Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 19, 2021

Another Boomer Strikes A Nerve

As both a reporter and columnist, Bob Ryan covered sports for the Boston Globe for more than forty years.  Although nearly a decade removed from the “retirement” that marked the end of his Globe tenure, his writing has continued to appear in the paper from time to time, and he is a regular on ESPN and, more recently, host of a podcast.  Ryan began his career as the paper’s Celtics beat writer, and while it would be hard to identify a sport he hasn’t covered, basketball has always been Ryan’s first love. 

Perhaps that’s why the piece he wrote for the Globe last week, complaining about how the 3-point shot has made his favorite game less enjoyable, garnered such outsized attention.  Then again, Ryan’s enmity for the arc that first appeared on NBA courts in 1979 has been no secret since, well, 1979, so maybe the supposed controversy the most recent renewal of Ryan’s old complaint created was because he directed his ire at Stephen Curry, one of the sport’s most popular figures.  Last Tuesday night, in a game against the New York Knicks at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Curry passed Ray Allen to become the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history.  Midway through the first quarter, with a shot from just right of the lane and – obviously – beyond the arc, Curry nailed the 2,974th trey of his career to eclipse Allen’s number.

That Curry was going to be the new record holder has been apparent for some time.  He set the mark in his 788th NBA contest, while Allen’s career covered 1,300 regular season games.  Not surprisingly given that disparity, Curry has also been vastly more efficient than Allen, needing over 500 fewer attempts to catch and pass him.  Those numbers reflect the increasing reliance on the long-distance shot with its extra point value across all of basketball, not just the NBA.  And that, no doubt, is why Ryan chose to begin his screed by characterizing Curry as “a scourge” and “a menace,” someone “who should be placed under house arrest.”  Just in case anyone missed his point, Ryan then went on CNN to defend his view that “Steph Curry ruined basketball.” 

To the surprise of no one, Ryan was immediately pilloried on social media and sports talk shows, with his comments widely dismissed as but the latest example of an out-of-touch aging Baby Boomer whining about how our games aren’t like they were in some fondly remembered but quite possibly mostly mythical old days.  The longtime fixture at the Globe was lumped in with John Tortorella, the former NHL head coach turned TV analyst, who recently reacted to a brilliantly creative play by Trevor Zegras and Sonny Milano of the Anaheim Ducks, by saying “I’m just not so sure it’s good for the game.”  The subject of Tortorella’s ire was a set play that the two Anaheim skaters had worked out in advance.  With the puck behind the Buffalo Sabres net, Zegras responded to Milano’s code word of “Michigan” by going neither left nor right but instead flipping the puck over the net and the Buffalo goalie to Milano in front, who deflected it in for the score. 

Of course, both Ryan and Tortorella doubtless found purgatory crowded, filled as it is by the thousands of older sportswriters and fans constantly lamenting the certain demise of baseball, what with the Great Game’s current emphasis on home runs and hundred mile an hour fastballs.

What all those busy piling on Ryan missed was that their target was in on the joke.  In both the original Globe column, and again during his CNN appearance, Ryan readily acknowledged his was an “old man’s” complaint.  Ryan fell in love with the NBA when the favored style of play revolved around getting the ball to the center – each team’s big man playing the low post.  The introduction of the 3-point shot in 1979 was intended as a one-year experiment, bringing over what many saw as a gimmick first used by the short-lived American Basketball Association, as part of the merger of the ABA and NBA.  It took the league’s office three days after that season’s opening games to send out a press release recognizing the first 3-point basket, and all these years later the accuracy of the league’s announcement is still debated. 

But the gimmick became permanent, and over time the availability of an extra point from long range did alter strategy.  That shift has gradually accelerated, as the comparison of Curry’s stats with Allen’s makes clear.  Still, the change has happened over decades, and the one absolute truth about all our games is that they evolve.  One suspects Ryan understands that, even if he still fondly recalls a very different style of play. 

Which is why yielding to the easy temptation to turn every debate about change in any sport into a generational divide is simplistic.  There are certainly some pronouncements – Tortorella’s reaction to the Zegras/Milano play sure seems like one – that are “get off my lawn” cringeworthy.  But even MLB recognizes that the Great Game has some issues.  Why else hire Theo Epstein as a consultant for “on-field matters” or introduce a variety of drastic rule changes designed to both speed up and change the style of play, like increasing the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, in MLB’s chosen test lab, the independent Atlantic League?

Two and a half millennia have passed since Heraclitus first posited the obvious truth, that the only constant is change.  In sports, as in life, the lesson remains vital, one that we fans should keep close.  But we should do so without losing an appreciation for the history of all our games.  Bob Ryan’s favored style of play isn’t coming back, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned the right to miss it.

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