NBA: Super Teams vs Superstars

Last night, I watched a basketball game between the Heat and the Spurs. It was a thriller but the moment that stood out the most for me came after the game.  A sportscaster was interviewing LeBron, and I forget what he asked, but LeBron responded with: “I just want to thank my teammates for letting me be their leader and make plays for them.”

Wow!

It felt like a throwback to an earlier age. I started watching basketball in the mid-seventies, one of basketball’s golden eras, Those were the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton and Dr. J, of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Back then, fans thought in terms of whole teams. Every few years, the Lakers would go head-to-head with Boston in the finals, and even though one team had Magic and the other had Bird, no one thought of it as Magic versus Bird. We were watching two teams with very different styles, fascinated to see which combination of players was going to come out on top. The Lakers had that knife like quality, they could cut through anything; the Celtics had that anaconda quality, slowly squeezing the life out of their opponents. The Lakers played basketball like Bobby Fischer played chess. The Celtics were like Emanuel Lasker. And I could go on in the same vein about the other great teams of those times: the Pistons of the Bruise Brothers days, Walton’s Trailblazers in that one glory year, the Philadelphia 76ers with that pressure defense of theirs–I still remember how they could force turnovers when the other team was inbounding the ball under their own basket…

Don’t tell me the players on those teams weren’t some of the greatest ever; yet somehow they were all “role players” too.   Kareem didn’t do everything: he was a center. Kevin McHale never “took over a game”. He was a power forward–and incredible one. He played his role.

But along with the whole-team quality of the game in those times, what stands out for me in retrospect is the dignity of the top players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar— unstoppable force on the floor, restrained and quiet in interviews: to me he came off as thoughtful and articulate, and he proves it still—just take a look at the op-ed he wrote recently about the Donald Sterling affair. And I smile even now thinking about Magic: to me, the top player of his day, and one of the all-timers for sure, but what he radiated on court with his puppy-like enthusiasm was pure joy, not ego.

That all ended with Michael Jordan. When he came along, basketball abruptly entered a new and less savory era. Yeah, yeah, Jordan was a masterful player. Sure, sure, he might have been the most dominant individual athlete ever to play the game—but did he have to refer to the rest of his team as “my supporting cast?” I’ll put it bluntly: for me, Jordan’s arrogance made him hard to like. And his particular kind of greatness made his Bulls unpleasant to watch —unpleasant because everything in their games was organized around getting Michael his shot. And then, when he got it–when he made yet another off-balance left-handed, twisting, impossible bucket at the buzzer, the world went dark and there was only one spotlight in the middle of which stood Jordan, alone: everyone else on his team had receded to insignificance. Their only value had been to enable Jordan to bask in glory. What was the fun in that? For anyone but Jordan, I mean.

Then things got worse. Then came Kobe Bryant. He always wanted to be known as the next Michael Jordan, and boy, was he ever–down to the last drop of narcissistic self-regard. Early in his career, Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O’Neill on his team and the Lakers won a title. Credit went to Kobe and Shaquille. But for Kobe, it was necessary that the public think of this title as Kobe’s Title, and his alone. The whole next year, therefore, he squabbled and bickered with O’Neill until the Lakers had to choose between the two, and they chose Kobe: being younger, he had more years of potential upside. So he won: Kobe drove Shaquille out of the Lakers.

Then the team won another title. But this time, the fact that Phil Jackson was coaching the Lakers–the same coach who had won all those titles with Jordan in Chicago—made it possible for the public to assign some of the credit to Jackson. Sure enough, the following year, Kobe couldn’t get along with Coach Jackson and the friction built up to such a point that Jackson left. Kobe won again: he drove Phil Jackson out of the Lakers.

Eventually the Lakers won another title by bringing in a host of stars from other teams, including Pau Gasol who had the luster of a superstore at that time, but Kobe let it be known that Pau Gasol was joining Kobe Bryant’s “supporting cast.” In fact, he actually said the fateful words: “This is my team.” And on the road to their next title, Kobe did indeed provide all the fireworks; the games that dazzled were the ones in which Kobe went off for forty points while the world, including the rest of his team gaped in awe.

A couple of years later, when (even with Kobe) the Lakers began to falter, they managed to secure the hottest free agent on the market, center Dwight Howard, a.k.a “Superman”. Sure enough, no sooner had Howard joined the team than he found himself at odds with Kobe Bryant. A years of friction followed, during which Howard played poorly. Everyone said he’d lost his chops; he’d never be good again. At the end of the year, he left the Lakers, joined the Rockets, and what do you know: he still had skills!

That’s why this epic rematch between San Antonio and the Heat pleases me. We’re back to one whole-team against another whole-team. The Heat are all fireworks; the Spurs embody machine-like efficiency. What’s more, the players on both teams have a dignity that has been missing from the game for years.

Take Tim Duncan: he’s been a rock of the ages–if I’m not mistaken, he started his career before the steam engine was invented; and in the course of all those years, he’s played in more playoffs games than any other whole team–and yet he’s underrated. Hugely respected but still underrated. Why? because he’s low-keyed. Because you never hear him yowling about the Spurs being “my team” He just goes out there with his wide-eyed look of perpetual astonishment and gets his job done. And indeed, as great as he is, it’s not him and a bunch of helpers. Tony Parker’s got to be the best point guard in the game, with all due respect to Chris Paul. Kawhi Leonard is surely a top-ten defensive player. And while Ginobli may be a bit past his prime,  the man is still a snake. The Spurs are fearsome because they’re a team.

And the Heat? Surely this is a team built around a superstar. Right? Well, most sports analysts do recognize LeBron James as the best player in the game today, and he’s in the conversation for greatest of all time. But what do you always hear about the Heat?

Big Three.

And the thing is, “Big Three” is a misnomer. The label isn’t accurate. The Heat are no more a Big Three than are the Spurs. Wade is a great player, but not as great as James. Bosh is excellent (and astounding on some nights), but he’s definitely the littlest of the Big Three. Yet, when the public thinks about the Heat, Big Three is the label that comes to mind.

James promotes this label. That’s what I like about the man. He may be flash and fire on the court, but his style of play is so unselfish. And off the court, he epitomize the gentleman. There’s no false humility, but there’s no arrogant posturing either. If it were Kobe Bryant on this team instead of James, you can bet there’d be no talk of The Big Three. It would be Kobe’s team, and Wade and Bosh would be part of his supporting cast. But then, if Kobe had been on the Spurs, Gregg Popovich would be long gone.

 

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