The headline isn’t referring to that Showtime show from the late-2000s, or “taking an L,” as in the hundreds of tweets responding to Ayesha Curry in recent weeks that simply contain the letter “L”.
This is a request. Just like other tiresome sports words like “narrative,” or phrases such as “face of the franchise,” this one surely won’t go away either, because it produces so many easy debate segments for sports talk shows. However, it can’t hurt to try, because the hot take pot is boiling over. And instead of cleaning up the mess, sports noise creators — everyone from thoughtful pontificators to run-of-the-mill blowhards — are turning up the temperature.
Here goes. Let’s stop discussing an athlete’s “legacy,” shall we?
Bleacher Report published an essay by a basketball Hall-of-Famer today.
“Reggie Miller: Kevin Durant Traded a Sacred Legacy for Cheap Jewelry,” the headline scolded. The words “sacred” and “cheap” are meant to pull the reader in, but without the L-word, there is no discussion. And since this discussion is stupid, it’s high time we take it out of the sports world now and for good.
The essay by Miller isn’t poorly written, but many will celebrate it as a universal handbook when it should be no such thing. His main point is how he was the perfect small-market player — he never played for a team other than Indiana to chase a ring, because he wouldn’t have been able to celebrate the victory with (and soak in the love from) the little people who root for the Pacers. Great. Miller is the perfect specimen, a loyal star whose methods should be followed by every single elite hoopster who ever toils for a good-but-not-quite-great team in the heartland. Oh, and anyone who doesn’t follow Miller’s path is a traitor, an ingrate, and lacks competitive spirit.
Miller is fighting for his own legacy, of course. It’s no coincidence the two former players who spoke loudest against Durant’s decision weren’t just TV talking heads, but TV talking heads whose outstanding resumes don’t include a single championship. Miller didn’t request to be traded to title contenders like Charles Barkley did (twice), so he stands a little higher on this fabricated moral scale. But why is it worth the trouble for young players, currently forging their own paths, to make decisions based solely on keeping something as malleable as a sports legacy pristine?
Here are some elements of what can go into the sports legacy recipe, depending on the chef. (And that cook can be anyone — casual fan, hardcore fan, good writer, hacky writer, current coach or player, former coach or player, radio host, TV sports anchor or analyst, along with anyone else I left out.)
- Traditional stats
- Advanced metrics
- Raw talent
- Work ethic
- Quality of the athlete’s teammates (Did they lift the athlete up or drag the athlete down?)
- How well the athlete treated coworkers
- How well the athlete treated the media
- How well the athlete connected with fans
- How well the athlete treated family members and significant others
- Community service
- Outspokenness about political and/or social issues
- Religious convictions
- Chemicals ingested
- Number of titles won
- Number of championship games/series lost
- How the athlete did at the end of close games when everyone was watching (in “the clutch”)
- How gracefully the athlete handled victory and/or defeat
- How long the athlete stayed with the team that drafted him or her
Does anyone care about every single one of those legacy-creating characteristics? Hell, no. Many who spend time keeping track of legacies couldn’t care less about a third of this list. Several would ignore at least half of it. To some, it’s rings and rings alone. To others, it’s all about individual numbers. Others still would focus on the less tangible qualities linked to personality and behavior.
No one is wholly wrong. No one is wholly right. And they ways legacies are judged change for each athlete, sport, and generation.
Durant may have thought playing with Russell Westbrook was torture, and it was all he could do to not scream from the rooftops that he was sick and tired of dealing with a hero-ball point guard. Or, he knew Westbrook had no intention of re-signing with the Thunder after next season. Perhaps Durant was bored in Oklahoma City — he donated money and time to causes in the area, but his birthplace was nowhere close to OKC, and no major professional franchise existed there until Clay Bennett uprooted Durant’s Supersonics after his rookie season. Maybe he just thought it would be more fun to play in a livelier area, with better teammates, on a team more interested in freeing him up to get open shots, roam on defense and expand the parts of his game he didn’t explore with the Thunder.
There’s a chance Durant believes, like many, that titles are the only way to forge a truly great legacy, and that’s what he wants more than anything. Or he just wants to enjoy his prime years as a fantastic basketball player before they slip away, and sees Golden State as the place where this dream is possible.
Durant destroyed his legacy in Oklahoma City and created a new one in the Bay Area over the last few days. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous, especially since we haven’t seen him dribble the ball in an NBA game during that time? And his legacy among the populace will change with each season, just like LeBron James’ has since 2010.
Those who believe focusing solely on rings causes individuals and the culture at large to miss out on a lot of what sports has to offer are absolutely correct. Why spend months out of the year focusing your attention on something if there’s a 97% chance you’ll end up feeling disappointed and empty when the trophy is raised? Enjoying this crazy nonsense is easy, even during non-title seasons. Just appreciate the present by watching games live or on television, listening to them on the radio, discussing the games, players, coaches and transactions with friends in a living room or on social media, playing fantasy sports, whatever.
Conversely, if you feel like titles are the most important thing, by far, in team sports, you aren’t necessarily wrong either. Otherwise, why care about Super Bowls, National Championship Games, and Game 7s?
And if you feel like comparing athletes and teams from different eras, go for it! Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s impossible, or the wrong thing to do. Imagining time travel is great fun.
But at the risk of alienating everyone who creates and consumes sports media, this legacy stuff is inane. Humans are far from perfect, and every single legacy created is a legacy that will get smashed to bits eventually thanks to our outrage culture, internal biases, and a have-to-know-everything, 24/7 news cycle. If you want to love or hate an athlete like Durant, by all means. But let’s stop being naive enough to think an athlete in the 21st century has the ability to make moves with legacy at the top of his or her mind, and then follow through with perfect decision after perfect decision until retirement (and beyond — legacies can be shattered with indiscretions in one’s personal life quite easily).
Legacy-building, in a world with so many variables and opinions, is an impossible mission for a player … much more difficult than stopping the Durantified Warriors from winning at least one title over the next few years. And, like any of us obsessing over the legacy of someone we’ll never truly get to know, it’s a waste of time.