Sunday, December 2, 2012

Defending "The Decision"


For LeBron James, the Summer of 2010 was supposed to be a coronation.  A front-page celebration of his unique talents and a chance to relive the excitement of the college recruiting chase he never had.  Instead, a career choice became a character-defining moment, and in the eyes of many, he came up short.

The “Decision” became a symbol for everything wrong with sports and basketball in general — entitled and narcissistic athletes unwilling to follow in the hard path the previous generation walked.   Instead of challenging Dwyane Wade for Eastern Conference superiority, he joined him.  It was something Michael Jordan never would have done.

Jordan’s story is modern myth, a classic coming-of-age story set in the world of sport, full of archetypal characters and moral lessons familiar to any reader of mythology.
The young hero proves the non-believers (the coach who cut him in high school, the team who passed him in the draft) wrong, becoming the best player in the world.  But before he can reach the ultimate goal (the NBA title), he has to defeat a ruthless challenger (the Bad Boy Pistons).  He doesn’t succeed until a wise older figure (Phil Jackson) teaches him to control his talent and trust his teammates (the Triangle offense).  Unseen forces drag him away at the height of of his powers (his first retirement), but he returns humbled after a period of self-reflection (his baseball excursion) to vanquish his challengers once more (the second three-peat).
But as Spike Lee tells the audience in this Air Jordan commercial, the story doesn’t end there.  The chosen one will one day return.  Jordan’s departure coincided with a dramatic decline in public interest in the sport, and the basketball community has spent the last fifteen years desperately searching for signs of his “return”.  No stone was left unturned — Nike and Adidas created the world of AAU basketball, reaching into middle schools  to find the next great pitchman.  Meanwhile the psyche and game of every young perimeter star was combed over with a fine tooth comb for similarities.
Various contenders were bandied about and dismissed.  Harold Minor wasn’t talented enough, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway couldn’t stay healthy, Allen Iverson wasn’t committed to the fundamentals, Vince Carter just didn’t want “it” bad enough.  Dwyane Wade emerged for a brief moment in a memorable (though whistle-stained) run to the 2006 Finals, but his team regressed to mediocrity almost as soon as it appeared.
Kobe, with a similar frame and an eerily similar game, was the obvious choice to continue Jordan’s legacy.  But he seemed too calculating and almost too eager to please, never able to match Jordan’s charisma while marred by a running feud with Shaq and a criminal charge in Denver.  His first three championships, where he played off of a dominant center, were seen as tainted, and not as worthy as Jordan’s, whose best center was Bill Cartwright.
Enter LeBron, the self-proclaimed Chosen One.  A young man whose long-suffering home-town team won a lottery for the right to select him and redeem fifty years of sports misery.  An unreal 6’9 250 pound tank of an athlete, simultaneously the most skilled and athletic player in the league.  His 10-story mural was quickly unfurled over the the Cleveland arena; he was someone who could not just become Jordan but possibly transcend him.
His first few playoff defeats were shrugged off; after all even Jordan needed seven years to win a championship.  But the last two years, with the Cavaliers putting a championship-caliber team around him, were supposed to be different.   The entire league geared up for a showdown between Kobe and LeBron in the Finals, between the winners of the last three MVP’s and the two most legitimate claimants to the throne.  A non-existent rivalry was manufactured, replete with shoe commercials, puppets and Vitamin Water.  But basketball, in the form of the Celtics and the Magic, overwhelmed narrative.
This summer, LeBron had several different avenues to pursue Jordan’s legacy in free agency: finish what he started in Cleveland, play alongside a talented young supporting cast in Chicago or start over and bring a championship back to New York.   When he signed with the Heat, he wasn’t just choosing with Miami, he was turning his back on a search that had consumed basketball for a generation.
Now that he is playing with another superstar perimeter player who needs as many shots and touches as he does, LeBron won’t be winning any more scoring titles.  A Heat title won’t just be his alone, it will be “shared” with Wade.   LeBron might have been able to match Jordan’s titles in New York or Chicago or Cleveland, but now we will never know.
That’s where the overwhelming anger (outside of Cleveland) comes from.  It’s the sad anger of Obi-Wan Kenobi yelling at the charred corpse of what would become Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III: “you were supposed to be the chosen one, to destroy the Sith, not become one.”
Yet this quest to find the “next Jordan”, for every basketball star to maximize their individual gifts, is an inherently selfish one.  Maybe LeBron didn’t want to spend his entire career consumed  by someone else’s shadow and playing for a spot in some variation of Bill Simmons’ HOF Pyramid.  Maybe he just wanted to win a lot of basketball games in the next few years.
“The Decision” was a subjugation of individual talent for the good of a team; all three (Bosh, Wade and LeBron) even took less money to play there.  How did these become bad things?
The Jordan myth, while great for Jordan, was never great for the game.  It broke up many young duos — from Kobe and Shaq to KG and Marbury.   It turned the NBA from a sport dominated by teams and rivalries (the Lakers vs. the Celtics, the Bulls vs. the Pistons) into one of individual players.
The three best players on the Miami Heat will sacrifice their statistics in order to win.  Their games will lead Sportscenter every night and arenas across the country will sell out to watch them play.  These are fundamentally good things or the game of basketball.
By creating his own legacy instead of trying to recreate Jordan’s, LeBron really might be the Chosen One after all, offering a new and more selfless path towards greatness for the next generation.

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