Tuesday, May 17, 2011

LeBron is Winning the Wrong Way

By Brad Oremland

The Bulls took Game 1. But in a couple of weeks, the Miami Heat will probably win an NBA championship. They planned it this way. This is what LeBron James' "Decision" was all about: winning a title. And I'm disgusted by the whole thing.

As I do with all the ills in sports, I blame ESPN. If we're just talking about James, I guess that's obvious, since ESPN was behind The Decision. But that network sold its soul a long time ago. The Decision was greasy, tainted, something disgusting to be associated with. Surely even the people who created it realized that their hearts would shrink three sizes that day. But I think ESPN and its like have gone wrong even where they believe they're doing the most right.

The idea has become popular that the only thing that matters in sports is winning. Some people even preach this philosophy to their kids, and those people should not be allowed to become parents. But nowhere is this notion more widespread than on television. We don't judge quarterbacks by whether or not they actually play well, but by whether or not their teams won. Trent Dilfer played a ghastly game in Super Bowl XXXV, but it's the highlight of his résumé, the reason he now has a broadcasting job at ... oh, whatever. Ben Roethlisberger is celebrated for Super Bowl XL (He's won two Super Bowls! He's better than Peyton Manning!), as if he didn't choke and get bailed out by his defense and running game. The same thing happens in every sport nowadays. All that matters is winning a championship.

This repulsive philosophy reached its zenith when LeBron orchestrated the opposite of the hometown discount. He left the Cleveland Cavaliers to take less money with the Heat, who looked poised to compete for a title. This is a gross misinterpretation of a once positive idea. I'm all for celebrating team accomplishments, and of course everyone wants to win. I think it's great to see a player put the team before himself. But LeBron did exactly the opposite. He put himself before the team: "I'm outta here, losers."

I understand the frustration of losing. I've played sports all my life, and my competitive drive borders on unhealthy. Losing sucks. But LeBron James is 26. He's a baby. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six NBA titles. Good things seldom come easy, and you have to be pretty spoiled to expect immediate success. In fact, MJ criticized James for finding his way to a championship team instead of working toward it: "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team' ... I was trying to beat those guys." Jordan rose in the face of adversity, while LeBron went with, "If you can't beat them, join them."

I'm picking on LeBron now, and that's been done to death already. This isn't just him. It's a whole culture that sees winning as more important than being great. Promoting selflessness and team play is laudable, but the TV people have confused winning with being a team player. Being on a successful team doesn't mean you're a good person. The endless drumbeat for team success also results in incredibly boring athlete interviews. Players can't answer a question honestly any more without being labeled as selfish.

"Would you rather win a championship or go to the Hall of Fame?" It's a common interview question, and almost everybody says championship. Otherwise, you're obviously not a team player. Right? I like to think a Hall of Famer would give his team a good chance at multiple championships. You're telling me you'd rather be a bench-warmer on a title team than a legend who never quite made it? That's some competitive drive you've got there, champ.

That's the difference, I think, between Jordan and James. M.J. wanted to be great. Early in his career, he tried to do too much by himself. In Jordan's first five seasons, the Bulls went 205-205. Rather than bolting Chicago for a better team, Jordan tried to make himself better and improve as a team player. Jordan, it seems to me, wanted more than anything to be the best. His drive for greatness propelled him to six NBA titles. LeBron is trying to do the whole thing backwards. You don't become great by winning, you win by being great. He is great, of course, one of the two or three best players in the league. But you don't admire this kind of winning.

“As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, as much as I loved home, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself ... this opportunity was once in a lifetime.” Ah, the opportunity to abandon your friends and your home in favor of somewhere the odds are better. What determination! What a warrior's spirit! What unparalleled drive to succeed ... by going somewhere it's easier to succeed. The goal is to lift your teammates to victory, not to go find a team that can win. That's the cheap, easy way to win a title. Winning championships is seen as the ultimate achievement because it means a player helped his team, played at a high level and made the guys around him better. We don't celebrate a guy just for being in the right place at the right time. Or at least, we didn't used to.

In a couple of weeks, the Miami Heat will probably win an NBA championship, and innumerable commentators, on ESPN and elsewhere, will snidely crow about how this vindicates The Decision and all the critics need to shut up now. It makes me sick to my stomach.

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