Weekly Countdown: LeBron's decision could redefine greatness
LeBron James' move reveals desire to be more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan
Jordan's success, scoring created legacy players have tried to emulate but failed
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The biggest impact of LeBron James' move to Miami had nothing to do with his poorly planned TV show.
Is LeBron still The Man? This was the question being asked by people around the league who accused James of running away from his responsibilities as a franchise leader. Charles Barkley said he was "disappointed" that James chose to "piggyback" onto Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Magic general manager Otis Smith mocked James for preferring a lesser role with the Heat: "I thought he was more of a competitor. The great ones usually stay in one location."
"The most explosive part of this is that a great player left to go not do it on his own -- and in his prime years. When has that ever happened?" a Western Conference GM told me. "The reason we're hearing so many people react the way they have is because they feel like the sanctity of greatness in the NBA is tarnished.
"It's like one of those movies when the baseball player lets everybody down because he isn't the hero everybody thought he was and they show a kid crying because his hero isn't what he was supposed to be. We all thought LeBron was a leader, and now it's a letdown to think we were all wrong about him."
There are two parts to this story involving James. The first involves the way he announced his decision, for which I criticized him in Sports Illustrated this week. He hurt himself badly by putting the needs of the TV show ahead of his relationships with his hometown fans. The second -- and separate -- issue involves this question of being The Man and whether he couldn't stand the pressure of being that in Cleveland. I'm not sold on the idea that he wanted to be or needs to be The Man -- at least not in the way that others wanted him to be.
Michael Jordan ruined it for everybody. The biggest impact of Jordan's success in Chicago was his creation of The Man. Before he came along, that title --The Man -- didn't exist in an admirable way. As a matter of fact, if you had someone who saw himself as The Man on your team, you probably weren't going to win the championship.
In the 43 years before Jordan's title breakthrough in 1990, only once had a player ever led the league in scoring while leading his team to the championship. The only time it happened was in 1970-71 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who at that time went by his given name of Lew Alcindor) led the NBA with 31.7 points while carrying the Milwaukee Bucks to their only title. For more than four decades it was a golden rule in the NBA that the highest-scoring players weren't winners. The Celtics lead the NBA with 17 championships, and they've proudly never had a player who led the league in scoring.
In the pre-Jordan years, an NBA player could follow one of two roads: You could be like Wilt Chamberlain, whose scoring average ranged from 33.5 points to 50.4 points over his first seven seasons, but didn't win a championship until his scoring plummeted to 24.1 points as a 30-year-old with the 76ers in 1966-67; or you could be like Bill Russell, who averaged an unimpressive 15.1 points yet led the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons.
The best players couldn't have it both ways in those days. You were either selfish or selfless, either a prolific scorer or a team player. Even Abdul-Jabbar spent much of his career hearing complaints that he was -- apart from his lone breakthrough with the Bucks -- too self-indulgent to be a dominant winner.
Then along came Jordan to ruin everything. The Bulls won six titles and he was the NBA's No. 1 scorer for every one of those championship seasons. I always thought his legacy did a lot of harm to the NBA by setting an example that his descendants would try and fail to emulate. The NBA has spent the last decade-and-a-half searching for the next Michael Jordan, and it has been a colossally unsuccessful wild goose chase. He was one of a kind, the exception to the rule, and the NBA has made a huge mistake in attempting to hold other players accountable to Jordan's standard.
The confusing example of Jordan enabled Allen Iverson to think he could be a self-absorbed scorer and a champion simultaneously. It also enabled the whole Shaq-and-Kobe fiasco over who should be The Man. It made the NBA unpopular among traditional fans, who saw a generation of young players scoring selfishly in pursuit of salary and celebrity and all the while rationalizing it because, well, wasn't that how Jordan did it?
Through no fault of his own, Jordan was viewed by an entire misguided generation of players who drew the wrong conclusion from his success. They looked up to him and decided, "Greed is good."
Then along came LeBron ...
LeBron doesn't want to be Jordan. Hasn't this been obvious from the start? When I began hearing about James as a high school underclassman in Ohio, NBA scouts were saying he could have been the No. 1 pick as a 16-year-old sophomore because he was more of a playmaker than a scorer. Of course, he had all of the gifts for scoring, but so do a lot of prodigies in high school; what set apart James was his transcendent vision as a passer whose unselfishness elevated the performances of his less-talented teammates.
Following Cleveland's 79-76 loss to the Pistons in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern finals, James was second-guessed for passing to Donyell Marshall for a three-pointer (which he missed) instead of taking the ball to the basket himself. One of the arguments held against James was that Jordan would have taken it upon himself to score at the end of the game.
But what if James has never viewed himself as the second coming? What if he never wanted to be the next Jordan?
In this week's SI, I bring up the idea that maybe James wasn't running away from his responsibilities in Cleveland. Maybe instead he went to Miami because he wants to redefine himself on terms of his own choosing. Maybe his only crime against basketball is that he wants to be Magic instead of Michael -- which is no crime at all.
Wasn't Magic The Man? Of course he was. Magic Johnson played with Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, who were both prolific Hall of Fame scorers. I never heard anyone complain that Magic was reneging on his responsibilities as a superstar because he wasn't leading the Lakers in scoring, or because he was distributing the ball to his teammates when a big shot was needed.
I remember just the opposite: Magic and Larry Bird are lauded for saving the NBA because they were passers. The NBA had been known as a me-first league of selfish scorers who pursued their own numbers ahead of team goals. Magic and Larry were saviors because they had the ability to score, but they set aside the pursuit of stats because they wanted to win more than anything. They produced entertaining and beautiful basketball while contributing to something larger than themselves, and people loved them for that.
Jordan's inimitable style was the embodiment of the greedy 1990s -- if Ayn Rand had written about basketball, she would have invented the character of Michael Jordan. But Jordan's success had the unexpected consequence of warping the view of how basketball should be played. He created the standard that all great players should be The Man, and his influence ran deep -- so deep that among those criticizing James for passing up the last shot three years ago was none other than Magic himself.
A restoration of fundamental values? If LeBron reinvents himself as a more athletic version of Magic, and if the Heat win multiple championships while he's creating plays for Wade and Bosh to finish, is James going to be criticized for his move from Cleveland to Miami? Of course not. I believe he'll be celebrated for sacrificing his scoring numbers in order to take on a role that will ultimately be seen as reviving fluid team play and improving the standards of the NBA.
For those who believe James will never overcome the indignity of his televised announcement last week, just think about how unpopular Kobe Bryant was four years ago and how popular he is today. Everything turned around for him because he won championships. The same will happen for James.