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.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Rules For Fans In Same Color Shirts

This year's NBA and NHL seems to be setting a high-water mark for teams pulling the "dress all our fans in the same color" gimmick, and I think it's time we established some rules.

  1. Keep in mind that the Celtics, Lakes, Bulls, Canadiens, Devils, Yankees, and most teams that have enjoyed post-season success have managed to do so without this.  It is a mark of a second tier franchise, that thinks it needs secondary things like this to generate excitement during the playoffs, when it should not be necessary.
  2. Encouraging fans to wear their own shirts of the provided color is preferable to putting the same shirt on the seats before the game.  The former is an impressive show of solidarity; the latter is kind of creepy.
  3. Similarly, having patterns of different colors in different sections was cool once, but now is essentially turning your fans into props, and is thus lame.
  4. You can do this gimmick if your team has a distinctive color, or your team is strongly identified with that color.  If you're one of half the NBA or NHL teams whose color is blue, no dice.
  5. Under no circumstances should you dress your fans in the color the opposing team is wearing.  I'm looking at you, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder.
  6. Only one team can pull this off per color, and the following teams have dibs:
    • Red -- St. Louis Cardinals
    • Black -- Kings
    • Orange -- Flyers
    • Yellow -- Pacers

      White is an interesting case.  The Heat were the first NBA team to do the gimmick.  The Phoenix Coyotes took the tradition with them from Winnipeg.  And now Winnipeg has the Jets again.

      But NHL teams wear dark at home now, so an NHL team wearing white would be in violation of Rule #4, so the Heat get white.
These are the rules; teams breaking them are open to ridicule, and screwing up their team's karma.