Trust and perception rule the legacy

A few weeks ago, I answered in one of the 5-on-5’s that Dirk Nowitzki was the breakout star of the 2010-11 NBA season.

On the surface, that looks completely asinine. He was already a star in the NBA. My reasoning was that his legacy and perception had vaulted into territories he hadn’t really ever approached before. During the regular season, I argued with fans in the Daily Dime Live many nights and tried to convince a significant number of chatters that Dirk was not overrated and was actually quite clutch. It seemed insane to me that people could look at Dirk throughout his career and consider him a choke artist.

People viewed a couple of missed free throws in the 2006 Finals as the all-encompassing nature of what he is and always has been, despite a lot of evidence that said otherwise.

The reason I had him pegged as the breakout star of last season was that he went from a guy who was arguably in the top 50 players of all time to being considered a top 20 player of all time by a lot of pundits and fans. By the end of the playoffs, Dirk was no longer a question. He was simply the presumed dagger to every ending.

Maybe part of that was a large portion of people seemingly rooting for Dirk to take down the Miami Heat. Maybe it was his insane play coinciding with the success of his team that was surging his legacy and reputation to new heights. Whatever the reason was, Dirk was now an unquestioned NBA legend. The claims that he wasn’t clutch were universally preposterous after the Mavs swept the Lakers. When he dismantled the Thunder, he was now being sold as a truly unstoppable force.

The funny thing about his run in the playoffs is he’s had better numbers and been more efficient before. While it seems like he never missed during the 2011 title run, he actually had much higher true shooting percentages and effective field goal percentages the previous two playoffs. He had only his seventh highest career playoff PER in 2011. The difference this time was his team’s success.

Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel had an article a couple days ago discussing the concept of choking. In it, he talked to former NBA player Alonzo Mourning and college football analyst Spencer Tillman about it.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

Rob Mahoney from NBC Sports’ Pro Basketball Talk elaborated on this point further:

More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be.

The reason people argue that Kobe is clutch isn’t because of the numbers or necessarily an overwhelming set of consistent evidence. It’s because they trust him with the ball in his hands when the Lakers need a big shot. They can claim that the evidence is taken out of context or that Henry Abbott has a vendetta against Kobe (which is an absolutely hilarious notion). But really the only thing that matters when discussing who is and isn’t clutch is whether or not you trust them.

Kobe Bryant has made enough shots and won enough games with the result in question to make fans generally comfortable with him getting the next clutch shot. Carmelo Anthony is pretty much in that circle of trust as well. Paul Pierce is very much in that realm. Ray Allen might be the mayor of this place of trust.

LeBron James is not someone who has earned that universal trust with his play. For a lot of basketball fans before the 2011 playoffs, Dirk hadn’t won a title and “choked away” his shot at one in 2006. People who measure greatness by jewelry earned didn’t exactly trust him.

The perception of the individual fan discussing whether or not someone is clutch or not clutch, overrated or underrated, underpaid or overpaid is really the only thing that matters in such discussions. It’s nearly impossible to look at the entire body of evidence when debating these topics because two fans can look at the exact same play and see it two completely different ways.

Sports are always such a personal, internal catalyst for how we feel about the things we see. We look for an animalistic satisfaction in the way things happen on the field. We want to see overpowering moments of success. We want to see domination. But we also want to see someone come down to the final shot and come through during the most pressure-packed moments. We want to feel the drama of what’s happening, trust that our guy will come through when it counts the most, and feel that validation of knowing he would succeed.

Before this season, mostly Mavericks fans felt comfortable with Dirk holding their fate in his hands. It wasn’t a completely shared perception around the basketball annals of fans’ minds. After the latest 21 of his career 124 playoff games, Dirk has turned that impression around.

The next true breakout star in the NBA probably won’t be a young player who begins a legacy before our very eyes. It might just be someone who changes the universal perception of an existing one.