"WHERE ARE THEY NOW?" is the theme of this issue, and a question you'll eventually ask about your car keys, your reading glasses and your bursitis pills. When that day comes—when there are more years of life to look back on than forward to—you might be tempted to see the past as a Golden Age, when the world was young and professional basketball was still watchable.
Like this guy: "I don't go to basketball games often any more," said the Hall of Fame player. "It no longer is the game I used to know and love. It isn't basketball any more."
That player was Barney Sedran, a 5'4" baller of the 1910s and '20s, speaking to Arthur Daley of The New York Times 63 years ago. The NBA had been known as the NBA for only three seasons by 1952, but it was already beyond redemption with the shameless aerial acrobatics of Dolph Schayes and the demon dribbling of Max Zaslofsky.
But that's how nostalgia works: In every age, the world was always better 40 years previously. This year's pillow fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao couldn't hold a candle to the heavyweight slugfests of the 1970s. "The modern fighters are much inferior to the warriors of an earlier age," goes one hot take. "Rarely is a fighter rocked to sleep in the ring by the rousing punch of an opponent. If there is any sleeping, it is in the ringside seats." Sorry: That was in fact a column by John Kieran in the Times in 1931.
As humans, we really can't help ourselves. Idealizing the past is deeply ingrained in the species. Ancient Romans longed for a rural life that had already vanished for them. (Exite ex horto: "Get off my lawn!") The phrase "the good old days" appeared in print as early as 1726, shortly after print itself appeared. One can imagine living in the Renaissance, longing for the simplicity of the Dark Ages.
The word for all this—nostalgia—was coined in the 1680s by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer, and it originally described a medical pathology. Nostalgia was a sickness, a painful longing for home. Throwback jerseys, retro ballparks, the baseball cards in the basement, resistance to rules changes ... it's all a form of homesickness.
Happily, that sickness is its own cure. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Southampton concluded that a good wallow in the past can alleviate depression and make the reminiscing party feel less alone. A Dutch study found that hearing an old favorite song made the listener feel physically warmer. Is it getting hot in here, or is that Nelly singing, "It's getting hot in herre"?
"Where are they now?" and "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" are variations of the same fundamental question. (It isn't a question reserved exclusively for old people—the young love their #ThrowbackThursdays.) As the world spins ever faster, sports change at a bewildering pace. "The rapidity and ease of modern communication have made the world more compact," notes one expert, and this technology—to cite but one example—has muted the "warm, exuberant, social side of golf [that] was, perhaps, more noticeable in the olden days." As a result, "The modern golfer is a busier man than his prototype of old."
So said Golf Illustrated, in 1903, and technology has rendered the world smaller still in the ensuing 112 years. As life speeds by, nostalgia has a shorter pregnancy. Games still in progress are given the straight-to-sepia status of "Instant Classics," no matter how oxymoronic that phrase appears.
And so sports fans can now reminisce about a game while it's happening. As American Pharoah crossed the Belmont finish line to win the Triple Crown, there was a smartphone camera interposed between every spectator and the spectacle before him, so that the race took on the quality of a Super 8 movie, more a memory to sock away for later consumption than a feat to behold live.
It's a strange nostalgia for the present, uploaded to Instagram, with a filter to make it look like a '70s Polaroid, so that seconds later we can look at what we just saw and say, as nature demands of us: Those were the days.
As humans, we can't help but idealize the past: In every age, the world was always better 40 years previously.
What aspects of the sports world are you not nostalgic for?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED