Last year I was watching a basketball game on TV when the commentator was talking about a shooting guard who had averaged 14 points a game the previous season. “He had a great year,” he gushed, and I said aloud, “Oh, please. If that’s what you call great, then what do you call Kobe Bryant’s numbers?!” The dictionary defines the word “great” in the personal context as, “a person who has achieved importance or distinction in a field.” 14 points a game by a shooting guard is barely important or distinctive enough to warrant a “good” rating.
This is one of my pet peeves. “Great” is no doubt the most abused word in sports. Next time you watch or listen to a sporting event, pay attention to how often the word is misused. If they’re talking in depth about an average or mediocre player, somebody is likely to blurt out, “He’s a great player.” Sometimes it’s said about a team with barely a .500 record, “They’re a great team.” It’s silly. When an athlete or a manager or coach says it it could be considered an attempt to avoid riling the opposition. Fair enough, but when a commentator or columnist start calling legitimately ordinary players “great,” they sound like shills and groupies. I’m not saying that they have to openly call the player mediocre, but hell, let’s be accurate here. If he’s averaging 14 points a game, or hits 15 home runs or rushes for 700 yards, that is not great; it’s good, maybe outstanding, but long-term those numbers will not get you into the Hall of Fame, where true greatness is recognized. Occasionally it goes beyond numbers, such as Ozzie Smith and Bill Bradley, but that’s too tough a concept for today’s announcers.
There are only a handful of active players that I’d put the “great” tag on. Some candidates include Kobe Bryant, Albert Pujols, Tom Bradley and Niklas Lidstrom. They’ve been dominating their sports for years, they’ve won championships and are still at or near the top of their games. A player like Jaromir Jagr is not a great player now, but he was among the all-time greats during his prime and that’s what will get him into the Hall.
I know, I know. The abuse of the word “great” isn’t going to wane anytime soon, but hey, it’s a great…er, nice dream.