Basketball has often driven Andrew Willingham and me to shouting matches that include probing questions meant to illuminate each other’s arguments such as “how do you get your whole head up Bill Simmons’s butt and still find a way to make that much noise?”
But unlike his usual featherweighted, hairbrained theories, Andrew’s most recent post may have more than a shade of truth in it. Shouldn’t we root for things to be done “the right way,” for our heroes to follow the virtues that put them in the pantheon of cultural icons?
What Andrew’s post really got me thinking about was whether my reaction was essentially naïve or cynical.
Was I a fatalistic consumer of a corporate game, willing to don the gaudy, titillating product mined from the bone dry well of optimism in the ravaged souls of Cleveland fans?
Had watching Seattle’s fan base endure a prolonged, slimy assault at the hands of millionaires far removed from the suffering they caused extinguished any idealism I may have had regarding the compact between a sports team or athlete and a city?
Had I really come to peace with the often disheartening nature of professional athletes and their callous and disinterested perspective towards people who quite literally are brought to tears by their triumphs and failures?
Or was the opposite extreme the reality?
Did my naiveté make me too forgiving of a spoiled 25 year old who showed awful judgment and perhaps even a suspect desire for personal excellence because I want sports to be about pure enjoyment?
Did a small-town excitement over the stars that will light up the Miami sky so overwhelm me that I could not see that the lofty arrangement has its origins in the gutters of betrayal?
Perhaps I was simply trying to make the best of a crappy situation.
I tend to suspect that my reaction was some combination of my excitement over this assemblage of transcendent talent and a hard-earned preparedness for the pain and suffering that is always a possibility for the diehard fan.
I certainly concede that LeBron should be publicly humiliated for the surreal PR gaffe that seemed like a “happening” from the mind of Andy Kaufman.
However I will steadfastly deny that LeBron made a decision that calls into question his desire to be a great player or jeopardizes his legacy as his generation’s best player.
We know that it was becoming increasingly unlikely that LBJ would win a championship in Cleveland any time soon. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (who both played with multiple Hall of Famers), LeBron needs good-to-great players around him to maximize his abilities. The next Kevin McHale isn’t walking into the Q any time soon and Shaq wasn’t the consistent scoring threat and leadership presence that the aging Kareem was for Magic.
If we decry James for not caring enough about winning we can’t turn around and blast him for trying to win without an Antawn Jamison shaped parachute strapped to his body. He needed to ball with another top ten player and it looked impossible for Dan “corrupt FBI Agent in a 90s movie” Gilbert to find him one.
Do we define LeBron by his inability to win a title thus far?
We all know that Kobe has only been the best player on two of his five championship runs (Shaq, Shaq, Pau), but his five rings are somehow an indication that he is nearly as good as Michael Jordan who has six.
For some it’s a serious issue that, because Dwayne Wade already has some bling, it’s unlikely LeBron will ever have as many rings as the second best player of James’s own era.
Are we really so irrational as to believe that how many rings a player has is the full measure of a the player’s talent level?
Hypothetically, if BronBron wins 5 straight rings with Wade and the Heat, and is the Finals MVP in all 5 wins, will we still say Wade was better? Won’t those MVPs be a pretty good indicator of which was the best player on the floor?
LeBron has been, by consensus, better than Wade for years, but now because he plays in a city that Wade lived in first, he is worse?
What really bugs people of Andrew’s mind, I think, on this subject, is not that LeBron acknowledged he needed to play with great players to win championships—lots of players have done that—but that he was willing to completely abandon the Jordan legend to do it.
We can now be certain that LeBron, though he may set many records, is not the force that Jordan became. For the record, neither is Kobe, nor is Wade, nor is Duncan nor any other great player that’s come along since.
Unlike most players, who quickly abandon or even run from Jordan’s legend, LeBron openly admitted he wanted to be like Mike, even playing with the number 23 only a few hundred miles from Jordan’s United Center statue.
And unlike most players LeBron lived up to the hype, his career seemingly on a hyperbolic rise to that infinite greatness MJ possessed.
Now that it’s clear he will not match the arc of Jordan’s hero story, we feel we’ve been led on for seven years. It’s even inspired some to anoint Kobe, that husk of Jordan’s greatness, as his true heir.
But does James really lack “it,” or is he simply a different player than Jordan?
Let’s keep in mind, we gladly changed the way we thought about winning basketball to accommodate Jordan. We made it OK to punch teammates, hustle rookies’ paychecks at the card table, and generally be an asshole if, in return, MJ would give us undiluted sublimity in motion.
He ruined us.
The Legend of the Killer was born. Now it’s not enough just to be clutch, which LeBron undoubtedly is, you have to play the role of “the Killer,” like Kobe and Wade do.
But LeBron is just not wired to be a lone gunman.
Yet the defining Jordan characteristic, the ability to snap the will of an entire team, has become the most important characteristic we look for in a great player.
Should it really surprise us that two humans are not exactly the same? Perhaps I’m just annoyed by many people’s inability to even contemplate LeBron’s place in the game without implicit or often explicit reference to Jordan’s style.
LeBron is just a different cat.
He loves to pass and make everyone else feel better. He loves to be a part of a team—just look at how he still is in touch with his high school buddies while Jordan bashed his high school coaches and teammates at his Hall of Fame induction.
It is James’s view of the game that we would wish our teammates to have, and that Jordan and Kobe had to be cajoled into accepting.
James is built to be the consummate teammate, and that he instinctively drifts to that style should be cause for respect, not questioning his manhood.
Jordan was driven by winning only, by the competition. It’s a supremely admirable instinct but it is a ruthless instinct, and one that fed not only Jordan’s greatness but the tarnishing of his legacy last year in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It may be a characteristic not found in the same concentration within James, but I’ll continue to applaud and enjoy his version of greatness.