About a thousand words on LeBron James and our limitations

June 24, 2012

I am inclined to like LeBron James; after all, I rode up nine stories in an elevator with him once. (In the Four Seasons in Toronto during the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. We were both there on business. I asked him, “S’up King?” and he laughed. ) I think he’s a tremendous athlete with a nice smile.

I don’t know if your opinion about him has changed now that he’s won a title. You don’t have to like him or believe he’s a good guy. He hurt more than Cleveland’s pride with his decision. James’ presence had done much to revitalize the downtown area — no doubt his leaving cost people money.

Yet I don’t know what he was supposed to do; especially given that he’s in a business where the important thing is the collection of championship banners. He gave the home folks in Cleveland seven years, and when he left it wasn’t for a bigger salary but for a better chance of winning more games later in the post-season. And it worked. What else is he supposed to want?

I know some people feel like it would have been more honorable for James to stay in Cleveland and try to win a title there despite the inherent limitations of the market (and the team’s ownership). But the truth is, the best players — not the best hearts — usually win. And if you’re to win an NBA championship these days, you need more than one superlative player. LeBron James could have stayed in Cleveland and become the Ernie Banks of his sport. He chose to go somewhere else and win championships.

Maybe he could have done it with more grace, but I don’t see how you can fault a young man for wanting to do what everyone says he must do to fulfill his potential, the destiny that’s been proclaimed for him since he was 14 years old.

Which makes him very different from most of us, who have to learn to live with at least a measure of uncertainty about how well we perform in our professional and personal lives; our wins and losses are never so unambiguous as a box score. The best of us might go to bed feeling defeated most nights; there are studies that show the least competent people are the most secure and self-regarding.

Maybe the prime reason we are drawn to sports is the clarity our games provide—the unequivocal division of winners from losers, of good guys from bad. For the athlete, there is a bright line between success and failure. You win,or you lose.

In real life, there are ambiguous conditions—“noble” losses, victories Pyrrhic and moral.

However we choose to remember it, most of us who played sports at any level lost more than we won—we lost often and early. We were cut from teams and bounced in the opening rounds of tournaments. Most of us found a level beyond which all the wanting and trying and the running of all the stadium stairs in the world could not take us. If we were diligent and passionate enough we found the limits of our ability—we found the place where we were scrubs.

Our coaches told us this built something called “character,” and maybe it did, if “character” has anything to do with the understanding that you are not so special as your intuition suggests. The best lesson of sports for most of us is that we are not all that gifted; fairy stories spread by sportswriters notwithstanding, mental toughness does not trump an abundance of fast twitch voluntary muscle fiber. It has yet to be demonstrated that your heartfelt wish can have any effect on the universe.

I don’t suppose it hurt me much to cling to my illusion of my own specialness longer than some; it always gave me pleasure to compete, and losing isn’t so hard once you become used to it. In any case, after the age of 12 or so, I was rarely the best player on any court or field I stepped on. Yet I continued to step on those courts and fields until they were, one by one, foreclosed to me. It only slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t needed — and I didn’t need to play.

But there are a few who never seem to lose, who move up and up through the levels of the game, and never find a clear superior. There is a species of genius in the greatest of our athletes, and part of this genius is the willingness to ruthlessly deal with whatever they believe prevents them from winning. This is something that you (probably) and I (certainly) do not possess. I would not, like Pete Rose did, wreck Ray Fosse’s career for the sake of scoring a run in an exhibition game, and if that makes me a wuss I can live with it.

People are by nature sentimental; we invest ourselves in the fortunes of others for all kinds of reasons, most of which are probably better left unexamined and mysterious. Not only is there a pathological side to fandom that occasionally flares in ugly and discrete ways (we have soccer hooligans and thuggish Dodger fans and the weird and pitiable world of Internet message boards), but even the otherwise sensible can be flustered by the misadventures of a team—most reasonable Cub fans would probably agree there is a component of masochism in their mania; the attitude of grievance some Razorback fans habitually adopt would be funny if it didn’t hit so close to home.

Winning means less to me now, though I enjoy watching the games as much—and maybe more—as I ever have. Only occasionally do I find myself, in Jerry Seinfeld’s apt phrase, “rooting for the shirts.”

But I do root for excellence — and no doubt sometimes I root for guys who aren’t good people.

I don’t know if LeBron James is good people or not. But I like him.


5 Comments

  • Comment by evindemirel — Jul 10,2012 at 7:48 am

    The question of whether LeBron is a good people or not is slightly more clear-cut to another writer: http://www.scottraab.com/

    You do bring up an excellent point about how the testosterone usually ceases to surge quite so powerfully as we age … winning doesn’t become as important as enjoying the experience.

    This is seen in the world of sports broadcasting.

    Sometimes, college coaches lose their jobs and take a job commenting for ESPN the following season. The coach may intend to jump back into coaching at the first opportunity. But soon he realizes he now lives in a world in which he can enjoy obsessing about the sport without the demand to win. Turns out working for ESPN is a lot more enjoyable and likely more profitable (per hour) than actual coaching. Recent examples include Jon Gruden and Bruce Pearl.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Jul 10,2012 at 8:03 am

    Raab’s comments are interesting, though I’m not sure that I’d agree with his assessment of LBJ’s specialness. Is he the best I’ve ever seen? I am not sure he’s quite as good as Oscsar Robertson was in his prime, much less Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. (Irrationally I want to put Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in his league, though in today’s world their Lakers would be seen as perennial losers.)

  • Comment by evindemirel — Jul 17,2012 at 8:32 am

    How are you framing LeBron’s specialness? On one hand, it could mean ability relative to his own era. Or, it could more inclusive and apply to the scope of all NBA history. If the former, I think there’s a strong case to be made that Oscar was more special, relative to his peers on the perimeter, during the early 1960s than LeBron has been relative to the likes of D-Wade, Kobe, etc. At that time, fewer players had any hope of approximating Robertson’s physical gifts and skill set.

    Still, I think LeBron’s peers are way more impressive, in terms of athleticism, size and ability, than most of the guys Oscar clowned. An old-timer like Richie Guerin or Jackie Moreland likely wasn’t athletic enough to hold court with the best perimeter players today. (I think, overall, modern basketball gets a higher caliber of athlete than in the mid-20th century b/c the game overall is much more popular and takes top athletes who before might have specialized in a different sport)

    Within this context, what makes LeBron most special is his ability to almost maximize his unprecedented mix of pure basketball talent and physical superiority. Forty years ago, hardly any NBA player had the size of Karl Malone. Nobody had the jumping ability and quickness of Michael Jordan. To combine those assets into one player could have been inconceivable.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Jul 17,2012 at 9:03 am

    Interesting comment.

    My basic instinct is that athletes are forever evolving into bigger and faster creatures and that Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth probably couldn’t make it in today’s game. (So maybe Kobe’s right and this year’s model could dust the 1992 Dream Team?)

    Yet there is a part of me that resists the idea that there were ever any players more skilled than Oscar Robertson and (especially) Elgin Baylor, both of whom I can well remember — though I admit that, even with expansion and its inevitable dilutuion of talent, they were playing against inferior athletes compared to those LBJ faces on a nightly basis. So while I concede LeBron’s physical specialness may be unprecedented — though I do think that Wilt Chamberlain possessed a similar freakish athleticism married to an even larger frame (remember, Wilt was a sprinter and pitched).

    In short, I agree with you — though I do think we might be underrating the players of past generations, especially those whose exploits we didn’t eyewitness. I don’t have much of a problem imagining that Jerry West would be a star today but I balk at the notion (offered recently, I believe by Bob Ryan) that Bob Pettit was every bit as good as Karl Malone. I do not remember Pettit — or Heinsohn — as a player, and grainy black and white makes everyone look slow and lumbering.

    (Tangential note: Jerry West was known as “Mr. Clutch” but did anyone ever lose more Championship finals? He won exactly as many NBA championships in his 15 year career as LBJ has so far.)

    But athletes get better. Games get faster, courts get smaller.

  • Comment by evindemirel — Jul 26,2012 at 10:22 am

    Funny point about Mr. NBA Logo. I hadn’t thought of his the numerical limitations of his Clutchness like that.

    I absolutely agree with you about old-time players being more skilled (but likely not as physically dominant) as modern players. I actually rue my constant negligence to watching the likes of Baylor, Russell, West et al when their games are broadcast on NBA TV. Alas, there seems to always be some far more pressing athletic event in the present to get around to paying prolonged attention to the athletic past…

    I find the idea of the modern Dream Team (I think the 2008 team was stronger than this 2012 team) going against the original Dream Team pretty fascinating. I tend to believe ultimately the original team’s size and strength would help it pull out the win. Whatever slight advantage Wade, Kobe, LBJ, Paul, etc. have on the perimeter would probably be overcome.

    Apparently, the number-crunchers agree: http://insider.espn.go.com/olympics/basketball/story?id=8191152&_slug_=olympics-strengthening-case-1992-dream-team-best-all-time&action=login&appRedirect=http%3a%2f%2finsider.espn.go.com%2folympics%2fbasketball%2fstory%3fid%3d8191152%26_slug_%3dolympics-strengthening-case-1992-dream-team-best-all-time

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