March 4, 2009

When a Superstar Isn’t a Superstar

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Many times in professional sports, a player’s reputation and his performance vary greatly. Take Tracy McGrady. T-Mac is a seven-time All-Star and a two-time scoring champion. He is currently 29, an age at which most basketball players are in their prime. He is among the ten highest-paid players in the NBA, has a lucrative endorsement deal with Adidas and would seem to be the embodiment of an NBA superstar. However, one major piece of the superstar equation is missing from McGrady’s puzzle: He doesn’t help his team win games.
McGrady is clearly talented; he is a 6-9 shooting guard with a virtually unparalleled combination of athleticism and shooting ability for someone that height. Nevertheless, McGrady’s Houston Rockets have been better off without him this season. The Rockets are 20-15 when he plays. Entering last night’s game, they were 19-7 without him. McGrady has been in and out of the lineup all season with injuries. Speculation has been rampant that he could have played through many of his ailments. Since McGrady dec­lared that he will be out for the remainder of the season, several Rocket players have made comments to the press about how much more comfortable they are without having to deal with the McGrady soap opera on a daily basis. While there probably is not enough evidence to declare that McGrady’s presence makes his team worse, the fact that such an idea can even be considered calls into question McGrady’s superstardom.
While some of McGrady’s ineffectiveness this season can be attributed to injuries, there are no such excuses for several other players with reputations that don’t fit their games. Jason Kidd is a nine-time All-Star who started for the U.S. Olympic team just last summer. Once upon a time, he was one of the best point guards in basketball. Somehow, he has maintained his stature after his performance has deteriorated drastically.
Kidd plays the second most minutes of any Maverick, but he fails to average even 10 points per game. Defensively, Kidd is even worse. Of the four point guards other than Kidd to record triple-doubles this season, three have done so against Kidd. Kidd is likely headed to the Hall of Fame. Until he retires, he is boosting the candidacies of several other point guards who routinely blow by Kidd for easy layups.
The most striking example of a big-name player with a small-time game is Allen Iverson. This year, the Pistons are 23-28 with Iverson and 7-1 without him. Iverson has made the All-Star Team each of the last ten seasons, and once won the league’s MVP award; however, at this point in his career, he is a liability on the court. He has never been much of a defender, but this year he has struggled offensively. “The Answer” leads his team in turnovers, is last among Piston regulars in field goal percentage, and spends so much time dribbling that his teammates have no chance to find a rhythm. Not surprisingly, the Pistons played their best two games of the season last weekend when Iverson sat out with a back injury.
The misconceptions extend to baseball. Yankee captain Derek Jeter is widely-considered a great defensive shortstop –– he has won three Gold Gloves in the past five seasons. The facts tell a different story. According to virtually every statistical measure, Jeter ranges from below average to abysmal on defense. Considering that Gold Glove winners are voted on by MLB managers, it is astonishing how poorly they have assessed Jeter’s defense.
In sports, perception is slow to adapt to reality. Once a player earns the distinction of being labeled a star, it sticks with that player long after that player’s game has diminished. Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson and Derek Jeter are among the highest-paid and most celebrated athletes in the world. That does not alter the fact that all four have badly failed to live up to their billing in recent years.
Many fans enjoy sports as a way to escape some of the harsh realities of their everyday lives. To the extent that sports fans are slow to adjust their mindsets, they are avoiding reality in more ways than one.