Indignant sports journalists are rushing to the defense of LeBron James, explaining how morally repugnant it is that so many hate the young basketball prodigy. Nonsense. Hating James is as good and moral (and refreshing) as is lemonade in July. Besides, the people who matter most—the league and its owners– love him for the passion his antics have inspired in the fans. Professional basketball, like all big-money sports, collegiate and professional, is entertainment. It needs heroes and villains to fill the stands and keep the eyeballs glued to the set. That one of the best has become one of the villains makes the plot even juicier.
The Greeks had their tragedies. The English had Shakespeare. Americans have sports. Sports provide Americans with epic tragedies, heroic struggles, comic interludes; but mostly, with the stage upon which the morals of the culture are most vividly expressed and debated. So it is with LeBron James and his professional basketball career. What was the lesson of all those Greek tragedies? Pride goes before the fall? Within even the greatest among the gods, there lurks a fatal character flaw?
Excepting the fans of the Miami Heat, practically all of the nation’s pro basketball fans spent this season wishing ill for LeBron James. James made himself a pariah, not by leaving Cleveland for Miami, but by the manner with which he did it. “The Decision”, a one-hour show on ESPN (the sports network), announcing his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, had folks that didn’t know nor much care about professional basketball disgusted at the level of arrogance and hubris James revealed in its making. James was rated by Forbes magazine last year as the second most influential athlete in sports, behind Lance Armstrong, who happens to be facing his own fall from grace. Those Greeks might have been on to something.
Poor LeBron. It’s been like this his whole life—battling expectations and his own outsized ego. Like every up and coming potential NBA star since the late 90’s, he was touted as “the next Michael Jordan”–surely a worse omen than appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated—before he had even suited up for a professional game. He skipped college to go straight to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he won two Most Valuable Player awards, and took them to the finals once (2007) and the playoffs for five straight years (2006-2010), but just couldn’t get over the hump and get that ring. Unlike Jordan, who stayed with the Bulls for seven seasons until finally winning his first championship, James bolted for the Miami Heat after seven seasons with the Cavaliers. Because he didn’t play college basketball, he’s younger than was Jordan after his first seven seasons in the NBA. He was only twenty-five when he decided that he would “take his talents” down to Miami to create a “dynasty”.
LeBron’s problem is self-awareness. Nobody likes somebody that’s good, and knows they’re good, and especially so when they seem to have anointed themselves with greatness before actually having become great. Like the line in the upcoming flick, Bad Teachers, as a teacher explains in a heated discussion with one of his students why LeBron can’t yet be favorably compared to Michael Jordan, who actually won six NBA championships in his playing career, “Six NBA titles…that’s all I need Shawn”. If LeBron wins six before he’s through, then and only then, he and his fans can compare him to Jordan. Until then, he, and they, need to just shut up.
Michael Jordan was a one-of-a-kind athlete that was as grittily determined to win as he was talented. Indeed, he had talent by the bucketful, but he was never touted as “the next anything” until he’d shown his ability on the court. It takes nature, i.e., talent, for a player to become great, but it also takes nurture, i.e., desire. After his first few years in the NBA during the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird era, Jordan was often favorably compared to either of them. By the time each had retired, it was clear he was one of a kind, subject to no comparisons.
History is funny like that. You can never tell from which quarter it may arise, or whether what one is witnessing is a historic, or just ordinary, turn of events, until well after the fact. I cringe anytime someone utters that some event or person is “making history”. History isn’t something subject to creation according to a recipe or script, nor is historical importance discernible during the event claimed to be historic. History just happens. But in this hubris-besotted age that thinks itself the only age that ever existed or mattered, it is routine for folks considering their lives and times of necessarily historic significance to try to create and package “history” for instantaneous consumption. This is as true of athletic performances as it is of more ordinary concerns of history, such as political campaigns. Obama’s election in 2008 more than anything felt like a bunch of egoistic people wishing to write a page of history by electing a man President whose racial heritage qualified him to be considered black. Only time will tell whether his election is of any historic significance, no matter how badly all those folks wished to etch the importance of their time in the annals of eternity.
Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, the team that beat the Miami Heat to deny the James/Bosh/Wade trio their first stab at creating a dynasty (dynasties are another thing about which one is unaware until after the fact, or at least not until long into their reign), seemed to understand that creating something of long-term value such that it figures prominently in history takes time. He took a stab at the Heat’s attempt at insta-dynasty after the game by explaining the differences between the Mav’s and the Heat:
“This is a true team,” Carlisle said. “This is an old bunch. We don’t run fast or jump high. These guys had each other’s backs. We played the right way. We trusted the pass. This is a phenomenal thing for the city of Dallas.”
See, even basketball history can’t be created and packaged according to a recipe. The Mavericks didn’t run fast or jump high, but simply “played the right way”. They didn’t try to make history, they simply went out and did their best at what they do, which, incidentally, is how all athletic teams and players accomplish feats of historic significance. John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA was built one grueling practice and perfectly-executed game at a time, and so too will be the case whatever team becomes the next one. Until then, just enjoy the theater. And hate James all you want. The NBA thrives on it.