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LeBron the next Jordan? How about Wilt?
For years, the world has called LeBron James many things: The Chosen One. The King. The next Michael Jordan. A glorious hybrid of His Airness and Magic.
But about 80 minutes before the Heat beat the 76ers 99-90 in an uninspired effort Friday, young King James said something that conjured a wholly different, less-flattering and increasingly possible comparison:
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That James, with his transcendent talent and unique inability to give his team what it needs, actually could become the next Wilt Chamberlain.
All this struck home with Philadelphia in town, with its 3-12 record (before Friday’s loss) and the ghost of Chamberlain, its Chosen One, haunting what it once was and what it is today.
And then that quote, the one that followed the question about whether LeBron and Dwyane Wade need to change their games.
“No, I can’t change my game dramatically and I don’t think he can either,” LeBron said. “It doesn’t make any sense to do that. I’m not going to.” He paused. “I’d just be a role player at that point.”
Among those in the know, there are whispers about LeBron. That pressure cripples him just as surely as it brings out the best in Kobe and, before Kobe, Jordan and Bird.
That LeBron, despite his protestations, loves his stats. So much so that when a triple-double is on the line, he will shift to whatever mode he must to reach it — be it that of the rebounder, the passer or the scorer.
That he rests on his awards and his numbers with an uneasy insouciance because there is no championship to give him the calm dignity of a Jordan, Russell, Magic or Bird.
It is true LeBron has a long career ahead of him. There are many years for him to right the ship and set a course to be more like those men.
He might well, in time, learn that he must change his game (as Magic did in developing his play in the paint, as Jordan did with his defense) in order to be counted in their company.
But based on LeBron’s own comments Friday about not changing — despite the need for it so clearly illustrated in the Heat’s early struggles — it doesn’t seem that’ll happen any time soon.
If it doesn’t, that could leave him as the heir-apparent to Wilt, not Mike.
Wilt, like LeBron, was a once-in-a-generation talent. And, because he so misused that talent, a once-in-a-generation man of missed opportunities.
Chamberlain was a four-time MVP. A 13-time All-Star. A seven-time scoring champion and a 13-time rebounding champion. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game during the 1961-62 season.
I mean, wow.
And yet he won only two championships, with many, many more opportunities sliding off a 7-1 frame filled with immense talent but not the mettle to handle such moments.
During a stretch in which there were no more than 17 teams.
LeBron does not want to be the next Wilt Chamberlain.
Which means he better get to it.
Wilt’s first championship came in his eighth season with the Philadelphia Warriors.
This, too, happens to be LeBron’s eighth season.
In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, correctly takes on the myth that, but for a little luck or a few key plays, Wilt would have won nearly as many championships (11) as his nemesis, Bill Russell.
As The Sports Guy writes, the difference actually came down to one thing: The man was not a winner.
“He just didn't get it,” The Sports Guy wrote. “Wilt never understood how to win; if anything losing fit his personality better.”
As Simmons notes, NBA greats devoted parts of their memoirs to explaining the gulf between Wilt's ability and Wilt’s success. Simmons himself devotes many pages of his book to this fact.
Years from now, in a later edition perhaps, The Sports Guy might well tackle a similar theme in assessing LeBron’s career.
Because LeBron’s comment that he shouldn’t change — that changing would somehow make him a role player — brings into sharp relief how different he is than Jordan, Magic, Bird and similar basketball luminaries.
A spoof of LeBron’s “What Should I Do?” commercial hit the web today, this one with a Michael Jordan bent.
But there’s wisdom there, too, in the fake ad. Words LeBron would be well to hear.
Words Wilt, in his time, would have been well to hear too.
“Maybe it’s my own fault,” Fake Jordan intones. “Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t. Maybe I made you think my highlights started at the free-throw line and not in the gym…
“Maybe I made you think every shot I took was a game winner … That my game was built on flash and not fire…
“Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength, that my pain was my motivation … Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something to work for.”
A shame Fake Jordan didn’t throw in: “Maybe I led you to believe the gaudiness of stats and awards somehow trumped the beautiful brutality of what it takes to be a champion.”
Both LeBron and Wilt had an unfortunate ease with how they rationalized away their own failures, carrying themselves in down times as if they weren’t in fact the greatest players on their teams, let alone the league (Remember LeBron saying last year he spoiled everyone with his play?).
In Simmons’ book, he writes forcefully about how Chamberlain allowed his gaudy numbers to be a balm for his lack of bling.
The only accomplishments that must matter — at least to the rare player who enters the discussion of greatest of all time — are championships.
Those many banners that hang from rafters in Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston signify more than winning.
They are, particularly in the cases of back-to-back-to-back champions, markers of a time and place where incredible talent, willpower and heart merged to create something beautiful.
For Chamberlain, this kind of accomplishment happened too infrequently.
For LeBron, it has not happened at all.
LeBron, in Miami now and Cleveland in the past, has struggled to win at key times for the same reasons Chamberlain did: A love of stats over a higher glory. A tendency to let pressure take away his skill rather than enhance it. A selfishness that has meant a lifetime not developing a much-needed post game. A cluelessness that led him to say changing his game would make him a “role player.”
In the “Book of Basketball,” The Sports Guy quotes Chuck Klosterman, another deep basketball thinker.
Here, Klosterman writes about Wilt. But close your eyes and listen to the words and try to tell me LeBron doesn’t instantly spring to mind.
That LeBron, if he does not course-correct by doing the hard things and embracing the selfless ones, isn’t dangerously on his way to becoming Wilt Chamberlain.
“Wilt Chamberlain is the archetype of a tragic figure — widely criticized, universally unappreciated, self-destructive coach-killer who happens to be the greatest tangible basketball player of all time,” Klosterman writes.
LeBron has already killed two coaches, Paul Silas and Mike Brown. Erik Spoelstra is most certainly in the hospital right now, with no guarantees LeBron won’t finish him off soon.
The King and the Man Who Scored 100 Points also shared a deep and consequential lack of self-awareness.
LeBron is unable to help himself because he keeps trying to convince himself he needs no help — not on the court (Changing makes me a role player), not with the public (What should I do?), not in his interactions with his coaches (too many minutes!), not with grasping the reality of what it takes to rise above pressure and obstacles (We just need to have fun).
Wilt's lack of self-awareness unwittingly made him a punch line after he bragged about sleeping with 20,000 women. Plus, he was one of the few high-profile African-American athletes in the 1960s to play no role — to say the least — in the civil-rights movement.
On Friday, after the Heat’s win lifted this collection of stunning talent to a meager 9-7 record, the greatest tangible basketball player of this era walked to the microphone while humming a tune.
This Philadelphia team was just the kind of team Chamberlain would have feasted on and, like Wilt, LeBron racked up his numbers: 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists.
Yet all game a passion — a winner’s killer instinct — had been missing. LeBron, sitting at the podium, taciturn, gave off a clear vibe he knew it.
“Guys,” LeBron said, an excuse on his lips, “just get up to play us. Every time they are going against us, somebody has a season high. Jodie Meeks was a season high at halftime. You just have to treat everybody like they are all stars because everybody plays up … even higher than their abilities on the court.”
Yes, the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain seemed all too present.
Perhaps Pat Riley himself has considered this analogy as well, since he played with Wilt on one championship team and is now banking on LeBron to deliver another.
If so, one wonders if Riley has a plan — for himself or Spoelstra — designed to steer LeBron’s legacy toward a better ending than the one Wilt ended his own career with.
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