Who can forget Laverne Fator, the famous jockey who in 1919 signed a breathtaking $15,000 contract to ride for Rancocas, then the most fabled stable in the Sport of Kings? Answer: Most everyone can (and did) forget the Hall of Fame jockey, and the Rancocas stable, and horse racing in general, to say nothing of boxing (which once entertained millions of TV viewers every Friday night) and the Indianapolis 500 (which from the '50s through the '80s was a fixture on the cover of this magazine) and countless other famous sporting events and sportsmen whose hour came and went. Their memory daily recedes from our collective consciousness, an ever-weakening radio signal that will one day vanish altogether.
Is that what's beginning to happen with our three major professional sports, whose television ratings have been in decline for years? (Since 1997, for instance, the postseason Nielsens for the NFL have dropped about 10%, baseball's are down 28% and those for the NBA have fallen 29%.) Is it possible that all the standard explanations for this decline—more channels, more entertainment options, more ways of "accessing" sports through new media—disguise a larger truth: That big-time pro sports, a phenomenon scarcely more than 100 years old, will prove to have the life cycle of the gall midge, which achieves adulthood in morning and is dead by midday?
Which is to say: Will sports one day be history?
Or put another way: Will sports one day be History, with a capital H? Will people 100 years from now remember more than two or three of the countless athletes and events that now seem so integral to our civilization? Today, a mere four months removed from last baseball season, I can't immediately recall a single game-not one—from the regular season, during which 2,428 were played, many of which I attended.
They say journalism is the first draft of history. What they don't say is that it's usually the only draft: Future scholars-even those studying forensic pathology—will have little reason to revisit and expound upon microfiched accounts of last Thursday's Warriors-Grizzlies game.
Yet athletes and coaches blithely talk all the time about making history. "We're playing for history," Tampa Bay defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said of the Buccaneers at the start of last season. Five years before that (to choose an example at random), forward-guard Boo Purdom of UC Riverside said upon making the Division II basketball finals, "We're going down in history." Six years before that, Rod Strickland, a New York Knicks guard at the time, said of his team's 21st consecutive home victory, "We're going down in history." And so on and so on and so on.
The fact is, none of these men are going down in history. Almost nobody does. In the 1,109-page Penguin History of the World, precisely five sentences are devoted to sports—two of them to the ancient practice of bull-leaping. While the 20th century is somewhat fresher in our minds (it's only been over, technically speaking, for six weeks now), History has already begun to trim its roster.
Take a look at the dictionary: See which athletes have literally become household words. In the fourth edition of Webster's—among the timeless explorers, artists, inventors and statesmen—are a mere dozen 20th-century sports figures. Four of them are baseball players: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson. Three of them are boxers: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. The others are Babe Didrikson, Ben Hogan, Jesse Owens, Knute Rockne and Jim Thorpe. That's it: nobody from basketball, hockey, tennis or auto racing. There's a shoemaker (one who makes shoes) but no Shoemaker, a spitz (variety of Pomeranian dog) but no Spitz, Pele's hair (fine filaments of volcanic glass) but no Pel�. History is ruthless come cut-down day.
So, in our current reference books, Jordan is a nation, not an athlete. Perhaps, as decades pass, that will change, and professional basketball will thrive, and its players really will "make history."
Or perhaps not. Perhaps a latter-day Charlton Heston, pursued by jackbooted apes on horseback, will stumble on the statue of MJ that stood outside the United Center—right arm rising out of the sand of some beach, basketball held high, like Lady Liberty's lamp: The only relic remaining of a long-lost civilization.