May 17, 2010

Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

There is no player in NBA history who has come into the league with as many expectations placed upon him as LeBron James.  And up until very recently the man anointed "King" from the time he first put on a Cavaliers' uniform had lived up to these expectations.  Truth be told, 'Bron had actually exceeded the lofty expectations placed upon his shoulders.  It was only a matter of time, we all assumed, before he sealed the deal by putting the first of what was expected to be many championship rings on his nimble fingers.  Yet, in the aftermath of LeBron's unceremonious defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the NBA conference semifinals, it appears that LeBron is now a king without a throne.  Many years ago, the late Coleman Young, Detroit's iconic mayor from 1973-1993, said that Jesse Jackson was a preacher who never lead a church and a politician who never held office.  Can we now say that LeBron is a king who doesn't own a crown?

For the second time in two years, LeBron has been named the league's MVP, with his team winning sixty plus regular season games in the process, only to be stopped short of winning the ultimate prize.  With all the speculation about where LeBron might play next season dominating the conversation, it seems that both LeBron and his fans forgot about the business at hand.  People had been so quick to place LeBron in that elite category that they forgot he was missing one major piece of the puzzle.   To be included in the conversation with greats like Jordan, Magic, and Jabber, the so-called King needs titles.  Without these titles, he remains on the outside looking in.  Even Kobe Bryant has more claim to the VIP lounge than 'Bron does at this point. 

Some have noted that the level of criticism directed towards LeBron's failure to win a title is wrongheaded and misguided.  These people say that he's still young and is still a tremendous player with a huge upside. They suggest that he still has the opportunity to win multiple titles and rewrite the record books before it's all said and done.  This is all true, however his failure to win a title thus far is still a mark against his name.  Why, you ask, because this was the dreaded seven year mark.  It took the greatest player in the history of the game seven seasons to win his first title in Chicago.  LeBron just completed his seventh season, yet he'll have to watch this year's Finals as an observer, not as a participant.

Jordan's Bulls were like LeBron's Cavs when he arrived in 1984; one of the laughingstocks of the league.  Early in his career, Jordan began campaigning for the Bulls to sign Walter Davis, a former Tar Heel who had preceded Jordan at North Carolina.   The trade never happened.  The Bulls front office went on drafting and trading for the players they wanted with little regard for Jordan's wishes, even trading Jordan's BFF and enforcer at the time Charles Oakley at one point.  By the late 80s Jordan was getting clowned by the Bad Boys in the playoffs on a regular basis.  Eventually all the blood, sweat, and tears paid off though. Beginning in 1991 Jordan and the Bulls started winning titles and didn't look back.

The point here is this, Jordan played ball, while people like general manager Jerry "Crumbs" Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf ran the club.  Though the Bulls certainly catered to Jordan in their own way, it was always clear who was in charge.  Jerry Krause was famous for saying that organizations won championships, much to Jordan's chagrin.  I'm not praising Crumbs or Reinsdorf here, as neither one of them came across as the type of guy you would want to have a beer with.  However, the differences between players and the front office was evident.  The hierarchy in place allowed for there to be order, and this order helped propel them towards the six championships that they won during the Jordan era.

The Cavs, on the other hand, seem to have tried to accommodate LeBron's every wish.  Hiring his friends, bringing in player after player for the purpose of pleasing LeBron, couched under the guise of trying to compete for a title.   In the interest of keeping LeBron in Cleveland the Cavs couldn't see the forest for the trees.  Instead of making decisions that would make the Cavs a better franchise, incompetent General Manager Danny Ferry has assembled a group of players that don't even begin to fit together.  Now that they stand a real chance of losing LeBron, we'll see just how raggedy that roster is if and when he decides to bolt.  At this point the Cavs will have lost LeBron and they won't have any titles to show for their efforts either. 

One of the biggest differences between the culture of football and the culture of basketball has to do with the size of the teams.  Because of the sheer number of players on a football team, one player is only going to mean so much.   Sure, quarterbacks and star players of any ilk enjoy privileges not to be expected of everyone, but successful football franchises don't revolve around one player.  You can have a great hall of fame quarterback, with no line and no receivers.  Eventually that QB will have been sacked so many times that he'll be lucky if he can still walk.  So as much deference as a star player might be shown it is all within context as the high injury rate for football players and the number of men needed to play the game tends to lessen the importance of one guy.

In basketball one man can make all the difference in the world.  LeBron demonstrated this back in 2007 when he lead a weak Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals damn near all by himself.  Before Mo Williams, Shaq, and Jamison, LeBron took the court with journeymen like Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall, alongside "where are they now-type" players like Sasha Pavlovic.  The real surprise of the Cavs series against the Pistons that year was rookie Daniel Gibson, a player who generally only saw playing time this season when the game was already decided.  LeBron took this bunch of scrubs all the way to the Finals based almost exclusively on his own unique abilities.  As LeBron demonstrated one man can make all the difference in the world in a basketball game.  But one man can't win a title all by himself.

This one man theory opens itself up to the sort of savior complex that has dominated basketball every since Jordan came into the league and lead the Bulls from nowhere to elite status.  When LeBron was still in high school they began calling him "The Chosen One."  Soon enough people in Cleveland would begin wearing tee shirts that simply said "Witness." The overly religious connotations of words like these helped contribute to the monster being created right under our noses.  Yet everything looked to be going according to plan.  LeBron and his team tended to get better each year and everything looked to be on track.  It would only be a matter of time before King James could ascend to his throne.  Once this had happened, one assumed that he could win multiple titles going forward, thus making the possibility of him leaving Cleveland seem more and more remote. 

Well, I guess we jumped the gun?  NBA championships are won, not given away.  LeBron is at such a high level that anything short of a title is a disappointment now.  To whom much is given, much is required.

Is LeBron really that guy or have we placed him on a pedestal that he is not yet qualified to sit on?  He is obviously an extremely gifted player, but is he a champion?  Might he be so entitled already and enthralled by the trappings of his own celebrity that such distractions seem more important than raising a championship banner?  Does he even care about winning titles? Or is he more concerned with things like hanging out with Jay-Z, throwing powder up in the air and clowning his way through pre-game warm ups by taking faux pictures of his teammates?  Is he simply a glorified AAU player who goes from team to team displaying his extraordinary skill set without every really accomplishing anything significant at a team level?  In other words, is he more "Prince" James, than King? (When one considers all the buck dancing and other such buffoonery at times displayed on the court perhaps "Court Jester" is a more appropriate moniker?)  Only time will tell, but the fact that we're still asking questions like these at this point in his career is a criticism in and of itself.

LeBron has had his ass kissed every since he came into the league.  Now he must be held accountable.  At this point, I don't care where he ends up, the lack of a title is a glaring omission on an otherwise extremely impressive resume.  Until he can claim his first title and then win multiple titles after that, he will be relegated to business class.  Now granted, business class is far better than coach, but it's still not quite first class.  LeBron is going to have to upgrade his championship focus if he wants to fly first class.  Right now, he's not there yet.  And though he still seemingly has plenty of time to rectify this, his failure to compete for a title the last two years should be classified as a major disappointment, relative to the standards demanded of truly elite players.

May 13, 2010

Rewind: Barry Bonds and Race

With the recent announcement that Ken Burns' is directing "Tenth Inning," a follow up to his critically acclaimed documentary series "Baseball,"  I decided to pull one out of the archives.  "Tenth Inning," which airs on PBS later this year, will document baseball's history from 1990 to the present, a time period that many refer to the sport's "steroid era."  Well, the biggest story during this era was none other than Barry Bonds' and his contested pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record.  So here is my piece on the racial implications of Bonds' record chase written as he was closing in on the record back in 2007.