An Unfair Comp-‘ERA’-son

Why do we compare one era to the next?

An Unfair Comp-‘ERA’-son photo 1
Michael Jordan and LeBron James

Your era, the one you remember most fondly, was the best. Music, sports, movies, technology -- all of it was better back then than it is now. They don't make music like they used to. The game today is watered down compared to what it used to be. Remember when movies were about story and not just explosions? When phones were used for calling people?

I grew up in the '80s and '90s. Nobody will ever be better than Michael Jordan. No genre of music will ever surpass that alternative rock that still blares from my speakers as I write this story.

Comparing eras has become a regular exercise in the worlds of talk radio and bar conversation, and why not? What else do we have to compare the modern day to than the "modern day" that came before it?

In the midst of the Golden State Warriors' historic season in which they bested the 1995-96 Bulls' record for regular season wins, the legends of the past weren't buying it. In February, Hall-of-Famer and all-time great Oscar Robertson expressed his feelings about why Stephen Curry was so good, telling ESPN radio's "Mike and Mike" that Curry actually "benefits from lax defense and coaches who don't understand the game of basketball."

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Stephen Curry

As far as we've come, as much as the world has advanced, why this obsession with comparing one era to another, especially given that it's impossible to actually do? Sure, there are Elo ratings and NBA Live video game simulations, but there is no way to truly know. And I'm guilty of doing it too. I'm constantly caught in passionate arguments of why LeBron James will never be as good as Jordan was. And before that it was Kobe Bryant. And in five more years it'll be someone else. I just can't help it.

So why doesn't anything compare to the experiences of our past? One study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1988 (hey, good era!) explained that when people think back on experiences from the past -- be it a sports team, concert, etc. -- they forget the context they had initially used to judge that thing. Our experience base was not as developed when we were younger as it is when we get older, and so things from our past have less to be compared to when judging them. When I first saw Jordan I hadn't seen anything else like him. Nobody had. So when Bryant came along, great as he was, NBA fans of my generation had seen that before. It wasn't nearly as impressive the second time around.

Take this season's Warriors team. Topping 72 regular season wins seemed to be a record nobody would break. Bill Simmons labeled it as such in The Book of Basketball. But the Warriors did it 20 years later. Most young NBA fans never saw the 72-win Bulls team play just as I had never seen the 69-win Lakers of 1971-72.

As for James, he has been the target of comparisons since he was a teenager. And while he'll never be able to match Jordan's 6-0 finals record, Jordan also never led a team back to win the NBA title from down 3-1 against arguably the "best team in NBA history." James is the first and only player ever to do that. Could Jordan have done it? Perhaps, but that's exactly the point. While we sit and wonder, we miss out on experiencing the NBA history happening right in front of us.

Why work so hard for progress when all we want to do is wax poetic about a better time? Maybe it's because we are afraid that if new experiences are better than the ones from our past, it somehow discredits those past experiences. (In the case of the Big O, if Curry is so great, does that mean maybe Robertson wasn't as good as he/we thought?)

Enjoying and giving due credit to the 2015-16 Warriors doesn't discredit anything that the 1995-96 Bulls did. Recognizing that James is a unique talent and all-time great player doesn't lessen what Jordan or Robertson or any other legend of the past accomplished.

If records never got broken, sports would be pretty boring to watch. I wouldn't want to watch the NBA if I knew it would never be as good as it was before or is right now. In 20 more years, some other team will come along and win 74 games. Some other player will lead his team back from down 3-0. So we should try not to let it take anything away from what is happening right now and enjoy another moment in history we are lucky enough to experience in our lifetime.

Nobody, however, will ever actually be better than Michael Jordan, so don't bother fighting me on that one.

"If records never got broken, sports would be pretty boring to watch."


Eric Burgher photo 375
Eric Burgher is a Chicago native and has been covering Chicago sports since 2013. Currently he is the Northwestern beat writer for ... Read More



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