Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What We Want From Athletes

We want athletes who are willing to sacrifice individual glory, statistics, and money in order to win a championship, right?  

If the reaction to LeBron James's decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the Miami heat is any indication, maybe not.

On the surface, it seems like James (and Bosh and Wade) are doing what we always say we want star athletes to do.  Go for the rings.  Value your teammates.  Make winning your first priority.

Isn't that what we would do with our careers?  What would we do -- bang our head against the wall trying to drag a group of incompetents to success, or join some friends who also happen to be outstanding in their fields and kick some butt?

Still, something doesn't seem quite right.  The superstar leading his team to victory, "learning how to win," etc. is a great story.  A group of stars getting together and stacking the deck in their favor is not.

But sports is ultimately about competition.  I'l enjoy having the All-Star Game on tonight, but I'll be on the edge of my seat for a tight postseason series.  What we want when we watch sports isn't just moments of brilliance and great plays, but intense competition between teams at the top of their game going all-out to beat each other.   I don't recall any jaw-dropping plays from Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but I watched the whole thing.  I can't remember the last NBA All-Star Game I watched.

This sentiment is captured by Bill Simmons: "Michael Jordan would have wanted to kick Dwyane Wade's butt every spring, not play with him."  

Perhaps.  In terms of judging LeBron James as a human being, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing, judging by things like Jordan's Hall of Fame Speech.

But as an athlete and entertainer, it puts him behind Jordan.  LeBron can never be David; he will always be Goliath.  He will never put a team on his shoulders and carry it to a title, and neither will Wade.  Both players appear to have the potential to do that, and if everything goes according to plan, they never will.

What this feels most like is A-Rod joining the Yankees, A-Rod swung from one extreme to the other.  He joined a team that had to invest all its resources in him and couldn't afford anyone else, then moved to a team that was already dominated by other personalities. 

LeBron is doing the same thing.  Even if the Heat win five titles, we will never know if LeBron could have led a a team to a title.  He's set the difficulty down a few levels.

I'm not a fan of the Orlando Magic and the way they play, but I'm hoping they or another team from the East hand it to the Heat on a regular basis.  And I hope Kevin Durant leads the Oklahoma City Thunder to greatness.  Maybe Kobe can lead the Lakers on a couple more runs.

Because I don't want to see this work, and have every generation of stars get together on the same team and dominate the league.  It's just that not fun to watch.  The Dream Team was one summer.  This is five years.  I want sports to be about competition, not the best players getting together and stacking the deck in their favor.
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