Fans of greatness are blessed to be living and breathing in the most golden era of competitive sports.
Tennis has moved seamlessly from all time great Pete Sampras to the even greater Federer, Nadal and Djokovic troika. Football fans are mesmerized by Leo Messi and his merry band of Barcelona buddies. Petrol heads enjoy watching six – repeat six – world champions vying for the F1 crown. Usain Bolt’s giraffe like strides have carried him into the record books. Black Caviar continues to defy the glue factory with her winning ways. Michael Phelps’ gold stash puts Fort Knox to shame, Tiger Woods counts more Masters and mistresses than most people across ten lifetimes, and in women’s tennis…well the less said about women’s tennis the better.
We are surrounded by greatness. Good times for sports fans.
And then there is the enigma that is LeBron James.
Not only is James the most dominant basketball player in the NBA, he’s arguably the most impressive athletic specimen on the planet. Measuring 6 ft 8 inches (2.03m) and 250 pounds (113 kg), James is the perfect combination of size, power, quickness, agility, athleticism and IQ. It’s like scientists at CERN genetically developed an uber-baller using the DNA of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson together with leftover nuclear waste from Chernobyl and the pills East German ‘women’ were taking in the 1970’s. Or if you’re mythologically inclined, like Zeus descended from Mount Olympus and stole seven minutes in the closet with Steffi Graf while Andre Agassi was busy shaving his head.
Seriously, there is absolutely nothing LBJ can’t do on a basketball court. And not only can he do it all, when he turns it on its f#cking awesome to watch. Anyone who saw his recent 45 point, 15 rebound, 5 assist outing against Boston in the playoffs will know what I’m talking about. It’s like watching a grown man play with kids (not that way you filthy buggers). He’s that dominant.
Then why does he polarise opinion so much? It can’t just be ‘The Decision’, when James decided to pack his bags and move from Cleveland to take his ‘talents to South Beach’ and play for Miami. I know it was a real wankfest but come on...you’d choose Cleveland over Miami? Send a Wookie to the States, give him the same option and I guarantee the fur ball picks Miami eleven times out of ten.
It’s winning. It’s dominating. It’s the ability to turn it on when the team needs him most.
Most pro-golfers can chip in from the bunker, but Tiger does it on the 18th when he needs a birdie for the win. Need pole position with one lap to go in qualifying? Ayrton Senna says ‘no problem’ (or ‘não há problema’) and scorches out the fastest time. When Pistol Pete is down break point on his second serve he launches a 200km plus ace OUT WIDE! After being crushed in a bear hug by Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan kicks out of the pin, body slams the big fella and launches into the atomic leg drop. Legends, all at the peak of their powers, performing when it matters most.
And then there is the enigma that is LeBron James.
LeBron haters hammer him for deferring to his teammates and not taking the big shot in crunch time. On the flip side LeBron lovers will tell you it’s a team game, and LeBron is one of many in a long list of NBA greats who haven’t always taken the last shot. Magic is celebrated more for his assists than his points. Bird’s passing abilities were contagious in Boston. Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, Kobe...well not Kobe...have all found ways to make plays for their teammates in big games. Even Jordan famously passed out to John Paxson and Steve Kerr – two goofy white guys – for championship winning shots.
But the key is they made plays. There were at their absolute most aggressive, most dominant, in the final seconds of big games. It doesn’t always work out. They don’t always win. As many game winning plays as Jordan, Magic and Bird have made, I guarantee collectively they’ve screwed up a bunch more. But they stayed aggressive. They made plays. I can assure you that Michael Jordan has never spent a 6 to 8 minute stretch in the fourth quarter of a playoff game hanging by the baseline while a teammate ran the point.
And this is the frustration with LeBron. He excels at everything, but he seems to be missing that gene, that extra chromosome, that Hulk mutation, that ensures that come winning time, he morphs into a big green monster and takes over, playing a major part in which way the script unfolds.
Sports fans love making comparisons between players past and present. Is LeBron like Mike? Does his cerebral passing game make him more like Magic? He’s built like the Mailman and is a triple double threat like the Big O.
For mine there is one player who LeBron reminds me of more than any other. A player who could shoot the three (albeit inconsistently) and loved setting up teammates. A player who could rebound the ball, take the ball down the floor and launch a vicious dunk on a hapless opponent. A player who relished the chance to lock down his opposite number, and redefined his position with his all round abilities.
Before you spit out your hazelnut latte and begin furiously typing a response starting with ‘Dear Mr. D#ckhead...” hear me out.
I’m not saying LeBron is as good as Pippen. If that were the case I wouldn’t have written this piece and you wouldn’t be wasting valuable work time reading it.
The problem is that LeBron is wired like Scottie, but his natural abilities make him so much better than everyone else.
Pippen was more than capable of carrying a team, and has had some ridiculous stat lines to prove it, but he was always at his best doing everything to impact a game. Score, defend, assist and rebound, whilst letting Jordan make those game deciding plays.
Unfortunately for LeBron he’s like Pippen 2.0, or the Pippen T-1000. His natural instinct is to play the Pippen role, but he’s so much more dominant than every other player on the court that we want him to do more. We want him to brutalise his opponents every night. Not because we’re blood thirsty Roman hordes in the Coliseum begging for Christian blood. But for the same reason a dog licks his balls.