Why do so many people hate greatness?
Hey, would you look at that? A new post. After writing myself silly for a month during the World Cup, I took a few weeks off from writing so I could do things like ride my bike occasionally, see my kids, and go back to taking regular showers. Well 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. I’ll let you guess which one of those things didn’t happen (here’s a hint – I smell as fresh and clean as fresh cut grass on a summer’s day.)
During that time, unless you were living under a rock, you probably heard the news about LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland, even if you do not normally follow the sports news. Despite all of my profuse pimping out of soccer lately, my first and best sporting love has always been basketball. It was the sport I played first, played competitively the longest and with the highest skill, and is one of the few that I retain some modicum of skill at these days. (For example unlike say, David Ortiz, my ability to hit a baseball very, very far did not drastically improve after the age of 32. *Cough* suspicious *Cough*)
Basketball and soccer, when played well and at a high level, have a lot of similarities, namely the importance of fluidity, motion, and vision. The greats see the game steps ahead of their opponents and even their teammates, allowing them to anticipate where an opposing defense is vulnerable and attack those vulnerabilities. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had that kind of vision, as do Andre Pirlo and Lionel Messi. It’s a rare gift, one that even some of the greatest players lack. Kobe Bryant is a great player by any definition, but I’m not sure you’d ever call him a great team player, and given the choice there are other players of lesser skill that I’d rather watch. I enjoy team greatness, including the Spurs near flawless performance in the Finals last year. (Spoiler alert, it’s why I pretty much can’t stand college basketball these days. The talent level is abysmal and the great players don’t stay long enough to develop any chemistry.)
All of this brings me back to LeBron. He’s one of the most singularly gifted athletes I’ve ever seen, and most certainly possesses the kind of gifts I’ve been describing. Possesses them in abundance, even, and does so inside the body of a power forward. He is an elite defender at four positions, and is more then competent and strong enough to guard the center position as needed. At 6’9″ and 270 pounds (though not anymore apparently) he was the primary ball handler for the Heat for four seasons and is such a sublime passer that perimeter shooters line up to take multimillion dollar pay cuts to play with him, knowing that he will find them in open spots. He can score the ball from perimeter, has a more than respectable intermediate range jump shot, can dominate the post when he chooses to, take bigger defenders off the dribble with ridiculous ease, finish at the rim with contact, and is practically unstoppable on a fast break. Oh yeah, he’s one of the most efficient scorers in history under 7′ tall and is an above average rebounder who if he tried to could likely average double figures in that category without much thought. He is the closest thing to a perfect basketball player as has every been created.
So I just have one question: Why do so many people seem to hate the guy?
Usually people point to the “decision,” where he announced that on national TV that he was leaving Cleveland and “taking his talents to South Beach,” which was an admittedly douche-y way to go about things. I won’t argue that, but he did manage to raise a boatload of cash for the Boys and Girls Club in the process, as well as giving the world one of the great all-purpose euphemisms of all time. (Think about it. The next time you are late for an appointment or event and somebody asks you what you were doing, just say “Oh, I was taking my talents to South Beach” and leave it at that. Then watch the looks you will get. Totally worth it.) And, on the scale of bad behavior for professional athletes, making a bad decision about how to announce your free agency choice is pretty tame. It’s pretty tame even for a nun or children’s entertainer when you stop and think about it. Let’s have some perspective, shall we?
Anyway, any complaint about abandoning his home state of Ohio and how he handled his business then has to completely wiped out by the manner in which he announced his return. Seriously, read this letter and try to find something wrong: it’s passionate, mature, heartfelt, determined, and full of joy at the prospect of bringing something great to the people of Cleveland (well, as great as a sports championship can be). First time I read it, I was almost ready to move to Cleveland, and I can say without hesitation that the worst year of my life was spent living in the state of Ohio and I vowed to never, ever go back.
What makes the news of LeBron’s return even more enticing is the seemingly inevitable prospect that Kevin Love will be joining him shortly in Cleveland. Not since Larry Bird briefly teamed with Bill Walton have two such skilled passers and perfect complimentary pieces teamed together, and I’m completely giddy at the prospect since both LeBron and Love are in their primes, whereas Walton was a shell of himself by ’86 due to injury and the two could only show brief glimpses of the potential of their partnership. Love gives LeBron a legitimate post threat, insatiable rebounder, and one of the great outlet passers ever to play the game, allowing LeBron to play his natural position on the wing, where he can overpower or shoot/pass over smaller defenders, blow past bigger ones, dominate the passing lanes, get out on the receiving end of one of those Love outlet passes on the break, and just create general chaos and mayhem for opponents at both ends. Oh, did I mention Love shoots nearly 40% from 3-point range? Don’t think you won’t see this scenario below about 1000 times next year:
Love grabs a defensive rebound in traffic and immediately fires a perfect outlet pass, hitting LeBron in stride at half court. LeBron drives towards the basket and draws multiple defenders to him, while the others scrambling to cover Mike Miller spotting up in the opposite corner and Kyrie Irving, who is streaking toward the basket. LeBron stops, fakes to the cutting Irving, and swings the ball back to the top of the key to the trailing Love, who takes and makes the wide open 3-pointer.
No, is Cleveland going to be a truly great team? I don’t know. Irving will definitely have to adjust to playing off the ball more and Cleveland will need to find at least another defensive stopper not named LeBron. (Shawn Marion would be a good start.) Regardless though, the team will be immensely fun to watch, have a great mix of young and veteran players, and constitute the most talented team and one best-suited to his talents that LeBron has ever played with before, the Heat championship teams included.
So, do yourself a favor. Stop worrying about how much publicity he gets, or who he plays with or doesn’t (I don’t remember anybody complaining about the Lakers having Magic and Kareem and Worthy and the Celtics getting Bird and McHale and DJ or the Sixers having Dr. J and Moses and Mo Cheeks on the same teams back in the day. Negotiating the NBA’s rules to create cap the cap space and stockpile tradable assets needed to sign players – at the critical moments when those players are available, this is key – is every much as legitimate and skillful as developing a team through the draft. Cut to Knicks fans, nodding). Just watch the games, enjoy the skill set, and learn to recognize and appreciate true greatness when you see it.