The Decay of Greatness

I have given much of my recent thoughts to the concept of athletes aging, and usually not aging well. It is a stark reminder that greatness is fleeting and quickly replaced by more greatness in a newer and flashy form. Athletes can’t age like normal people, at least not in the realm of sports (not in their personal lives, only on the playing surface/field). They age like milk: it is great and delicious and satisfying until one day it has a nauseous smell and an even worst taste.

The example that hits closest to home is Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is one of the most dominant players of all time and certainly the most dominant big man of his generation. His sheer girth has enabled him to be one of the four best centers of All-Time along with his freakish athleticism that should not correspond with such a gigantic man.

But, on his fifth team in his illustrious career, Shaq has become an afterthought, not only for the national media but also for his own team. It seems that Mike Brown is all too willing to sit down the big fella in favor of the lineup that notched 66 wins last season. I feel that on more than one occasion Shaq has gone to the bench midway through the first quarter and has not reentered the game until well into the second quarter.

What? This scenario seemed unimaginable 5 years ago. Shaq, an unstoppable monster who could back down any opponent anytime he wanted, being subbed out of a game for sustained stretches without foul trouble. Unbelievable. But it has happened and Shaq has gone from great to a slightly above average center in the blink of an eye.

He has been on the decline for a while now, starting probably when he was still with the Lakers and continuing to increase during his stints in South Beach and the desert. Still, with Miami he was still the best center in the league and with Phoenix, while he wrecked that team and destroyed the Suns’ chances for two seasons, he was still very good, or at least put up good numbers.

But the downturn has become even more noticeable than it was before. He isn’t in very good shape, although he has always had a problem with his work ethic during the offseason, which is part of the reason that he hasn’t won more regular season MVP’s and perhaps bolstered his claim as one of the best centers of all time. He never really developed an offensive game that he could rely on when his body started to fail him and his free throw shooting is laughable as always.

He has become little more than a body at this point. Cleveland brought in the Diesel to be precisely that: someone who can absorb space. Cleveland made a reactionary move because of their dramatic loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They had nobody who could match up with Dwight Howard, which allowed Orlando to use the snipers to drain threes while upsetting the heavily favored Cavaliers.

I suppose the benefits of this move could also be stretched if the Cavaliers ever meet up with the Lakers in the postseason. It has already paid dividends this season with the Cavaliers beating both teams. But what about the other 27 teams in the league? How does this move help? The Cavs didn’t trade for the old Shaq; they traded for an old Shaq. He can’t take games over anymore. He is at best a role player and at worst a flat tire that the Cavaliers must play with in order to satisfy his ego, which he has earned with a Hall of Fame résumé.

The Cavs took a huge risk by acquiring Shaq. Sure, against Orlando and LA he could be beneficial, though I think Phil Jackson can devise some scheme to exploit Shaq. But what about the other teams in the league? He only slows down Cleveland’s offense, which isn’t spectacular to begin with. His defense is okay, better than Z I suppose. How does this make Cleveland better against a young and athletic Hawks team or a deep and aging Celtics team? I don’t know and we wont know until the playoffs.

The other player is obvious: Allen Iverson. Iverson has fallen off a steep cliff in the past year and a half. He, like Shaq, was never a player who was in very good shape and it seems to have caught up with him, as he has gotten older.

He has lost a very visible step, perhaps two. All of those years mixing it up in the paint with the giants seem to have caught up with The Answer. I was fooled into believing that Iverson could still drop the occasional 30-point game on an unexpecting defense.  I was wrong, very wrong.

Denver realized his slowing last year and stole Chauncey Billups from Detroit. Then Detroit realized that Iverson was no longer the same Iverson. Then came last summer when nobody snatched up Iverson, leaving him to do his own marketing for teams and finally settling for Memphis. Memphis had a lot of young players who need time to develop, time Iverson didn’t want to sacrifice.

As a result, Iverson quit only to be rescued by the franchise he carried on his shoulders for a decade, leading them to the Finals early in the 2000s. Iverson didn’t hit a wall; he ran into it full force and is still suffering from concussion like symptoms. He went from an all-world scorer into a debatable starter for a mediocre at best team.

It’s sad for me to see these once great players fall from grace and become shells of their former selves. Perhaps it is really sad because this is the same fate that is destined for all of today’s superstars. Nobody is free from this downfall unless they acknowledge their own playing mortality and walk away before it is too late. Nobody wants to have the same end that Willie Mays had. Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time, wasn’t immune to the natural decay that happens when you age, so why would anybody else be?


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