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.
As a budding sports journalist I am supposed to shed all my personal biases. It’s one of the key sayings in the business – No cheering in the press box. You stand for the anthem, you might clap if an injured played is able to rise to their feet, but that’s it.
The reason behind this anti-fandom is obvious: we don’t want to betray any sort of favourite because the relationship between journalists and their audience relies heavily on the media remaining impartial. Readers need to know that our articles or reports aren’t filtered by any agendas.
That said – I’m glad I’m not covering the Orlando Magic during the National Basketball Association playoffs because I sure am conflicted about them.
Like most Torontonians, I have a deep-seeded loathing of Vince Carter. It runs deeper and longer than my career as a sports journalist, so it's difficult to shrug off.
The animosity toward Carter stems from the 2004 season – his last with the Raptors – when there was a noticeable drop in his production on the court. He was traded to the New Jersey Nets that December for what amounted to spare parts, damaging the team for the next few years.
In early January 2005, TNT's John Thompson asked Carter if he always played hard.
“In years past, no,” he replied. “I was fortunate to have the talent. You get spoiled when you're able to do a lot of things. You see that you don't have to work at it.”
As you can imagine, this flew as well as a lead balloon in Raptor-land.
Now Carter is with the Orlando Magic, one of the three best teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and playing against the over-matched Atlanta Hawks.
Orlando is seemingly destined to move on to the next round of the post-season after beating the Hawks 112-98 on Thursday night to take a 2-0 series lead.
Worse yet, there is a lot to like about the Magic. They’ve got a cast of young players that have an up-tempo style of play. Their success has lead to a nice rivalry with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, a possible opponent in the Conference Final. Most basketball fans would agree that if the Cavs and Magic meet in the playoffs, as they did last season, it'd be one of the most exciting pairings of the post-season.
In particular, centre Dwight Howard is one of the most charming players in the league. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has thrilled at Slam Dunk competitions and always remains playful with interviewers and fans.
He’s the kind of player that you want to see succeed. But his progress will drag Carter along, putting many Torontonians, myself included, in a difficult position. We want Howard and the Magic to thrive, but is it too late for Orlando to trade away Carter?
Thank God I don’t have to report on this series. It’d be too hard to stay objective.