Noah Brier | December 30, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Decade Memory Edition

On sports, culture, and how who we remember from a given period changes over time

Noah here. With it being the end of the decade there are lots of debates about what defined the last ten years. One of the questions circling the basketball world is whether Lebron James or Steph Curry is the most important player player of the 2010s. Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, I think there are some interesting takeaways from the debate. 

But first, the case for both players as articulated by New York Times basketball reporter Marc Stein

This one is impossible. LeBron took his Miami and Cleveland teams to eight consecutive N.B.A. finals and ushered in the player-empowerment era with “The Decision” in 2010 — followed by two more landscape-altering free agencies — when he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014 and then bolted to the Lakers in 2018. Stephen Curry rewrote the boundaries of acceptable shooting distance as the 3-pointer became this sport’s weapon of prominence, and he served as the face of a team that went to five consecutive finals and won three championships.

Stein begrudgingly chooses Curry because sportswriting doesn’t have room for ties. NBA writer Tom Ziller didn’t have the same reservations, arguing that the player of the decade (Curry) has to match the play of the decade (the three-pointer). “Consider the NBA now vs. the NBA a decade ago,” Ziller writes. “The single biggest change is the explosion of the three-pointer. The three-pointer was once an important accoutrements. Now, in some ways, it is the sport. And who is responsible for that more than any other single player? Not LeBron. It’s Steph Curry.”

Of course, not everyone agreed. Most interestingly (to me at least), was this thread from Ben Detrick, another NBA writer. The gist of his argument is contained in his first Tweet: “Steph is only ‘player of the decade’ in that his rare abilities dovetailed with an evolving NBA in [a] way that benefited him more than anyone in modern basketball history.”

Why is this interesting?

At first, this seemed like a very normal NBA conversation to me. There’s nothing sports fans (and as a result sportswriters) like more than debating who’s best within an arbitrary set of boundaries. While the players on the court compete in a zero-sum game, those of us who follow the sport spend most of our time arguing over questions to which there are no answers.

But then Detrick’s take made me think about things a bit more. While ostensibly about sport, the question of which player best represents the decade covers off on some much bigger themes about how we remember history and the arbitrary nature of time boundaries. It immediately made me think of Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We're Wrong?. Though I wasn’t crazy about the book itself, its ideas have stuck with me, particularly the way we eventually reduce every historical period to a single individual. As Klosterman explains:

In Western culture, pretty much everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person—the “journey” of one particular “hero”—as a prism for understanding everything else. In rock, there are two obvious candidates for this purpose: Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are the most famous musical collective, but Elvis and Dylan are the towering individuals—so eminent that I don’t need to use Elvis’s last name or Dylan’s first.

The end of the decade offers the perfect opportunity to start this process. But as time goes on, the way we remember the period will change. The decade boundary that seems so important to us as we approach December 31st will fade away in twenty, thirty, or fifty years. While Curry’s Golden State Warriors are most representative of this decade with three championships and the all-time regular-season wins record, it’s the 2004-05 “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns that are the prototype for this era’s style of play

As time goes by and decade boundaries blur, I suspect the crown for this period will be given back to Lebron, the second-best player in the sport’s history. That is, of course, until we zoom out far enough and we all just remember Michael Jordan as the man who invented a sport called basketball. (NRB)

Chart of the Day:

FT on the fastest growing countries of the decade. “Since 2009, Ethiopia’s gross domestic product has jumped 146.7 per cent, according to data collated by the IMF, while in per capita purchasing power parity terms it has risen 149 per cent, enough to put it top of both lists as the decade draws to a close*.” (The * is a pedantic footnote about when the decade actually ends.) (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

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