The NBA’s Much-Improved Image Problem
Will punking out prove that players care?
I don’t believe I’m on-record about LeBron James stiffing the media, despite the fact my second job is as a Cavs blogger. This is mainly because I wasn’t aware that it happened until after I wrote my original recap—I turned off the TV and stopped looking at the internet pretty much immediately after the buzzer sounded in Game 6.
Long story short, I’m hugely against it. Hugely, hugely and totally against it. No excuses. I could have forgiven him storming out after probably the toughest loss in his career. But to try to spin-control the incident by saying not shaking hands or talking to the media is part of being a competitor was just egregious.
It’s fine to have the effects of being a competitor be unavoidable and necessary baggage that comes with the kind of competitive instinct LeBron has, but to suggest that this was a decision he would make again—that it was a part of, rather than a consequence of, his competitive spirit—worries me. When you catch a UFC rerun on Spike (a good antidote for anyone sick of LeBron-Kobe arguments, by the way), you generally see the two guys who just wailed on each other and spent the weeks before talking about how much fun it was going to be to wail on the other one shaking hands, complimenting each other, and hugging after the fight. I’m pretty sure they were still competing.
And by the way, not to get all petty and self-righteous, but standing up the media is not a great move, especially with how favorably and relentlessly they were covering LeBron during this playoff run—without the media, LeBron’s just Travis Pham.
My real worry comes when you put this incident in context with other things that have been happening in this playoffs; KG’s crazy f-bomb attack on the bench when he was sitting in a suit to try and prove his intensity; all the flagrant and technical fouls; Kobe’s scowl and “he can’t guard me!” act. While Kobe’s open to interpretation (did he get caught up in the moment after hitting a tough jumper, or plan to say it the first time he got hot in the game?), KG’s actions are really only explainable two ways:
1. He has legitimately lost his mind. He is actually presenting signs of a real mental disorder that should be treated in order for him to live a healthy life with normal human interactions if he wants to continue in his current line of work.
2. He thinks that this is how real competitors act, and is trying to live up to that.
Most signs point toward the latter, which is disturbing. A lot of it is the NBA’s pendulum swinging the other way after trying to shake the perception that the first generation of post-Jordan stars (Iverson, Shaq) just didn’t care that much about the game-LeBron shrugging off reporters can be thought of as this generation of stars’ dark mirror to Iverson’s “practice” monologue.
We all know the stories about Michael Jordan. The obsessing over negative comments, the fights with the front office, the scrimmage wars with USA teammates, the compulsive gambling problem, the debasement and homophobic slurs directed at Kwame Brown.
Those aren’t the parts about him to emulate, but that’s the message that seems to be percolating in a lot of minds. Victory through obsession; victory at the cost of healthy interactions.
There’s a problem: It’s not right. Just because MJ was the greatest basketball player and one of the sport’s great winners doesn’t mean his behaviors should be emulated. It’s no more ridiculous than telling a young basketball player 20 or 40 years ago that they should sleep with every woman they possibly can if they want to play like Magic or Wilt, or a young linebacker that he should do cocaine if he wants to play like Lawrence Taylor, or a musician that he should take heroin if he wants to play like John Lennon.
Great competitors can act like jerks sometimes because they’re great competitors. But it seems like we have guys in the NBA now acting like jerks because they think it’ll make them great competitors. It’s as ludicrous as thinking the reason we’ve lost touch with the family values we had in the 1950s America is that we’re not racist enough, or that we haven’t had a president as good as FDR.
Pathological competitiveness has certainly been responsible for aiding the rise of some of the great athletes of our times. But if we as the sports-viewing public continue to fetishize it, we’re going to see more ugly incidents like this one. Is the reason LeBron James isn’t shaking anybody’s hand because he’s afraid of the whispers that he should’ve spent the time he spent hosting the ESPYs or producing a documentary working on his game, that he’s afraid of what’s become the ultimate pejorative in the post-Jordan era, that he “doesn’t have the heart of a champion?” Is Kobe scowling because of the last time he heard an unfounded whisper about how he wanted to be L.A.’s golden boy more than he wanted a fourth ring? Is KG cursing and screaming because of all the years his killer instinct was called out when he couldn’t bring a championship to Minnesota?
I don’t know, but I get the feeling that if we keep up a witch-hunt for players that don’t love the game and winning as much as we think we should, we’re going to see more things like Dwight Howard needing to “prove he has a mean streak” and kids on their middle-school teams cursing out the refs after a call that doesn’t go their way and flipping chairs on the bench after a loss instead of finding a healthy way to show that they care about the game, because we’re telling people that people who really care act in ways that aren’t healthy.
Of course NBA players play with very real stakes—millions of dollars on the line, the expectations of whole cities and fanbases around the globe. But there are more important things than the final score, even when it doesn’t seem like it a lot of the time. Trauma surgeons don’t go around firing f-bombs at nurses before a surgery or trying to prove to everyone how important they know their job is. Everyone knows.
When I watch the NBA, I watch because it’s an escape from a lot of the uncertainties and little unpleasantries of life, to watch a game that’s both straightforward in its goals and complicated and beautiful in its execution; to see something done at the absolute highest level possible. I respect the sacrifice and work that goes into providing that for me, for providing a parallel and different world to the one I spend most of my day in, and appreciate that most of these guys, especially not the ones we really cheer for, would never mail in a game or a play in a million years. And I understand that every now and then I’m going to have to see the ugly side of that passion. But I don’t ever want to turn on a game because I want to see something beautiful and find that the ugliness is what people demand to see in order to be convinced that what they’re seeing is really great enough for them.