I’ve always been intrigued by LeBron James as a basketball player. Whether you approve of his off-the-court activities or not (and, right now, I’d have to say I’m in the category of people that don’t), he is a fascinating mix of physical abilities. He has the size of Karl Malone, the court-vision of Magic Johnson, and the athletic prowess of Michael Jordan. It was always my contention that James was in Cleveland he should have won the NBA’s M.V.P. award ever year, because there was no way that team could have ever won anything without him there.
If ever my opinion was in evidence, it was during the Miami Heat’s thrashing of the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers this past Thursday night. Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao… These were the guys that were supposed to help LeBron bring a title to Cleveland? I knew James would bolt last season when the team’s big move was to acquire an old, overweight, and past-his-prime Shaq to clog up the lane for them. You could almost hear the countdown clock ticking.
So now James has “taken his talents to South Beach” and aligned himself with two other superstars – Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh – in the hopes of securing NBA glory and establishing his legacy. I remember thinking when James announced “the decision” during the off-season that it was a brilliant move … but probably not in the way most people did.
Even though every sports analyst, beat reporter, and NBA product merchandiser wants to crown James the next “greatest basketball player ever,” he just doesn’t seem to have the right makeup for me. Without a doubt, Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player ever. And, as we’re all slowly learning more and more every year that he’s away from the game, he was also freakin’ nuts. He gambled on everything he could put a wager on, pushed his teammates like an Iditarod sled driver, and, lest we forget, momentarily thought he could play baseball for the Chicago White Sox.
Beyond that, though, he was ruthless. You knew that no matter who else was on the floor, MJ was going to get his points. He hung 63 on the Celtics before Scottie Pippen ever even put on a Chicago Bulls uniform. He never won a title, though, until after Pippen arrived on the scene, and the name “Scottie Pippen” eventually became synonymous with talented people willing to play second banana to really talented people for the good of the team.
Now, if you’ll think back to Thursday night, some numbskull Cleveland fans decided to shower LeBron with taunts of Pippen’s name during the game, in hopes of implying that James would always be nothing more than a supporting player to other players who could actually win championships (i.e. Dwayne “I got to shoot 1,000 free throws against the Mavericks in the Finals one year” Wade). The chant was incredibly misguided in its intentions – I mean, Pippen won six NBA titles alongside Jordan – but it wasn’t necessarily that far off of what I perceive as reality.
LeBron James isn’t Michael Jordan; he’s Scottie Pippen.
Think about it for a moment. What did Scottie Pippen contribute while he was on the court? He set up his teammates with great passing (5.2 assists per game for his career); he rebounded well out of the small forward position (6.4 per game); and his sheer athleticism wreaked havoc on other teams offensive and defensive schemes (You never really heard the words “point forward” until Pippen came along.). He was a decent shooter, with around a 47 percent field goal percentage mark for his career, but probably not remembered as one of the great scorers in NBA history.
This, I contend, is what LeBron James could be in Miami. Play Scottie Pippen, let Dwayne Wade be Michael Jordan and rack up the points, and let Bosh play the Horace Grant role. Simple. Start making up the rings now.
Only one problem, though: King James can’t play the second fiddle.
I don’t think this can entirely be blamed on LeBron. I mean, this was someone who was told from the time he hit high school that he could be the greatest basketball player ever, and the greatest basketball player ever does not average 16 points and five assists per game. Even if James became an assist king, scoring and making the big shots is what most people tend to remember about a player. And then there’s the endorsement factor. Ever remember Pippen hawking Hanes T-shirts? Didn’t think so.
In the world of LeBron James, there’s only room for the Man, not that guy who helped the Man be great. To be fair, that’s probably how it is in most of our worlds right now. In fact, if you’re like me, there’s even a certain amount of pride in being recognized as the second banana. I remember when I worked at the newspaper, I used to fill in for the editor when he had to be out. I may not have wanted to be the editor, but I took great satisfaction in knowing that I was the second-in-command. It was like being the Man, but you didn’t have to be him all the time.
The sad thing I see in all of this is that if we all want to be the Man (Sheesh, I’m tired of italicizing that already…), who’s that going to leave to be the supporting cast? There are people out there every day with less than glamorous jobs who keep the world turning, and those people are happy and thankful to be doing what they’re doing. Everyone probably wants something better, but where do you set the bar for what’s the best for you? Is it the chief custodian … or the CEO’s chair?
You may remember, Pippen got his shot at being the Man the year after Jordan
went into hiding over gambling debts retired from basketball the first time around in 1993 to go give baseball a try. Pippen had a spectacular season and led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks. In Game 3 of that series, score tied 102-102, Pippen wanted the last shot. Coach Phil Jackson drew up the final play for Toni Kukoc, with Pippen to inbound the ball. Kukoc hit the winning shot while Pippen sulked on the bench, and the Bulls went on to lose the series.
In that moment, Scottie Pippen couldn’t allow himself to be that other guy, the one who sets up someone else for greatness. And it’s in this moment, today, LeBron James is having trouble to adapting to the fact that maybe – just maybe – scaling things back might be the best way to win a championship. And it’s why I – someone who’s never really considered myself to be the best at anything – never feel like it’s enough just to contribute the little things every day.
I’ve conducted a vast majority of my life under the guise of humility when, in reality, I was ticked off that I wasn’t getting the breaks I felt I deserved. In most cases, I could probably examine the situation now and realize that I was being placed in a role of support because that was what would serve the situation the best. Going through those times, though, I felt slighted, cheated, overlooked. I wanted to quit. On a lot of days now, I still do.
For some of us, it’s about realizing that talent we have and adjusting it to those around us. For others, it’s about realizing we’re that guy, the one who might never sink that winning shot, but might get to take that key charge in the second quarter. In either case, we need to learn it’s enough.