounds and almost 2 blocks per game. But Yao will mostly get remembered for igniting a global NBA—especially in China where the NBA’s popularity has skyrocketed. Yao was an international icon. You could see him on TV—not just playing in games but in commercials and interviews. But we’ll always say that Yao could have contributed more. Yao could have been even greater.
But is he a hall of fame player? With fewer than 500 games played, he surely doesn’t seem like your conventional candidate. But then again, how many candidates have impacted basketball on an international level the way he did? Yao will surely become the topic of a more heated debate when his nomination rolls around (he asked the committee to delay it until further notice).
You’ll have people saying that he didn’t do enough as a player to merit the induction but it doesn’t matter. Yao deserves it.
And now I’ll have my chance to be hyperbolic. Yao revolutionized Chinese basketball, took an entire country on his back to the NBA. Period.
He dominated on the court. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word about the guy. A competitive player who believed in the idea of team-first. His physical size did nothing to demonstrate the kind of symbol he was for hundreds of millions of people.
Yes, we often get caught in the trap to overstate and exaggerate at our endings. But this is what it all comes down to: when I came to love the game of basketball and slowly learn its history, I often had to rely on accolades because of my inability to see the players first hand. I never watched Larry Bird or George Gervin or Jerry West play. I’ve seen highlights, watched a few NBA classic games and heard stories—but never seen them play a regular season game in mid-February. Never seen them dominate outside of their signature highlights and moments. So, I rely on what kind of awards they were given. To give me a picture of the NBA hierarchy in the days before I began dribbling a basketball.
In many ways, the Hall of Fame is meaningless indicator. It’s a subjective line drawn by somebody. It’s not winning MVP or an NBA championship—it’s just a decision made by a group of people. But yet, the Hall of Fame does mean something. Because of all the great players that are inducted, there is a concerted effort to try and preserve the meaning of receiving the honor. It means very little that Michael Jordan was inducted if Greg Ostertag were also there. It is there to preserve their legacies for future hoopheads (like me).
There is a reason we attach legendary characteristics to people like Jack Layton, Drazen Petrovic and Len Bias. Because we want to ensure that the future sees these people the same way we have. And without their talents on display, we often need to be hyperbolic in order to demonstrate the true greatness of those who can no longer perform their craft.
Whether he makes it into the Hall of Fame is irrelevant to my view of him. I saw Yao. A torchbearer in a physical and emotional way for the entire world. The next generation will have never seen him play, just as I never saw Chamberlain or West, and I want them to remember him the same way I will. A Hall of Fame induction will go a long way towards cementing the legacy that he has left with those who witnessed his playing days. That’s all I want.