LeBron and Durant care more about basketball than competition

Perhaps you remember those 2011 LeBron and Durant workout videos. Back then, the videos were intriguing. A year later, the videos are hypnotizing.

This was pre-season prep, James was trying to bounce back from an inauspicious Finals. We say “bounce back” for sports recoveries, but the term doesn’t always fit temporally. LeBron’s Finals humiliation was sudden, but the journey to get there was drawn out over 82 regular season games and 21 playoff battles. Maintaining offseason motivation should be especially difficult for NBA superstars because those playoff battles usually mock the notion that the preceding regular season games count. The rule: If your team is good enough to matter, the regular season games don’t matter. Players still have to go through with the tiring charade, though.

How do you “bounce back” slowly? How do you invest so much time in an arduous climb when the fall comes so much quicker? Your run can end on one stupid play. It could all be over before national TV audiences receive the images on the seven second Janet Jackson delay. And how do you build yourself back up, lego-by-lego on the off chance that owners and players might end the 2011 lockout? LeBron and KD were doing this just in case, just so they could start the tiring charade at full tilt.

I’m curious about this motivation because these workouts do not look fun. There is squatting, sprinting, and situps. Broadcasted enjoyment can be contagious. We like to rent it from those we watch, laughing along with their laughter. These videos are different. The footage is so enjoyable because this is such joint-rubbering drudgery. LeBron James and Kevin Durant could be betting on camel polo from an invisible helicopter hovering over Dubai, and yet here they are, running windsprints. It’s almost like watching Brad Pitt at his breakfast table, mumbling the words of a fresh script to the mustard stain on his wrinkled shirt. We’re so used to hyped sports drama that drama’s prosaic prep work can amaze. It can even be more titillating than camel polo (but only if the camels aren’t on PEDs, or if they aren’t regional rivals).

It’s even better when we have the dramatic irony of knowing that LeBron’s greatest triumph will cause Kevin to cry in his mother’s arms. That’s where all this is headed. LeBron James doesn’t know and no matter how much he believes in himself, he must carry doubts about ever claiming his moment. LeBron’s people are producing this, so perhaps that’s why KD says so little. I prefer to pretend that Durant is distancing himself a bit from someone so publicly shamed at the time.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. They’re probably friends because all the superstars are friends these days. This reality is widely bemoaned. For some reason, guy who loves sportsmanship despises a new era where competitors regard each other as people first.

The stated rationale is that these new players just don’t care as much about the game, or don’t take ball-through-hoop seriously enough. But that’s not what I see. In a workout interlude, a sweat-drenched James starts kvetching about how tired he is. It ends with a brief statement:

“Me and KD, man, just trying to get better, man. That’s all.”

That’s all. And with that, the two of them are on the court together, honing what looks so comfortably extemporaneous when we see it on the tee-vee. Maybe this buddy system is about caring more, not less. Silicon Valley exists in part because the top tech innovators feed off each other, push each other higher. If you love your craft, how could you not want to learn from your contemporaries? Not only can they understand the life you lead, they can also help fuel your mastery of the job you love.

There are so many stories about just how competitive Michael Jordan was, how it extended far beyond basketball. This became what we want from players–to win simply for victory’s sake. What about getting better for the sake of getting better? There is a correlation between improving at the craft and defeating opponents, but not everyone is motivated by the same goal to the same degree.

LeBron James plays with an ebullient creativity–I always suspected that he loved his job. I also suspected that he wanted to win. Whatever the balance between those qualities, “just trying to get better” is reason enough to share trade secrets with a rival. The modern player might just take the game too seriously to hate his opponent. Maybe the game is bigger than winning a shiny thing, and maybe improvement is its own reward to the basketball nerd.

If that’s the case, I like this “soft” NBA era. Jordan retired in his prime for a variety of reasons, but many believed that there was nothing else for him to “prove.” We never got a clear answer on whether the greatest player of all time even loved the game. We know that he burned out, retreating to baseball mid-career, and golf in his executive stage. Instead of lecturing today’s superstars on how “MJ wouldn’t do that,” maybe we should appreciate the current era of superstars who like each other along with what they do for a living. I don’t need my rivals to be driven by the hatred of one another. Enjoyment can be contagious.


Related posts:

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  2. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, Part One: The other guys
  3. How to compare LeBron James and Kevin Durant
  4. LeBron Leaves Cleveland: Basketball Fans Rejoice!
  5. HoopSpeak Live – Watch The Throne, LeBron, Durant, and Braveheart

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Ethan Sherwood Strauss of HoopSpeak on KD and LeBron: “I’m curious about this motivation because these workouts do not look fun. There is squatting, sprinting, and situps. Broadcasted enjoyment can be contagious. We like to rent it from those we watch, laughing along with their laughter. These videos are different. The footage is so enjoyable because this is such joint-rubbering drudgery. LeBron James and Kevin Durant could be betting on camel polo from an invisible helicopter hovering over Dubai, and yet here they are, running windsprints. It’s almost like watching Brad Pitt at his breakfast table, mumbling the words of a fresh script to the mustard stain on his wrinkled shirt. We’re so used to hyped sports drama that drama’s prosaic prep work can amaze. It can even be more titillating than camel polo (but only if the camels aren’t on PEDs, or if they aren’t regional rivals).” [...]

  2. [...] Athletes do this too when they emphasize abstract ideas like heart or experience or will. Being competitive means wanting to win. But being an athlete means working tirelessly to better yourself, to take whatever natural gifts you might have and push them to the breaking point. There is no elite NBA player who does not also have an elite work ethic. Whether you want to appeal to game theory or social facilitation theory or the simple idea of iron sharpening iron, Durant and James working out together will make for better basketball. [...]

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