Would-be rivalries ruined by friendship
As it pertains to distressing comments from athletes, most people would cite Dwyane Wade’s recent remark comparing the media’s inevitable treatment of consecutive Heat losses to the bombing of the World Trade Center.
Can’t say I was shocked, certainly not by the prospect of yet another out-of-touch superstar. I mean, at this point I was half-waiting for Chris Bosh to chime in with a Holocaust reference.
Rather, what I found more disappointing than Wade’s quote was a comment from Alex Rodriguez at last week’s All-Star Game. When asked how the charitably-named midsummer classic had changed, he said: “You don’t have that intense, like, hate, the rivalry stuff. We all like each other. We know each other. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
A-Rod was merely being A-Rod, which is to say wearing an expression of great earnestness, trying very hard to please his inquisitors without really saying anything, or at least, anything objectionable.
To be sure, he’d said nothing odious or untrue. In fact, his point wasn’t even debatable. Everybody knew everybody; everybody was great friends. Star athletes have more in common with each other than they do with their managers and coaches, the fans and the media, even the ordinary players on their own teams. Theirs is a fraternity of the blessed.
Still, men of a certain age recall the All-Star Game’s defining moment as the 1970 collision between Pete Rose and catcher Ray Fosse at home plate. Rose scored the winning run; Fosse hobbled off with a separated shoulder. That seems a preposterously high price to pay for a game that didn’t count. What’s lost, however, is the disdain with which opposing players regarded each other.
“As far as I’m concerned, all I did is make Ray Fosse famous,” Rose can be heard saying on a YouTube video. “No one would’ve known who the hell he is.”
Just the sort of charming sentiments one has come to expect from the most hateful guy not in the Hall of Fame. Still, when it comes to team sports, I mourn the death of hate.
It affects more than just the All-Star Game. The Kumbaya-ness of the superstar classes is part of a larger, more insidious phenomenon.
And it brings me back to Wade, Bosh and their suddenly silent colleague, LeBron James, who is reportedly purchasing a $49.5 million estate previously owned by Heat president Pat Riley. Apparently, the players had been talking about this deal amongst themselves for at least three years. And while no one in his or her right mind would begrudge them their rights as free agents — or even the opportunity to, God help us, build their brands — there’s something unseemly about their fungible allegiances.
OK, Wade stayed where he was, and Bosh couldn’t win on his own. But James won two MVPs, played in six All-Star Games, two Eastern Conference finals, and one NBA championship round without ever acquiring an authentic rival. There was no team or player that he hated. And that’s too bad because, at some level, it means he just didn’t take it personally. It means all that stuff about winning for his hometown and embracing the burdens of stardom was counterfeit.
He hated losing, you say?
Not impressed. Hating Boston would’ve served him better, not to mention fans everywhere.
Said Michael Jordan: “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.”
I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jeff Van Gundy’s famously well-observed remark about Jordan, that he tricked players into believing they were his pals. “He really doesn’t care about them,” said Van Gundy, then coaching the Knicks. “He sucks them into thinking that he wants to see them develop … and it’s all a con.”
Just the same, it’s worth noting that Van Gundy served his apprenticeship under Riley, who preached against the evils of fraternization, who’d fine his own guys for helping opposing players to their feet. As he once told The Boston Herald: “I never, ever, in my whole career cultivated any kind of relationship with somebody I was going to have to compete with.”
That was then. Now Riley reaps a windfall from fraternization. It’s great for the Heat but not for basketball, and not for team sports in general. Leagues don’t hate each other anymore. Teams don’t hate each other. Traditional rivalries — the matrix that sustained generations of fans — are diminished.
Yes, there’s something to be said for the imperious, glory-seeking superstar (Bless you, Kobe Bryant, for you are nothing if not old school). Mad with ego, he observed no distinction between himself and his team. His successor is a more cautious creature. He wants merely to build his brand while minimizing his risk.
You shouldn’t have been so surprised that James left Cleveland. This has been building for years.
Guys like Deion Sanders, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Karl Malone and Brett Favre didn’t angle their way to former rivals until late in their careers. But it was A-Rod who pointed the way. He was in the prime of his career when he gladly relinquished his position — to Derek Jeter of all people — to ensure a trade to the Yankees. After all, it relieved him of the superstar’s burden. In the Age of Fraternization, no one should have to carry his own team.