Critics say he’s not tough enough. Clevelanders hate him because he left. They’re wrong.
To kick off the college basketball season, I wrote a piece about the danger of idolizing coaches. In honor of the NBA’s new season, I write about a topic that in many ways is the complete inverse, namely the issues involved in denigrating a player, specifically Lebron James.
I’m going to say it at the outset: Lebron James is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. Better than Michael Jordan, better than Magic Johnson, better than Larry Bird, the triumvirate that constitutes greatness in the age of David Stern’s global creation.
What’s more, he’s only getting better. Through the first 12 games of the season, Lebron shot 52% from the field, 44% from behind the 3-point line, and collected more than 9 rebounds per game while dishing out almost 7 assists and maintaining a better than 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. For every year but one that he’s been in the league, his field goal percentage was better than the year before, climbing from 42% in his rookie season to 53% last year. To put that in context, Kobe Bryant, the player to which Lebron James is most often compared, has never shot better than 50% from the field for an entire season. Last year, he shot only 43%.
Despite the glittering statistics, though, Lebron has been criticized for a host of apparent sins, including the now infamous Decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He has even been criticized for being too sensitive to the criticism.
One of the regular knocks against James was that he lacked a killer instinct, an instinct that Bryant supposedly has, as evidenced by his five NBA championship rings. Until winning one last year, James had failed to lead his team to championship glory, twice losing in the finals, first with the Cavaliers and then again during his first season with the Heat.
Lebron’s singular performance in game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, when, facing elimination after the Heat lost three consecutive games to the Boston Celtics, he made 19 of 26 shots en route to scoring 45 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, should lay that criticism to rest. I argue, however, that it was bullshit all along, grounded as it was in misconceptions about what it means to have a killer instinct and, more significantly, our society’s skewed reverence for capital.
I often flirt with painting the complex world in which we live in only the starkest moral shades. I like to believe that to do so is a human tendency, the need for a narrative that clearly distinguishes the good guys from the bad. But, I fear, I take the tendency beyond what is natural.
During the course of many years I’ve spent playing, coaching, and watching basketball, I’ve developed a theory, something akin to my grandmother’s old aphorism that if you show me who your friends are, I’ll show you who you are. Simply put, I believe how one plays basketball is a clear indication of who one is. People who shoot more than they pass tend to be selfish in life. People who shy away from physical contact on the court will tend to avoid confrontation off it. Though it may sound naive, and though I don’t have empirical data, I’ve collected enough anecdotal evidence to consider the supposition something more than a simple hypothesis.
Lebron James is a passer. Though at 6’8” he can, it seems at times, get to the rim at will, and though he’s worked hard to develop his jump shot (see, again, his 3-point field goal percentage so far this season), the skill and characteristic that stand out most to me are his ability and willingness to pass the basketball.
I differentiate between the skill or ability to pass the basketball, a mechanical process that involves, at its most basic, keeping your elbows out and hands on the sides of the ball, stepping to the target, extending your arms, and following through with your thumbs down to put back spin on the ball and, in that way, make it easier to catch, and the willingness to pass. The former can be taught to anyone willing to put the hours of practice into commiting it to muscle memory. Pete Maravich, who may have been the most purely skilled player ever to play the game, certainly knew how to pass; he just didn’t like to.
The latter, however, is an attitude that acknowledges teammates and understands, even if only instinctively, that it doesn’t matter how many points you yourself might score. It matters how many points your team scores relative to the opposing team and that, to achieve victory, everyone needs to be involved. In other words, they understand this basic question: Why would anyone bust their ass on defense if they were never going to touch the ball on offense?
Lebron understands. It’s one of the reasons he was able to lead an otherwise mediocre Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals. He made his teammates better. What makes his willingness to pass remarkable is that he entered the NBA with the tendency already ingrained. His first television commercial for Nike, with the late, truly great Bernie Mac, emphasized not his ability to dunk or shoot or score, but his court vision. What makes the 18-year old Lebron’s court vision all the more remarkable is that he developed it under what I can only imagine are circumstances in which he probably didn’t need to pass. For, if he is a man among boys in the NBA, he must have been a man among tots in high school, even playing competitive AAU ball.
But it is precisely his court vision, his willingness to share the basketball with his teammates, that so many commenters hold against him. When people praise Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct, and decry James’s lack of same, they are in essence praising Bryant for being a selfish player, which he is, and attacking James for being overly generous. Having the killer instinct doesn’t always mean taking the last shot. Having the killer instinct means wanting the ball in your hands to make the right decision about who should take the last shot, either you or, if a teammate is open in a better position, someone else. Though everyone remembers Michael Jordan’s shot to beat the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Championship, he gave the ball up to Steve Kerr in 1997 and John Paxson in 1993, both of whom made the championship winning shot in those series.
We should hardly be surprised, though, that selfishness is extolled on the basketball court any less than it is in any other sphere of life today. And this basic understanding brings me to the other reason, already alluded to, why people don’t like Lebron James: The Decision. I’m not going to defend the manner in which Lebron announced to the world that he would henceforth play for the Miami Heat. It was crass, as is almost everything ESPN does. But the decision, small d, was one well within his rights to make as a member of the NBA Players’ Association.
America is a capitalist society. Our form of capitalism has been, to date, the most successful economic system ever devised. It is also one, however, that distinguishes between capital and labor and, for much of our history, we have tended to prize the former over the latter, a tendency no less true today than it was a century ago when Progressives fought to curb our economic system’s worst excesses.
Despite earning millions of dollars to play a child’s game and millions more to hawk everything from sports drinks to sneakers, Lebron James is a member of labor. When the NBA owners locked the players out last year, Lebron sat out just as the 12th man on the league’s worst team did. When, as a free agent, he decided to exercise his rights under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, he did exactly what hundreds of players before him did and hundreds more after him will.
I feel for Cleveland’s residents. Like Detroit and so many other Rustbelt cities, Cleveland’s decline in the wake of manufacturing job losses has been so slow and steady as to seem inexorable. The city has lost nearly 60% of its population since its peak in 1950, when it was home to 914,000 people. Today, less than 400,000 call it home.
A successful sports franchise can help imbue a struggling city with civic pride. Unfortunately for Clevelanders, a successful franchise doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. The Browns have only 2 wins and the Indians finished in fourth place in the American League’s Central Division. Up until The Decision, their best hope rested on Lebron’s broad shoulders. Like so many other people, however, who once called Cleveland home, he decided to decamp to warmer climes. For that, people have chosen to villify him. What happens, though, when it is not just the best player who up and leaves, but the whole team?
Last spring, the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the NBA finals for the first time as the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was, however, not the first time the franchise did. In fact, the fanchise already owns an NBA championship, which it won by defeating the Washington Bullets in 1979. Back then, they were known by a slightly different name: the Seattle Supersonics.
The Sonics joined the NBA in 1967. They reached the NBA finals three times, in 1978 and 1996, as well as the championship year of 1979. The team’s roster, at various times, featured players like Lennie Wilkins, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Xavier McDaniel, Tom Chambers, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Ray Allen. In 2008, after being sold for $350 million to a group of Oklahoma City businessmen led by Clay Bennett, and then what might be charitably referred to as failing to extort hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for a new arena, the team moved to Oklahoma City.
If I were being less charitable, I would accuse Clay Bennett and his ownership group of armed robbery. For what they did with David Stern’s support was put a gun to Seattle’s head for $500 million and, when the city wouldn’t cough it up, take the team elsewhere.
With a core group of talented young players led by Kevin Durant, the 2011-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder were underdogs entering the finals against Miami’s collection of spoiled superstars, led by Lebron James. At least that was the convenient narrative most of the media covering the finals peddled, the Thunder playing David to the Heat’s Goliath.
But who, really, was David here and who Goliath? Are we to believe that Lebron James, a 27-year old, albeit wealthy basketball player and his teammates were Goliath, and the owner, Chairman of Dorchester Capital, a funder of hedge funds, whose net worth is $400 million and who has now owned not one but two different NBA franchises, David?
As David Zirin argued in The Nation in June, “. . . how we choose to see the Heat and Thunder is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test that reveals how the sports radio obsession with villainizing twenty-first-century athletes blinds us to the swelling number of villains who inhabit the owner’s box.”
Players like Lebron James are selfish villians for exercising free agency. Owners like Clay Bennett are capitalist heroes for outsourcing whole franchises.
What’s Lebron James to do? On the court he isn’t selfish enough to satisfy critics, but off the court he was too selfish for putting his own wishes above Cleveland’s collective psyche, a sin somehow magnitudes greater than the very same sin Clay Bennet committed when he ripped the Sonics out of Seattle.
These critical impulses would seem to be at odds with another, but, in fact, they aren’t. As a society today we lionize selfishness. We associate it with a host of other attributes: toughness, aggression, ambition, clear-sightedness, the ability to make the right decision, even if it’s unpopular. In our amoral economic system, selfishness is rewarded, often handsomely so. We honor the men and, less often, the women who reach those heights. One almost became our President.
At the same time, we pour disdain on the men and women who don’t achieve an analagous success, who, in contrast, comprise the labor force that our economic titans ostensibly manage. Lebron James’s mistake is, ironically, being a very-well paid member of the 47%. When I hear or read people criticizing Lebron for leaving Cleveland, even as they extoll or cheer for the Oklahoma City Thunder, I am reminded of the political pundits who attack underwater homeowners for taking mortgages they couldn’t afford, but remain mum when it comes to the billions of dollars in bailouts the federal government shovelled at the banks that were the originators of those loans.
As a society, we can’t have it both ways. If we believe that capitalism is the most efficient economic system, whose potential for creating wealth superpasses, and not by a small margin, any other, than we need to recognize and laud equally the amoral decisions capital and labor make within that system.
At the same time, we need to recognize that amoral economic decisions are not selfish, that selfishness is not an essential attribute for success in the board room any more than it is on a basketball court. Selfishness blinds and one can no more make effective strategic decisions in business when blind than one can see open teammates to pass the basketball.
Lebron James is an exquisite basketball player. As I wrote at the top, he is the best basketball player I have ever seen. Rather than carping at him for flaws he doesn’t have and sins he didn’t commit, we should, like Bernie Mac in that now almost decade-old commercial, praise his court vision and appreciate the clear-sighted decision he made in his career’s best interest.
Photo: Lebron James (Source: AP)