Saturday, June 09, 2012

LeBron, Wilt, Russell, and Santana's no-hitter.

On Thursday night, LeBron James had the most dominant basketball performance in a basketball game I have ever seen.  He scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but that doesn't begin to capture the degree to which he imposed his will on the game.  In a game with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and emerging superstar Rajon Rondo, it was almost as if James was the only player on the floor, with the exception of a few flashes of brilliance from Rondo.  It appeared that he could do anything he wanted to on the court, and he actually did.

And he seemed to derive about the same amount of joy from doing that as I did in typing that last paragraph.  As Joe Posnanski put it:

When LeBron has played beautiful basketball, it always looked like so much fun. He has that gift of transmitting joy and happiness; nothing in the world looks more fun than playing basketball like LeBron at his best. Thursday, did not look fun. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but in the end that was entirely irrelevant. The Heat won big. The series is going back to Miami. LeBron had imposed his will. And fun had nothing to do with it.
Our best basketball player is dominant, but has no sens of joy or fun about it.

Because, you see, probably more so than any other athlete but not not completely unlike other athletes, James will be solely judged by how many championships he wins.  Yes, his performance in Game 6 was transcendent,  but all it did was get his team to Game 7.  Which he must also lead his team to win, and then conquer the Oklahoma City Thunder (and rival for best player Kevin Durant) to be successful.  If he doesn't do that, then his Game 6 performance means nothing, according to modern sports commentary.

This is a shame.

Yes, James brought a lot of this on himself, with his Decision to join Wade on the Heat and his "not one, not two..." proclamations afterwards.  But I think those were more a product of the current sports culture than James' personality.

And that culture is this notion that the only thing that matters in sports, for both teams and athletes, is championships.

It didn't used to be this way.  We used to celebrate athletes who entertained and put up great numbers and still didn't win championships.  Dan Marino.  The young John Elway. Dominque Wilkins. Charles Barkley. Ryne Sandberg.  That the college football season ended without a definitive national champion was a reason to debate the merits of the competing teams, not an injustice that the president needed to speak about.

The focus on championships sprung from a noble instinct -- probably best exemplified by the Bill Russell - Wilt Chamberlain debate.  Wilt Chamberlain was all about himself, and filled up a stat sheet like nobody else.  Russell dominated the defensive end, and led his team to championships.  Wilt did things like set out to lead the league in assists and never foul out of a game, to the detriment of his team's goals.  Russell only cared about winning.

So, as a culture, we rendered the historical verdict that Russell was a superior player to Wilt, and we want our young players to emulate Russell instead.  And we continue to celebrate "team first" players who win championships but might not fill up a stat sheet.  Derek Jeter.  Robert Horry. Derek Fisher. Scottie Pippen. Tim Duncan. Mark Messier.  For others, we construct narratives about players who started out being all about themselves, then learned to trust their teammates and play a more balanced game to help their teammates win.  This is the story of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, John Elway, Steve Yzerman.  And we punish players who never seem to get it -- Vince Carter, Alex Ovechkin, and now LeBron, until he wins a championship.

I think this is the culture that brings us to a place where LeBron James can have the best game anyone can remember, and not celebrate it.  James shares Wilt's ability to dominate the game, but doesn't want to share Wilt's legacy as someone who couldn't translate that into championships.  Defenders of Wilt will say that Russell had a "better taste in teammates," which is a way of saying that the difference in championships is due to matters beyond Russell and Wilt's control.  But in 2010, James did have a chance to choose his teammates, and he chose another Hall of Famer and another All Star, likely in part to maximize his chances of winning a championship, knowing that's how he will ultimately be judged.

There are other manifestations of this "all about championship" culture that I don't think are good:

  • Playoff teams resting players in the final regular season games that "don't matter."
  • Teams tanking to position themselves to draft a great player.
  • Players exerting less effort in regular season games to save themselves for later games.
  • Sequences like the end of this year's Super Bowl -- where one team tries to let the other team score, and the other team tries not to, to manage the clock to try to win.
  • Other non-competitive gimmicky video game strategies like fouling when leading by three points, taking safeties, etc.
But there are signs of hope.  Last Friday night, Mets manager Terry Collins allowed Johann Santana to throw over 130 pitches to complete a no-hitter against the Cardinals, the first in the Mets 50+ year history.  In terms of positioning the Mets for a championship, this was probable not an optimal strategy.  Santana missed last season with arm trouble, and would be a necessary part of any pennant chase or playoff run the Mets make.  And while nobody seems to have figured out how to keep pitchers healthy, there's a general consensus that high pitch count games are considered harmful.

But it was still a great moment, as Mets fans celebrated this achievement, close to as much as they celebrated the team's two World Series Championships.  And, even as a Cardinals fan, I enjoyed watching it.

These random moments of brilliance are as much a reason why we enjoy sports as a long, disciplined march to a championship.  They can pop up in a Friday night baseball game in June, or Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Championships.

As sports fans, we should enjoy them, without immediately jumping to calculate how they translate into championships.  And the athletes should celebrate them, even if they're not all directly ordered toward winning a championship.  But if we adopt the attitude that the only thing that matters is championships, we will close ourselves off to moments like this.

I'm glad we got Santana's no-hitter.   And I wish both we as fans and LeBron James himself could enjoy and celebrate his masterful performance in Game 6.

Post a Comment