15 December 2018

So who is the GOAT?

GOAT is a term mostly used in North American sporting circles and denotes ‘Greatest Of All Time’.  It surfaces during the particular season. If it is basketball, for example, the debate is about whether the GOAT is Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. If it is tennis, fans and commentators will talk about Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. They might ask whether Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic will surpass Federer in terms of Grand Slam titles.  They’ll also talk about Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court.  

These days, with sophisticated models of assessment generated by computer modeling, a lot of factors can be considered. The arguments will include details, factor in contexts and yet the debate never ends.  

A cricket example might illustrate the dilemma. Sir Donald Bradman cored 6696 runs at an average of 99.94 over 52 test matches played between 1928 and 1948. Sachin Tendulkar’s average is 53.78 over a course of 200 tests played between 1989 and 2013.  His aggregate was 15,921. 

If we go with average, then The Don is streets ahead of Tendulkar. However, we could ask some questions that might make people think again. What if the Second World War didn’t happen and Bradman played more tests? What if his opponents had the kind of technological support that exists now? What if he had to play in 100 or more ODIs? What if he had to face all kinds of bowlers on all kinds of wickets all over the world, as Sachin had to? What if Sachin played for England at the time Bradman played?  

These are not answerable questions of course. The point is, it is hard to compare players of different eras. 

Take Serena Williams. She’s got 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Steffi Graf and one less than Margaret Court. Would Steffi have won that many titles had Monica Seles not been attacked and wounded? If, say, Graf earned just 15 titles, wouldn’t Serena’s record seem that much greater? Court’s 23 titles included just 11 in the ‘Open Era’ and the competition was most certainly less intense at the time she played. If Serena never wins another title at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, would it be fair to say ‘Margaret Court is the GOAT in women’s tennis’?

In basketball, or in particular the NBA, people talk about the number of rings (or NBA titles) when the GOAT debate comes up. Bill Russell won 11 rings playing for the Boston Celtics. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won just 6 (one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Los Angeles Lakers), as did Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls). For the record, Sam Jones won 10 while a host of others won 8 playing alongside Russel in the 1950s and 1960s. Are they all ahead of Jordan in the GOAT debate, though?  Were they, in fact, better than Kobe, who has just 5 titles? Why don’t people talk about Robert Horry, who has eight rings (two with the Houston Rockets, three with the Lakers and two with the San Antonia Spurs)?

Do we measure greatness in terms of impact on the particular team? Do we factor in the number of scoring titles, the number of ‘All Star’ appearances? 

It’s tough.

Karl Marx was a prolific writer. Even today, more than a century and a half after he died, much of social theory is a conversation about or with Marx. Marx had to spend hours in libraries, painstakingly taking down notes which he would go home and read, reflect on and write books about. He didn’t have the internet. He didn’t have a photocopy machine. He couldn’t download stuff to a pen drive. He didn’t have a printer.  He planned to write 6 volumes on various subjects, each of the size and depth of Das Kapital. What if he had been able to use the time he had more productively on account of technology? Would we then have read his work on capital, capitalism and its ‘logic’ differently? If we factor all this in, would Karl Marx be a GOAT of a kind?  

Consider Siddhartha Gauthama. Consider the full corpus of his teachings. Again, like Marx, he did not have anything close to the technology that exists now. Just factor in context and consider productivity. Amazing, isn’t it?

The MIT Techology Review has come up with new statistical methods which allows sportsmen and sportswomen from different eras to be ranked. Theoretically it cannot be impossible.

My friend, the late Sampath Agalawatta, arguably the most successful rugby captain of Royal College, would be dismissive when such accolades are tossed at him. ‘The rules were different back then. The matches are longer now. This means that the strategies have to be different. The training regimes are different. I don’t think it’s important to compare,’ he explained.

It’s fun of course to discuss the GOAT issue. It’s better to just enjoy greatness for if we dwell on numbers and rankings, or focus on whether or not a particular player lifted or carried an entire team, we might miss so much. Kevin Durant is a fantastic player. The majority of fans would say LeBron James is the better player. If we quibbled too much we might miss the poetry of KD’s efforts in a losing cause against the Toronto Raptors. That would be sad.