With two wars raging (maybe three, depending on how the media decides to characterize Libya any given day), devastating floods ongoing, intolerable heat waves engulfing the deep south, and a seven term congressman resigning in disgrace after making Brett Favre look smart for only texting instead of tweeting, the two most frequent questions I’ve been asked over the past week are: 1) Do you think Kim Kardashian really hooked up with that guy on the Patriots?; and 2) What do you think happened to Lebron? I’m not sure if this says more about me, the people I spend most of my time talking to, or our society as a whole. Regardless, I have no idea as to the answer to either question, but in both cases, I certainly have an opinion. Coincidently, I would argue that both opinions are based on empirical evidence. For the sake of brevity and so as not to state the obvious, let’s skip over the Kim question and move right to Lebron.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about a person or topic more in a week than I have talked about Lebron this week. The theories I’ve heard tossed around have ranged from ones involving Rashard Lewis pulling a Donte West (all alleged) to Lebron never recovering from the tongue lashing D. Wade gave him in Game 3. I even heard one guy say that it looked like LBJ was shaving points. Okay, that guy was me, but I was totally kidding. Everybody knows that nobody has shaved points in a high profile basketball game since UNLV in the ’91 Final Four. What? That didn’t happen? I’m still demanding an investigation.
Well, after much consideration and amateur psycho babble, I’ve finally settled on the theory that evolved out of one of the many LBJ psycho analysis sessions my buddy Joe and I conducted over the past week. Basically, there seem to be two types of uber successful people in sports (and, probably in all walks of life): 1) The people that constantly view themselves as the underdogs, either perceived or real; and 2) That rare group of people that are so incredibly talented and physically gifted that success not only comes easy to them, it’s an inevitability.
Those in the first group sometimes morph into the second group (see Jordan, Michael). But, even when they morph into the second group, they never lose their group 1 roots and continue to work as if the deck is stacked against them. They refuse to accept the fact that they can put things on cruise control. They invent ways to pit themselves in the underdog role by inventing slights that didn’t actually happen or taking small slights and turning them into much bigger deals than they actually are. For an example, just think back to MJ’s maniacal evisceration of Karl Malone in the ’97 Finals after Malone received his sympathy MVP award. Should MJ have been so pissed that he was denied his fifth MVP award? Probably not, but he has group 1 DNA , so he had no choice. He found an obstacle in his way (i.e. Karl Malone), and he chose to do everything in his power to destroy it. That’s what the group 1 guys do. If you challenge their greatness, you are going to face the consequences.
In contrast, Lebron is squarely a group 2 guy. Since he was in 10th grade, the question was never if he would be a great basketball player, it was whether he would be the greatest basketball player of all time. Since we first came to know LBJ, we’ve been constantly awed by his athleticism and the ease in which he can dominate a game based solely on his physical gifts. He’s never been the underdog and we’ve never questioned his greatness. We’ve never doubted that LBJ would win rings, we’ve just wondered if he could get to MJ’s mythical level of six rings. Now, however, twice in two years (in last year’s Boston series and this year’s Finals), we’ve seen two inexplicable disappearing acts that have made us question everything we’ve ever believed about his apparent greatness. Last year, we could explain away the Game 5 in Boston with crappy teammates, impending free agency, the weight of his hometown on his shoulders, and, well, that alleged Delonte thing. This year? Nobody seems to have any clue what happened.
As for me, the only conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is that LBJ potentially fell victim to the same fate that the group 2 guys too often seem to encounter. Specifically, when everything has always come with relative ease and your greatness is naturally assumed, sometimes it is easier to put on the breaks and not take the big shots than it is to dig deeper and take the responsibility of winning and losing on your shoulders. The reason? If you fail but don’t put yourself completely on the line, it can be easier to swallow than if you give everything you have, take the big shots and big risks and come up short. You can always tell yourself, “if I had really given it all I had, we would have won”, and nobody can prove you wrong. Put simply, you don’t have to face the reality that, no matter how gifted you are, on occasion, your best might not be good enough.
By all appearances, LBJ is content to be great when the circumstances don’t require him to potentially expose himself to failure. The crazy thing is that it’s a matter of self perception rather than popular perception. Sure, we are all left wondering, “what if Lebron had just been average”? (My favorite writer/talk radio host/sports personality, Dan LeBatard, has asked this question no less than 30 times this week). I suppose Lebron takes some consolation from this lingering question, but what he doesn’t seem to understand is that fans, the media, and his peers would hold him in higher regard if he had been willing to put it on the line against the Mavs, and he had come up short. As strange as it sounds, there is a certain nobility in giving it everything you have and coming up short.
I mean, if you ask me if I have more respect for John Stark’s 2-18 Game 7 in the ’94 Finals or LBJ’s disappearing act in this year’s Finals, it’s not even close. Even as his shots continued to miss the mark, Starks did not succumb to the despair or the fear. For better or worse (I guess worse, if you are a Knicks fan), he never wavered from his commitment to take the responsibility of winning and losing on his shoulders. Consequently, while we all remember the 2-18, basketball junkies, almost to a man, still remember Starks as a warrior that had onions that would make Bill Rafferty proud. Even in a loss, Starks strangely cemented a legacy. As Hemingway famously said, “a man is not made for defeat.” Starks lost, but he was not defeated. LBJ, unfortunately, cannot say the same.