Whether it’s picking a champion before a season begins or presaging the outcome of a draft, there’s a good chance a sports writer is setting themselves up to fail when they make predictions.
It’s inherent in sports journalism. The predictable nature of a season naturally lends itself to playing oracle.
You know there will be a Most Valuable Player award and even at the start of the season you can narrow it down to three or four likely candidates. Guessing who it’s going to be is easy copy and it gets the consumers involved in the debate as well. It’s too tempting to pass up.
Of course, more often than not, those predictions are way off and then you have readers sending you crank emails lecturing you on how you’re the wrongest wrong who ever wronged.
Hindsight is 20-20 and those bold statements, predictions of future success (or struggles) and deep explanations embedded in an article can sour quickly, ruining an otherwise fine piece of work.
I touched on this before in my review of SI’s Great Baseball Writing. Throughout that collection there are passages or even entire articles from the late 1990s and early 2000s that try to explain the sudden power surge late in the careers of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa.
This is at the heart of the Sports Illustrated or EA Sports cover curses – the subject is chosen because of what they’re expected to achieve and, more often than not, they disappoint because they’re being held up to more intense scrutiny or our expectations (raised by the hype of being on the cover) are unrealistic.
Right now I’m reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and I’m making my way through his lengthy Pyramid section where he ranks the top 96 professional basketball players of all time.
It’s an entertaining and informative piece, until you get to the subchapter on Lebron James. Here’s a few paragraphs of the book that, in turn, were pulled from Simmons’ April 15, 2009 posting where he makes the case for James as NBA MVP.
“Not since Magic Johnson has a superstar doubled as such a galvanizing teammate. If there's an enduring image of the '08-09 season, it's the way LeBron stamped his personality on everyone around him. They orchestrate goofy pregame intros (my favorite: the team snapshot), trade countless chest bumps, giggle on the sidelines, hang out on road trips and support each other in every way. What's telling about LeBron's in-traffic dunks -- and he unleashes them more frequently than anyone since Dominique -- is how he seeks out his bench for feedback, and even better, how they give it to him. It makes the forced camaraderie of the Lakers seem glaring. If you want to watch a team that pulls for each other and follows the lead of its best player, watch Cleveland.
And if you're a Cavs fan trying to talk yourself into LeBron staying after 2010, your best chance is this: Through 24 years, LeBron has proven to be an inordinately devoted guy. When you're with him, you're with him. The upcoming documentary (supposedly superb) about his high school years bangs this point home. So does the fact that he jettisoned his agents and surrounded himself with high school buddies. So does everything that happened this season. He's as good of a teammate as a player. The more I watch him, the more I wonder if such an intensely loyal guy would ever say, "Thanks for the memories, everybody," dump his teammates, dump his hometown and start a fresh life elsewhere. Although he isn't surrounded by the most talented players right now, collectively, it's a team in the truest sense, with a devoted set of appreciative fans, and maybe that's all LeBron James will need in the end.
I thought he was a goner four months ago. I think he's staying now. Regardless, he's our Most Valuable Player for 2009. It won't be the last time.”
Although Simmons’ schtick is enthusiastic hyperbole, I do believe that he was very sincere in his belief that James is a loyal, team-oriented player and a true son of Ohio. And, credit where it's due, the Sports Guy was right that James would win NBA MVP in 2009 and that it wouldn't be his last.
But Simmons was wrong about Lebon's character. I think it's fair to say that the Decision, the hour-long ESPN special where Lebron announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” proved that as it ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans and tarnished Lebon's image.
It turned out that James is not particularly loyal, that his high school friends/managers totally misread the impact of his television special and that the Lebron camp are so out of touch with his fanbase that they signed off on this ad for Nike, rubbing salt in the wound.
Yikes. Knowing what we know now, reading Simmons' glowing praise of Lebron makes me cringe.
In fairness to Simmons, he did change his mind as the free agency deadline loomed this past summer, backpedalling from his earlier belief that James was going to stay in Ohio as new information came to light.
And hey, it’s not like I haven’t made my own terrible calls. Long-time readers of this blog just need to think back to my March Madness predictions from this past spring, or my Canadian Hockey League playoff predictions from about the same time to see that I’m no seer myself.
I just want to underscore just how tricky this predictions game can be. It’s a wrinkle that makes sports journalism just a bit tougher, a little more unpredictable and definitely a lot more uncomfortable for columnists.
Blog posts, books, magazine covers, whatever, are all created in a particular moment but then stand forever.
Unfortunately, sports journalists are often called upon to make predictions, foresee the future and the incorrect guesses last much longer than the actual outcome ever does. It can turn good copy bad, real fast and it can also make me put down a book for a few minutes to reflect on how fleeting insight can be.