Two weeks ago, Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees rapped a first-inning single to left field off Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey, briefly interrupting a game at Yankee Stadium that barely had begun and sparking a lively discussion among baseball insiders and fans.
The hit was the 4,000th of Ichiro’s remarkable career, which has been split between Japan’s highest professional league and the major leagues here in the U.S. Specifically – and bear with us here, this post will eventually be put in NBA context – the Yankees’ right fielder had 1,278 hits in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave from 1992-2000, before amassing – in 13 seasons with the Seattle Mariners (2001-2012) and New York (2012-13) – an astounding 2,729 through Wednesday night.
No one doubted that Ichiro had reached a milestone and made history of a particular sort. But was he on his way toward a record? Most folks agreed he was not. Pete Rose remains MLB’s “Hit King” with 4,256 and Ty Cobb – despite losing a couple of hits off his famous total of 4,191 due to clerical corrections through the years – is next at 4,189.
Predictably, the pugnacious Rose bristled at the interpretation that Ichiro was closing in on his mark. “He’s still 600 hits away from catching [Yankees teammate] Derek Jeter, so how can he catch me?” the 17-time NL All-Star, still barred from Hall of Fame consideration by his lifetime ban for gambling, told USA Today. “Hey, if we’re counting professional hits, then add on my 427 career hits in the minors. I was a professional then, too.”
But in their appreciation for Ichiro – who was 27 when he got his first crack at AL pitching – some witnesses blurred the line a little between hits here (as in MLB) and hits anywhere.
“This is something, you don’t have to be from Japan, you don’t have to be a U.S. player, you don’t have to be a Canadian player, a Dominican player,” Ken Griffey Jr., his former Seattle teammate, told MLB.com. “You can just look and see how much time and effort and the things he’s done to perfect his craft. This is something that three people will have done, to have 4,000 hits. Those are Bugs Bunny numbers.”
This, of course, is NBA.com and that is the point of this exercise.
With the explosive growth of professional basketball around the globe, with the acknowledgement almost every summer – whether in EuroBasket competition, the FIBA World Cup or the Olympics – that some of the game’s greatest players will spend part or all of their careers outside of the NBA, it’s a question worth asking: Should stats from leagues elsewhere in the world be counted in a player’s lifetime totals?
Look, this isn’t a matter of re-writing a record book. It’s not as if Luis Scola – who started playing professionally in 1995-96, logging 12 seasons overseas before hitting the NBA – or anyone else is bearing down on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time points record (38,387).
But maybe basketball fans would have a better sense of, say, Arvydas Sabonis‘ greatness if his “career” numbers weren’t limited to the 5,629 points, 3,436 rebounds or 964 assists he’s given credit for in his seven NBA seasons. All of them came after age 30, by which time the dazzling 7-foot-3 Lithuanian was a hobbled, heavier and lesser version of his youthful self.
Maybe Drazen Petrovic would be recalled in more discussions about the game’s greatest shooters if the Croatian marksman’s international stats were lumped in with his modest NBA numbers. (Maybe not, given Petrovic’s tragic death at 28 in a car accident in Germany clipped his career here at the other end.)
And it seems weird that an established NBA player like Andrei Kirilenko would have a hole gouged in his resume just because he opted to play the 2011-12 season back in his homeland, for CSKA Moscow, while the owners and players here hashed out their lockout squabble and patched season. Kirilenko was named Euroleague MVP and averaged better than 14 points and seven rebounds, but from his file on NBA.com, you’d think he’d taken a sabbatical to touch llamas in Tibet or something.
One problem with counting statistics from foreign leagues is that, well, those leagues aren’t so good at counting them themselves. Reliable stats and records are hard to come by, such that Sabonis’ and Petrovic’s entries at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and on its Web site don’t have full and accurate numbers.
Another beef is that non-NBA competition doesn’t measure up, so stats compiled elsewhere might be inflated. That may, in some cases, be true. But it’s the same gripe that largely has kept the stats of the American Basketball Association (ABA) separate and not-quite equal 45 years after that rival league’s inception. More than a dozen Hall of Famers spent part or all of their careers in the ABA, and in the first post-merger All-Star Game (1977), 10 of the 24 players were former ABA-ers. But resentment of what the ABA meant, business-wise, to some old-school NBA owners lingered, in spite of the quality of many of its performers.
So what makes more sense: Listing Julius Erving as the No. 58 scorer in NBA history (18,364), just ahead of Glen Rice (18,336)? Or counting his ABA numbers and moving him to No. 6 (30,026) as one of the half dozen players who reached that 30,000-points level? In a sense, Erving is the NBA’s equivalent of Ichiro, a mid-career pioneer who crossed some borders for his sport.
The Naismith Hall – as we’ll be reminded Sunday with the Class of 2013 enshrinement ceremony – embraces all levels of the game, from outstanding amateurs to foreign legends to NBA superstars, and looks at careers in full. This league rightly should maintain its record book however it sees fit, but citing combined numbers as milestones, accomplishments and bits of history is legit, too.