You can't get past the velvet rope into the VIP section of Club Stardom unless you show your championship ring. No exceptions. There is no talking your way in with scoring titles, no flashing your MVP awards at the bouncer. The first thing any star is told about the requirements of greatness is that validation comes with a championship, and not a moment before. If more than the first few years of his career pass without the ultimate victory, every so-called franchise player hears that damning question: What has he ever won?
Think about how the public's perception of so many stars changed for the better when they finally proved they could win it all: John Elway. Michael Jordan. Shaquille O'Neal. Alex Rodriguez. (O.K., maybe not A-Rod.) It's not surprising, then, that last week LeBron James jumped on what he considered to be the fastest-moving train toward a title, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the core of what they expect to be a superteam with the Miami Heat. The only titles James owns so far are the kind that are dreamed up, like King James and Chosen 1, and after seven years in the NBA without a championship, the adulation that marked his early career has given way to some mockery around the edges.
"Did you hear about the new LeBron James version of the iPhone?" begins one joke that's been making the rounds. "You have to keep it on vibrate because it has no rings." And there was this one: "LeBron is writing his autobiography. He's called it Untitled."
That's the way that stars who fall short tend to be treated these days—as punch lines. Every run at a title is seen as a referendum on their character, their leadership ability, their courage in the clutch, and the penalty for not passing the test is often derision. When a player of James's stature is beaten, it's rarely seen as a simple case of losing to a worthy opponent. It's a chance to load up and fire the heavy artillery: Overrated. Choker. Fraud.
You get the feeling that James just wanted to get out of the line of fire. He revealed himself to be many things during his trip through free agency—arrogant, narcissistic, insensitive—but don't forget desperate. There was a desperation to avoid being forever tagged a loser in a sports culture that offers only two possible labels for an elite athlete: champion or failure. It is telling that at age 25 he already heard the clock ticking. "I don't want to get to 31," he reportedly told friends, "with bad knees and no championship."
James probably felt he was making the safe play, ensuring that no one would again ask about him, What has he ever won? That just proves that he never really understood what that championship requirement was all about. That's partly his fault and partly ours—fans and media—so perhaps we need to make the message clearer: LeBron, hitching a ride to a title won't get you past that velvet rope. For an athlete of your ability, only getting behind the wheel and driving will suffice. You know that guy at the gym who tries to stack his team with the three or four best guys when choosing up sides for a pickup game? Hardly anybody likes that guy, LeBron. Now you're that guy.
But let's not pretend that we can't understand how James got the wrong impression about championships, how he got the idea that it's all about the destination, and that the journey—the struggles along the way that bring winners to tears when the goal is finally achieved—is irrelevant. We've become so demanding, so impatient for stars to win titles that it shouldn't be a total shock when someone like James tries to engineer a shortcut to one.
We're not completely logical about championships, using a team's accomplishment to measure an individual's worth. It's odd that in these days of advanced statistics that measure players' performances more precisely than ever, we fall back on such an oversimplified measure of greatness as the number of titles on a player's résumé. Championships are collective efforts, the result of an elusive mix of talent, desire, sacrifice, coaching and good fortune. It's hardly fair to crush any one player, even the supposed leader, when that mix isn't quite magical.
But that's the way the game is played now. The culture is more cynical, less forgiving of failure. The inability to go all the way brings avalanches of criticism. James was too weak to handle it, apparently, which is disappointing but not altogether surprising. Bash him if you like for the graceless way he left his hometown fans. He deserves that. But remember that his need to grab at a title by any means necessary didn't all come from inside.
If James wins a championship in Miami, he might find that it doesn't feel as sweet as it would have in Cleveland. Perhaps he'll realize that helping a stacked squad to an almost inevitable title isn't as satisfying as leading a team to a championship that couldn't possibly have been won without him. Maybe he'll be a little wiser about what a title means and what it doesn't. He'll have time to think about all of it, as he finds himself still standing outside that velvet rope.