LeBron James sparked discussion this offseason about who is the greatest of all time. Yago Colas is here to tell us there is no G.O.A.T., but the fun, as they say, is in the debate.
I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want the discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to see what sort of broader cultural purposes—often collective and unconscious—are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.
This past semester, “LeBron Day” generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is G.O.A.T.)?
This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated. “You can’t say LeBron is better than Jordan because Jordan won more championships.” “Jordan was more competitive.” “Jordan was more clutch.” “Jordan stayed with his team and built it.” (For the record, the majority of students who expressed an opinion “voted” for Jordan over LeBron).
Hands were shooting up all around the room faster than I could keep track. Sometimes, when a student would finish making a point, the group discussion would fragment into micro debate as his or her classmates in the immediate vicinity would follow up on that point, disregarding, or unaware, that another student, across the room, had been called on and was trying to address the whole class.
However, even as the chaotic point-counterpoint rolled on implacably, a number of students did my work for me by reflecting critically on the very terms of the question. “How can you use championships won in a team sport to compare individual players?” “How can you compare players from different eras?” “How can you compare a career in progress with a complete career?”
Some, even as they argued that Jordan was the greater player, suggested that their own perceptions were shaped by the fact that Jordan came first and that their opinions were shaped by a powerful, inherited consensus in hoops culture that Jordan is the G.O.A.T. (a consensus forged in part by media, marketing, and celebrity).
And then, at a certain point buoys of lucidity began to bob to the surface amidst the discursive wreckage. It began to appear obvious (at least to me) that this was not the sort of question that could be answered conclusively. Looking back on it, that for me was the really critical teaching opportunity. And, I guess, to be honest, I knew that going in and really ought to have prepared a teacherly intervention for that moment. It would be the moment to have reflected this back to them explicitly and to have pushed them to wonder, given that we won’t come to a conclusion, why we are so energetically invested in continuing the discussion; and then, to have firmly kept them on that task. It’s a bit blurry in my memory, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do that.
I think I got as far as attempting to impose on them the idea that the consensus for Jordan expressed a deep-seated desire for a permanent, abiding standard that anchors us in a sea of change. I tried to paraphrase what that deep-seated, unconscious voice might say: “LeBron can’t be the GOAT ‘cause we can’t be changing that shit up every ten years.” Or something like that. I was not very articulate, and when I encountered resistance, I was not very articulate in response. Nevertheless, I think I was on the right track, if not specifically about the Jordan consensus, then at least about the topic overall. And if I had prepared a little better, I’d have elaborated my point along these lines.
After all, it is called the Greatest of ALL TIME. In literary criticism, similar debates occur among scholars who wrangle on the pages of academic journals over the relative merits of various authors and works, arguing over who should or shouldn’t be in something called the “canon,” which is the name we literature professors give to our Hall of Fame.
And then, within those discussions, inevitably, we argue about who is the literary G.O.A.T. Shakespeare? Goethe? Dante? Proust? In that context, however, most of us today recognize that any such assertions are always inseparable from the particular values of a critic’s time and place and usually express a desire on the part of the critic to transcend that limitation and transform the particular values of his or her time and place into a fixed, permanent standard against which all others might be measured.
The problem with the G.O.A.T. discussion, probably in any domain, is that “ALL TIME” is a dream, a fantasy. “ALL TIME” never comes to pass and so when we declare an author, a player, a film, the greatest of all time we are saying (in addition to whatever specific things we are saying about that particular figure and his or her domain of human achievement): “I want there to be a human figure or work that embodies a definition of greatness that stands outside of all time, a standard that endures forever.”
We can want that. It’s an understandable wish in a world that changes so rapidly and at the whim of forces beyond our control; a particularly understandable wish during periods of transition in life (like, say, adolescence), or at those moments, whatever our age, when we become especially aware that our whole life is really a transition; when we feel the tough reality of mortality and impermanence. So we can want there to be a G.O.A.T.. But I don’t really think there can be one. Sorry.
Now that makes it sound like I think it’s useless or delusional to participate in such discussions. I don’t. At least, I don’t think it’s useless so long as we exercise our capacity for ironic self-awareness of what we are doing when we do participate. When we can do that, then the debates slide past the strident back and forth of pseudo-certainty—what educational philosopher Kieran Egan calls “philosophic understanding”—and becomes the more subtly strengthening process of exercising our rhetorical skills and cultivating our capacity to shift perspectives: to experience the world as others do, to feel their feelings, think their thoughts, and understand why they take the positions they do and that they might be valid as well.
Put it this way. Let’s say you play a lot of pick up ball. You can know perfectly well that your playground pickup game really has no transcendent stakes, but still try really hard, work to improve your existing game, grow new powers, and have a blast in the process. But you really don’t want to be that person who is treating the playground pickup game like it was his or her own private NBA finals and like he’s resentfully carrying the rest of you dogs on his back en route to the trophy. You don’t want to be, in other words, the one that is so driven to reach a delusional destination that they forget to enjoy the journey for its own sake, forget that the journey, to use the true cliché, is the destination. You don’t have to be cynically cool, but, you know, be cool.
Putting forth arguments in the G.O.A.T. discussion requires a similar mental and emotional balance, or better yet spiral, in which we 1) act like it’s possible to arrive at the single, definitive, right answer; 2) know that it’s not and why it’s not; 3) enjoy the fact that, really, the whole thing is just about how flexible we can be in listening and how inventive we can be in the creative process of making arguments; and 4) pretending to forget (2) and (3) so as to go back to (1) and keep the whole thing going.
In such discussions, whether in a classroom, or in a bar, or in print, just as on the playground, there is a genuine joy that arises simply from exercising our existing skills, responding to and with others, and experimenting with new powers. It is the transferable and enduring joy of learning and it makes the illusory satisfaction of appearing to have been right seem pale, hollow and bitter by comparison.
Of course, I could always be wrong.
This post first appeared at Between the Lines.