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Charles Barkley, Banter & The Best Ever: Teresa Edwards & Historicizing Sports Greatness

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Click here to skip to JaVale McGee's Second Dunk In 2011 NBA Slam Dunk Contest (about 3:47)

As former Los Angeles Sparks post Pam McGee was escorted onto the court during the 2011 NBA Slam Dunk Contest to assist her son, Washington Wizards center Javale, with his second dunk, TNT analyst Charles Barkley noted that Pam was among the best women's basketball players ever.

Fellow TNT analyst Reggie Miller agreed and added that this sister Cheryl - McGee's teammate at USC - was the best women's basketball player of all-time. Of course, Miller's comments weren't merely the biased words of an adoring younger brother - that McGee and Miller along with Cynthia Cooper formed among the greatest trios of college basketball players ever is not exactly controversial (and if you had never watched them play, as I hadn't prior to Saturday, I strongly recommend watching the 1983 Championship Game where they defeated Kim Mulkey and the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters, complete with a breakdown from James).

But never known to avoid controversy, leave it to Barkley to step in and challenge Reggie.

"You do know I think Teresa Edwards is the best women's basketball player ever don't you?" Barkley said in the video above, clearly baiting a response from Reggie rather than making his normally authoritative statement. "My favorite women's player of all-time is Teresa Edwards."

It's not as if Barkley is entirely unbiased in his opinion, if still less so than Reggie.

While it might be neither here nor there that both Barkley and Edwards attended rival SEC schools at the same time (Auburn and Georgia, respectively), all three participated in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the year Edwards was named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation. It probably wouldn't be that difficult to establish that Barkley had a few more opportunities to watch Edwards as a peer over the course of his life and perhaps develop some small bias.

But that's not the point of bringing this up.

The significance of this debate is not to prove who might be closer to the truth. It's not even that either side has to be right or every single claim true. In my experience, it's that type of inconsequential yet passionate type of "barbershop banter" that makes being a sports fan fun.

Whether it be over baseball cards in elementary school, irrationally rooting for the Warriors against the Lakers in high school, or discovering Oscar Robertson in college and wasting hours debating whether he was the best of all-time in a dorm room, it's hard not to acknowledge these arguments as fundamental in some way to the formation of a sports fan's consciousness.

So what struck me about this brief exchange is that it embodied the type of dialogue that not only draws you in to another level of engagement with the game but also helps you to appreciate the nuances of the game's culture that might otherwise remain unexplored without dialogue. Unfortunately, Jeff Goldberg suggests in the introduction of his book Bird at the Buzzer that it's the type of historicized dialogue that is often lacking from women's basketball.

If women’s bas­ketball lacks anything in 2010, it is a sense of its own mythology. So determined are the passionate and loyal caretakers of the sport to further advance it into the future that there has been precious little focus placed on its glorious past.

While all the other major American sports wax poetic about their respective Greatest Games—from the 1958
nfl Championship to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series to the 1992 Duke–Kentucky men’s regional final—women’s basketball has not yet afforded itself the time to re­flect on the legacies left in its wake as it moves toward national acceptance.

I might be willing to dismiss this more easily if it wasn't a sentiment I'd heard on multiple occasions from people around the game.

"I definitely think that they have totally forgotten about that part," said Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom, a former Olympic teammate of Edwards in 1988 when asked her opinion about players' awareness of the game's history. "I think they don't have a clue as far as what the struggle (was) that worked for them, to help them get where they are. Even the pioneers of women's basketball, before them, including myself, Teresa Edwards, Cheryl Miller, and people in that generation."

Although it might be articulated in different ways, this sentiment of something missing is something you hear coaches and former players say all the time about the current generation of women's basketball players - whether it be a knowledge of what the struggle for equal participation pre- and post-Title IX was about or who the major figures in women's basketball history, including why they honor Kay Yow in certain ways.

"You talk about the lesson and what Kay Yow is about and make sure your players understand who she is and that they just can benefit from the lessons that she's been giving using basketball and why we do it," said Washington Huskies coach Tia Jackson prior to their WBCA "Pink Zone" event in a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils. "On the back of our uniforms it says, 'For Kay' and I've got probably 18 year olds who have no idea what 'For Kay' means. It's our job to explain it."

Edwards herself has alluded to this point that others have made in a 2009 interview with On Court Online and helps to articulate why it becomes a barrier to truly appreciating the game and what actually constitutes greatness.

Just to be clear, there are plenty of people out there who can recite dates and facts and rattle off names and basic stats in their sleep. However, contrary to what U.S. (parochial, private, and public) K-12 education might try to convince you of, history isn't the linear account of facts, but the far more fluid narrative context that at once leads up to the present and counteracts presentism by not merely saying "history repeats itself" but understanding principles that illuminate something about the object of observation.

To put it back into Edwards' words, part of historical thinking in sports is not only an awareness of conventional wisdom and reputations of who is "great" but more importantly understanding how a player separated themselves from the entire group of their peers to achieve "greatness" and what characteristics they possessed, not just a set of numbers. Did they have a signature move? A unique strength that nobody could stop? A moment that made you wish you can stop the game and hit replay?

It's the things that grab us and turn basketball situations into true experiences that make history.

An opportunity for historical thinking

There is no appreciation of the game without some contextual means by which to discern why something merits appreciation to begin with. To become the type of person that can preserve the game that fundamental pre-condition must be met and Edwards is as good a role model as any to represent that.

At this moment, Edwards actually happens to be at the center of one of these historical debates as a nominee for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame along with current Stanford Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer. The problem, as Mel Greenberg described on Tuesday, is there are years when the selection process itself has prevented a worthy candidate from being selected (e.g. McGee and Miller's teammate Cooper) or prevented anyone from being selected at all. Given credentials of each, there's a strong possibility that one of these two doesn't make it.

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Considering the success record of both individuals, it will be interesting to see if both make as well they should.

The Guru is glad to see VanDerveer was finally put forth to be considered because when he was on the subcommitee and wondered why she hadn't been recommended there were different reasons whispered ranging from she didn't want the honor why she was still an active coach to a confession of a missed deadline for submitting her name.

Obviously, VanDerveer is easy to notice and appreciate in the present - as the coach at the helm of one of the most successful programs of the post-1996 women's sports explosion who just recently reached her 800th win, a case could not only be made that we are in the midst of something of a coaching Golden Age of which VanDerveer is a part, but also that she is among the best basketball minds to ever grace the court. She's clearly a Hall of Fame coach regardless of how many wins beyond 800 she ends her career.

Nevertheless, VanDerveer is also a somewhat comfortable choice - and arguably more obvious - because we're presently more familiar with her. What all of these other voices are saying is that we need to look in the opposite direction.

"I think they're focused on the now," said Gillom about players' historical understandings. "There would be no league had it not been for the players before them and the players that made the sacrifices to accept a lot of things that didn't work for them to have a better league and to have a better career. So I think we were a part of it and that's why we were able to, I guess, appreciate it more and experience it.

So in the context of the current discussion about dialogue, historical appreciation, preservation of the game, the rumor that VanDerveer doesn't want the honor as an active coach is actually the foundation for a pretty good point - at present, we don't even know the extent to which she has separated herself from others to carve out her niche in basketball lore because her story has not yet concluded. She could well win another championship this year and with among the best pair of sibling teammates ever to take the court together, there are possibly plenty more high points to her career.

But regardless of whether we believe VanDerveer doesn't want the honor for the reason Greenberg stated, I submit an (unfortunate) hypothetical: if we had to bestow the honor upon one person, then shouldn't contemplating, discussing, and honoring the more-complete legacy of a player that is already considered in that "best ever" discussion take precedent? Isn't it in some way more important that we take the time to reflect upon and build the games mythology before hastily rushing forward into the future without bringing everyone up to speed?

That's not in any way to diminish VanDerveer who is one of the best coaches, independent of gender, that I've ever come across. It's that now is a great time to celebrate an ambassador like Edwards.

"I think Teresa is probably as good as it gets," said Gillom when asked about her impressions on her former teammate's legacy. "She's been a six-time Olympian, she's played at every level, very long career, a woman that is truly, truly passionate about the game of basketball and the game of women's basketball. And if you were to have a one on one conversation with her, if you didn't like women's basketball, you would love it after having a conversation with her. That's how enthusiastic she is about women's sports and women's basketball in general.

"I think that she is very, very deserving of getting an honor like that. I just think that good things happen to good people and she is so dedicated to women's basketball and I think her passion and her leadership is something to be recognized for."

Ultimately, a strong argument could be made that with the steady growth of and increasing publicity for the game, an argument could be made that inducting Edwards as a reminder of where we've been as the WNBA enters its 15th year is a more pressing need, if not a more worthy candidate, than VanDerveer whose legacy is still unfolding given the current set up in which one is better than nothing.

What is to be done?

The concern here is about how women's basketball is discussed as much as how - simply showing up to a game, cheering or playing for 40 minutes and going home is insufficient to create the type of engagement that comes anywhere near what Edwards or Gillom are talking about.

Perhaps what I really hope for, if selfish, is more of thing that happened when when Cooper got inducted to the Hall of Fame. I had an extended conversation with a male friend who's a NBA fan, we discussed how her style of play was far more creative in YouTube-enhanced-retrospect, and we (vaguely) reflected on the dynamic similarities and differences between Cooper and one current point of reference in Cappie Pondexter (fear not, we did not conclude they were an exact match by any means).

But it was the fact of Cooper's induction that inspired the dialogue. And that's not to say that people shouldn't be led by their own curiosity instead of waiting for someone to hold their hand and lead them to the light. Yet to the extent that Cooper was re-injected into the consciousness of the mainstream, the induction - and even isolated novice mythologizing surrounding it - was one more step in advancing our shared understanding of the game.

Yet as a relative neophyte to women's basketball, I cannot possibly claim to have the kind of deep conceptual knowledge that allows me to look upon the rest of you from on high and mock your ignorance- that's part of why I sort of write my way through my thoughts, use statistics to sort of "catch up" to the landscape in the present, and so enjoy working with a team of writers whom are more often than not more knowledgeable than I am. So I'm certainly not sure of the specific reasons why Edwards should or should not be considered the best ever. I suppose I could crunch some numbers and make a bunch of comparisons to test Barkley's hypothesis, but that also leaves out a ton.

I have no recollection of watching Edwards play, although I suppose I must have seen her in 1996. I wasn't paying attention to the WNBA closely when Edwards help earn the Minnesota Lynx their only two playoff berths in franchise history. Until I looked it up prior to speaking with Gillom - who I spoke with for a slightly different purpose - I confess I didn't immediately register the connection between the two.

To be quite honest, I missed just about everything about Edwards that might explain how she separated herself from her peers to achieve greatness. And with lacking television coverage of any games she played at the peak of her career, it's also difficult to just "YouTube it". Sometimes curiosity requires a catalyst, but also requires a bit of context to fully appreciate what you find. Providing that context is not only up to the journalists that cover the games, but the coaches, fans, and players that debate the various manifestations of greatness to create those myths that often, for better or worse, fuel legacies and set the standard that everyone else is held to.

Those are the discussion the men's game has an abundance of, as Goldberg notes. To keep the women's game going strong, these discussions - even playful banter from the likes of Barkley - have to happen more often.

"I think it's very important...for people of the younger generation to really understand how this league became what it is today and for them to continue to appreciate it so that they can also continue this league," said Gillom. "If not, then this league won't last that long. They have to make the sacrifices just as we did in order for this league to continue."