‘Jesus’ and NBA Legends – Can we expose the fact hidden in myth?

By | March 5, 2010

The teachings of the Jewish sage, Yeshua, are converted into a Hellenized doctrine, which itself is transformed a few centuries later into a Roman institution.
By analogy, a future legend converts two players, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, into a basketball miracle worker, ‘Russell-Chamberlain.’

a 21st century wag

Problem Presented:

Even a religious skeptic might allow that a person, Jesus, existed, if by ‘Jesus’ we understand the male person who lived and taught in the first century around the regions of Galilee and Jerusalem, who attracted a following, practiced a form of faith healing and was executed by authorities (Romans?). A reasonable hunch is that likely such an individual did exist, and that he is the basis for the ‘Jesus’ of the Gospels — which is a composite figure, for sure. Of course, the issue would remain as to the distance between the putative historical figure and the ‘Jesus’ depicted in the New Testament. Recall that the ‘Jesus’ of the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) is a very different figure from the ‘Jesus’ of the gospel John; and the “Christ” figure of Paul’s writings different from the prior two.

Any cursory look at relevant scholarship on the issue indicates that there are great differences between different versions of ‘Jesus’. This brings us to the problem of identity. Even when we grant that most likely there was a historical ‘Jesus’ — it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to establish which of our numerous references and descriptions might be accurate.

Supposing that could expose the historical fact regarding this person ‘Jesus’ we would have to dig through numerous strata of religious doctrine, myth, legends (oral and written), and political perspectives. Even for the dedicated, critically minded scholar-historian, the flesh-and-blood person who walked the hills of Galilee remains mostly lost in the fog cast by subsequent doctrinal and political development and historical events.

Sometimes analogies help to shed more light on the point one tries to make. Let us try the following analogies.

Inconsistent references or reports:

Suppose that you and I are reminiscing and seem to recall that we both knew a particular individual fifty years ago, call him “Bill.” I ‘recall’ that Bill was a younger school mate (a class two years behind ours) and that he was an All-State football player, but a poor student academically. But you ‘recall’ that Bill was older (graduated ahead of us), did not play football, but was an outstanding musician and consistently on the honor role. Surely our first suspicion would be that (besides having faulty memories) we’re referring to different individuals when we use the name “Bill.” A second suspicion might be that neither of us really knows what he is talking about; that each of us has constructed a fictional person “Bill” based on bits and pieces of memories that we haven’t sorted out well. Maybe the ‘Bill’ we think we remember never existed. .

Reports inconsistent with known facts:

We agree on what we remember of Bill (of fifty years ago) and we agree that he was a veteran of the war in Vietnam. But fifty years ago the war in Vietnam had not yet happened. So as we ponder this disturbing fact, we begin to suspect that the ‘Bill’ (Vietnam War veteran) that we think we ‘remember’ could not have existed, that we have confused him with someone else or are simply wrong when we refer to this ‘Bill.’

Mixing of facts, fiction, legends, and myths:

You and I have a fairly clear idea who Bill was and what he did (and did not do) fifty years ago. But then we hear some persistent stories about Bill that are circulating among the younger set, people who were too young to have known and interacted with Bill. These stories seem to refer to the same person —Bill who lived fifty years ago in our home town— but the stories describe a very different person from the Bill we knew. This other ‘Bill’ is credited with doing a number of things that we know he did not do (and could not have done). The younger folk even have a club, founded on what they see as the teachings of Bill, which has attracted many people and has done much to help people . . . . . However, despite the good works done in the name of “Bill, we conclude that, with regard to historical fact, the younger folks do not know what they’re talking about, that they have concocted a fictional or legendary ‘Bill’ loosely associated with the real Bill we knew but who (as described by the younger set) really did not exist.

A Confusion Easily Resolved:

A few years ago an email correspondent and I discussed the merits and demerits of Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Laker star player. I compared Bryant to Bill Russell, the Boston Celtic great who led his team to a record number of NBA championships. I felt that as a team player who could make his team mates better players and work a team into a winning outfit, Russell was incomparable. In rebuttal, my correspondent then pointed out that I had forgotten to mention Russell’s 100 point game and his 50 point scoring average. Of course, what happened was that my friend had mixed up Wilt Chamberlain’s exploits mixed with Bill Russell’s. We quickly corrected and clarified the matter.

But we could do this because Russell and Chamberlain played only forty years ago, and we were there, so to speak (both of us being over 60 years of age and long-time NBA fans). We remember from first-hand experience who these great centers were, which teams they played for, and what they accomplished. And even if our memory should fail us, we can consult plenty of other people who know about them and plenty of documentation (e.g., archived newspaper reports, books, film, etc.) to which we can refer.

The Russell-Chamberlain legend:

Imagine, however, that the situation were different. Imagine the same conversation (re. Russell and Chamberlain) taking place far in the future, when nobody existed who had first-hand experience of their playing days; and when documents and reports about them were sketchy and problematic. Imagine that we weren’t even sure that “Russell-Chamberlain” referred to one or two or maybe more individuals. Imagine further that none of the surviving reports were by first-hand witnesses to Russell-Chamberlain’s exploits, that the reports were written centuries after the Russell-Chamberlain playing days. Now add that differing reports arose from competing schools of thought (call them BB-churches”) regarding the Russell-Chamberlain question. According to one BB-church, Russell-Chamberlain really had been a great center who played for the Celtic-Warriors-Lakers, who led his team to 15 NBA championships, and who averaged 100 points a game one season. Another BB-church denies this and claims there really were two players who played for different teams and accomplished different exploits, which are incorrectly listed: one led his team to 20 consecutive NBA championships; the other was a great scorer who averaged 75 points a game for his entire career. In short, the facts are murky; and we really cannot say with great confidence that we know who Russell-Chamberlain was (or were) and cannot say what he (they) really accomplished, even when we assume that this great NBA figure(s) really did exist.

Now to add to the mystery, suppose that the most influential BB-church came about because an energetic historian-promoter, Pablo the 557th, who wrote that Russell-Chamberlain was a minor player who became an incredible coach, almost supernatural in his ability to transform mediocre teams into NBA champions. According to this BB-church, the important thing is to study the Russell-Chamberlain coaching philosophy which guarantees to transform your average team into an NBA champion-caliber team. This teaching and Pablo 557’s reports completely ignore any mention of the playing career of Russell-Chamberlain, as if this were a minor matter of no importance whatsoever. This leads some commentators to speculate that Pablo 557 did not have any knowledge of playing career of Russell-Chamberlain, and since Pablo 557 is considered the leading authority, that maybe there was no actual NBA center named Russell-Chamberlain, and that the “Russell-Chamberlain” revered by subsequent generations was an almost supernatural coach named “Russell-Chamberlain” who appeared out of nowhere.

So, in this context, how could we ever hope to unravel the mystery? How could we ever say confidently that Russell-Chamberlain really did play in the NBA or that our figure is actually two distinct players, or that our NBA figure was actually a composite of multiple players? How could we ever speak with confidence of the exploits of either one of these great NBA figures of the past? How could we say that one really did lead the Boston Celtics to 10 consecutive NBA championships? Or say that he was not a great scorer, but a great defender, rebounder, and team leader? Or say that the other one played for the Philadelphia Warriors, the San Francisco Warriors, and the Los Angeles Lakers, and really averaged 50 points a game for one NBA season, and was the only player ever to score 100 points in one game?

I submit that we would not have any basis for making such statements.

Some future scholar-historians might argue that there is evidence indicating the existence of two NBA greats, a ‘Bill Russell’ and a “Wilt Chamberlain” who have been mixed up as one individual by BB-religious tradition. Some isolated and ignored scholars might also argue (mostly in vain) that the official Russell-Chamberlain figure, venerated by the dominant BB-churches, is just an invention of Pablo 557, who was a great writer, organizer, and promoter. But the prevailing opinion would be that Russell-Chamberlain was one great coach, whose teachings only fools will ignore! The historical exploits of two NBA great centers, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, would remain hidden in the fog of history and religious propaganda.

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