There’s more to winning than scoring
LeBron James did not set up the false narrative that Michael Jordan is the greatest winner in basketball history.
We, the media, did that.
Before the NBA turned overwhelmingly black, there was a different standard for winning and excellence in professional basketball.
Bill Russell, with his defense, facilitating and willingness to do whatever was necessary in the moment, sat on the throne.
When the game was about team more than individual, Russell was the gold standard. When the game became about individual more than team, Jordan ascended to the top without ever surpassing Russell’s record of on-court accomplishment or off-court importance.
There are those in the media who want to villain-ize LeBron James for realizing he is more No. 6 than 23, more Russell than Jordan.
Sunday night, in the aftermath of the Heat seizing control of the NBA Finals, a Skip Bayless imitator began the negative spin on James inching closer to a title. With ESPN cameras hovering and the TV drug dangling, the Bayless clone asked James if he was “shrinking” under fourth-quarter Finals pressure.
To his credit, James handled the question quite well, particularly considering there was no reason to anticipate it. On Monday, James demonstrated a deeper understanding of his plight.
“Even though I know I get a lot of the headlines, bad headlines,” he said. “D-Wade gets a lot of the great headlines. C.B. gets a few headlines. This is a team game. We understand as a team we have to play together to win. It’s not just about me.”
There are those in the media — led by Bayless, who is ESPN’s version of Glenn Beck — who want LeBron James to be an idiot. They’d prefer James channel Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco and live up to preconceived stereotypes about modern black athletes. The LeBron haters are trying to push James’ buttons by using Michael Jordan as the personification of everything that is right about basketball.
Jordan is not everything that is right. Bill Russell is.
There was a time Russell was celebrated and used as the standard for all basketball players to emulate. Magic Johnson was praised for his ability to facilitate teammates. Larry Bird was praised for his ability to elevate the play of his teammates.
Now, thanks to the Jordan narrative, a superstar is almost solely defined by his ability to score in the fourth quarter. Making the smart, humble play is worthy of derision and sneering questions.
Maybe it’s just the reality-TV era we live in. Maybe the phenomenon can’t be reduced to sports alone. Here in America, we’re living in a selfish, disconnected time. It’s every man for himself. That’s what we respect. That’s why, when we define winning, we put Jordan ahead of Russell despite an inferior resume.
We don’t want young people to try winning a different way. From some athletes, we prefer ignorance over intelligence.
For large stretches of this NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade is being guarded by Jason Kidd, Jason Terry or J.J. Barea. D-Wade has a considerable matchup advantage. The intelligent play for James is to facilitate and defer to Wade. The Heat lost Game 2 partially because in the final minutes they failed to exploit Wade’s advantage.
Common sense dictates James’ fourth-quarter behavior. His submission should be celebrated and trumpeted. His embrace of defense and playmaking for others speak to a high IQ, an understanding of his strengths and limitations. His bond with Wade should be used as a positive symbol for athletes and young people. The best leaders are willing to be led.
Maybe the James-Wade relationship won’t last. But I see no good reason for the media to plant seeds of discontent.
It’s like we hope James-Wade ends as turbulently as Shaq-Kobe.
How many titles would Shaq and Kobe have won if they had been able to get along?
Kobe chased Jordan’s legacy, not Russell’s.
We, the media, understand our power. We define success and failure. We can look at Russell’s approach in winning 11 titles and decide it was inferior to Jordan’s approach in winning six. We can focus on Jordan’s ability to serve Wall Street and decide it’s more important than Russell’s courage in serving the streets.
Is James shrinking?
Nowhere near as fast as the sports media. Skip Bayless is our leader.