As basketball fans, certain truths have been imparted upon us from the time we started following the sport. Great teams, not players, win championships and do so by sharing the ball, shelving their egos, and trusting in each other.
At the NBA level, that entails building around at least one superstar, yes, but also a collection of battle-tested, selfless role players in order to win a championship. It takes seven or eight or even more to succeed rather than a handful of star players, no matter how sublime their talent may be.
The Dallas Mavericks embodied that ethos, surrounding their lone superstar with a collection of hungry veterans willing to sacrifice parts of their game to win. The Miami Heat did not, attempting to construct a title team by stacking the deck full of aces and 3s and 4s, hoping to trump depth with top-heavy talent.
As people, we are taught the value of patience and perseverance. That hard work pays off, that good things come to those who wait. We are told to finish what we start, that nothing worth earning is accomplished without struggle. By trying to circumvent adversity, we are only cheat ourselves.
Dirk Nowitzki took those lessons to heart, staying in Dallas after the collection of heartbreaks that defined the last five years of his career. LeBron James saw the forks in his road and opted for the path of least resistance, jetsetting to Miami to play with his friends rather than see things through in Cleveland.
There’s a larger argument to be made about how the series mirrored a changing world. No team better represents our instant access/new media/real time update society than this Heat squad, a unprecedented plug-in-and-play team that was intended to bypass the traditional incubating period teams go through before winning a championship by inking James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade. Conversely, Dallas, with a point guard whose NBA career practically predates the internet and a nucleus that was formed after an arduous half decade of trial and (mostly) error, long ago past the point of traditional growing pains and now epitomized the old guard, both in age and trajectory.
But the fundamental conflict wasn’t about those larger meanings. This was a basketball story and a clash between stars that play the game for different reasons – one for its intrinsic value, the other as a means to an end.
Because while the bulk of the mainstream media focused on everything South Beach as the slightly savvier honed in on Dallas’ quest for revenge, the real plot line drove much, much deeper. The battle between Dirk and LeBron, knowingly or not, was a battle for basketball’s soul.
Dirk Nowitzki is simply a basketball player, which is convenient because that’s all he’s ever aspired to be since he first picked up the sport. The countless late-night shooting sessions, early morning workouts, and zany offseason regimens prescribed by Holger Geschwinder are carried out with the sole intent of making him a better player than the day before, methodically building towards winning an NBA Championship for winning’s sake alone. As Dirk reminded us so many times over the course of this run, capturing a title was his “dream.”
It also came with the hope that a title would, as he put it, “make the hammering go away for one year” and the knowledge that, “for one year, we’re the best team out there.”
Notice the ephemeral nature of those statements. A person’s life is defined by their biggest moments and Rick Carlisle once termed Dirk a basketball “lifer,” a man whose daily milestones revolve around basketball. No milestone is more significant within the sport than winning a championship, even if the stay atop the mounting is fleeting. Dirk knows that while a ring serves as permanent gloss on his legacy, the euphoria it provides only lasts so long before he goes back to the gym to prepare for the next campaign. Yet nothing is more sacred, more pure to him, the ultimate athlete. A decade and a half of sweat is more than worth transitory glory.
LeBron James’ outspoken goal is to become a “global icon.” He wants an empire and empires, by their very nature, are constructed to last interminably. No NBA star has ever been more aggressive in attempting to establish himself as a brand. Yes, Michael Jordan opened the door for athletes to become billionaires instead of millionaires through off-the-court business ventures but his legendary bloodthirstiness for competition demanded that his priority remain winning so long as he stepped onto the court.
Shaq, for his part, had invaded the music and film worlds – both still uncharted territories for the 26-year-old James – long before he was LeBron’s age, but like everything else, Shaq never seemed to take any of it too seriously.
James does. Hence LRMR, his media company that partnered with Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, and gave him a stake in Liverpool, one of the most successful soccer clubs in the world. Hence "The Decision,'' an opus of self-absorption but a spectacle that transcended domestic sports news to became a worldwide event. Hence, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported, the burgeoning sports entertainment conglomerate he is constructing with William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley at Creative Artists Agency, personally turning headhunter to entice a number of high profile collegiate and professional players into signing with the agency.
LeBron, like Dirk, is a basketball player but he’s also an entrepreneur, a promoter, a product, a pitchman, a brand, a corporate raconteur. Nobody’s denying that he wants to win a championship but after several postseason failures that resulted in precious few improvements to his overall game, the unanswered question was just how badly did he want it?
Unanswered until recently, that is; LeBron solved the riddle for us on that Sunday night after Game 6.
“At the end of the day,” he intoned, with precious little emotion on his face, “all of the people that were rooting for me to fail, tomorrow they’ll have to wake up and have the same life that (they had) before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today, and I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do.”
Yes, he just lost the NBA Finals and in a basketball sense that represents failure. But, like it or not, James is correct; in the grand scheme of things, his life will hardly suffer.
Off the court, he is winning like no athlete before him ever has and light years ahead of the curve in setting himself up for a post-playing career that won’t even begin in earnest for at least another decade. He has more than enough money to live like the King he aggrandizes himself to be and more than enough Q rating to infiltrate any social circle.
Whether he succeeds in winning a championship has little sway on all of that. Sure, this loss at least temporarily damages his legacy as a basketball player and he is, for now, deprived of that championship moment but ultimately moments are just time and time, as James tweeted shortly after the game, will be handled by “The Greater Man upstairs.” “Right now,” LeBron rationalized, “isn’t the time.” Never mind his own role in determining the outcome, or lack thereof, particularly in the fourth quarter; introspection into the outcome of a basketball game isn’t as necessary when there are so many other avenues to explore, so many other frontiers to conquer.
It bears mentioning that when Dirk was thrust into the same position after Game 6 of the 2006 Finals, he was so distraught that he couldn’t bring himself to leave the American Airlines Center until after 5 a.m. One year later, the Golden State debacle required a month-long odyssey to Australia just to clear out enough cobwebs to pick up a basketball again. As he told ESPN’s Marc Stein in 2007, he “[takes] losses probably harder than anyone else in this league,” which makes sense because it is his singular focus. He shuns advertisements and has no use for marketing, branding, promoting, or any other career-related -ing that doesn’t involve the basketball court. Those words simply don’t exist in his lexicon.
Yet perhaps all of that has less to do with the two men and more to do with their surroundings. Lest we forget, Dirk had countless opportunities to play high school and college ball in the United States. He opted against it because he feared it would change his game for the worse, taking away his historically proficient jump shot and assimilating him into just another back-to-the-basket seven-footer, another byproduct of the cookie cutter AAU system.
LeBron, meanwhile, is the AAU system, the paragon of its virtues. He is its success, garnering national exposure as a 10th grader and gracing the covers of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine before his senior year of high school. He is its trappings, with an endless number of handlers and an entourage that reportedly doubled as a source frequent tension between James and the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. He is its culture, which perhaps more than anything else served as the impetus for the creation of the James-Wade-Bosh triumvirate in Miami. With traveling teams in place for players as young as elementary school, today’s elite prospects now spend an unprecedented amount of their adolescence playing against and hanging out with the players of the same ilk, oftentimes more so than their friends from home. Somewhere along the way, after all those tournaments in far-flung parts of the country, it became more desirable to play with those friends rather than beat them, which is what caused James to join Dwyane Wade’s team rather than lead his own and sparked similar talk of Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony joining forces in New York.
Not surprisingly, Jordan, who grew up and played well before the new-school AAU culture gained prominence, could scarcely hide his disgust following "The Decision.'' Basketball is competition, and the great ones are supposed to be pitted against one another, to definitively find out whose best. Jordan, as he said in the aftermath, never wanted to join Larry Bird or Magic Johnson’s team; he wanted to beat them on with his own. That’s the path they and Isiah Thomas and Hakeem Olajuwon followed. It’s the path Bill Russell and Tim Duncan followed. It’s the path that Dirk followed last summer, when he had every opportunity to flee what so many others perceived as a sinking ship for safer shores. That’s the path that James, “The Chosen One” of basketball, was supposed to follow.
But the important distinction is that while we’ve all been so content to dub James “The Chosen One,” nobody ever bothered to ask exactly what he was chosen for. The commonly-held assumption was that, by virtue of his boundless physical gifts, he was destined to become the sport’s greatest-ever player but what if we got it wrong? What if James was fated to change the sport, but not in the way we imagined? What if LeBron is really an epitaph for how sports are changing in the eyes of the stars that play them? That their importance is decreasingly linked to winning and losing, but rather to the doors they open into other arenas and the lifestyles they afford? They’re still as important to us, the spectators, but with more lucrative opportunities available to them than ever before, perhaps a championship’s ultimate value is greater in burnishing athletes’ resumes rather than cementing their places in history?
We’re far from such a point now but James carries a uniquely powerful gravitational pull amongst his peers, one that has already drawn Wade, Bosh, Paul, and Carmelo Anthony – four of the 20 best players in the league – to CAA, with more rumored to be next; as a source indicated to Wojnarowksi, it is LeBron’s blueprint they all aspire to emulate off the basketball court, irrespective of his failures on it. What if he sees greater value in uniting them in a form of corporate confederacy rather than merely crushing them on the basketball court?
The James hype machine is fond of reminding us that “We are all witnesses.” Qhat if LeBron James’ career is the first testament that the era of playing a sport for its intrinsic value alone is dying, and the expectations we have of our professional athletes should evolve accordingly?
So many questions of the most scrutinized athlete on the planet and precious few answers. And for a split second, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, sports are ultimately a form of entertainment and, aesthetically speaking, nobody is more entertaining on the court than James, a genetic golden ticket who routinely unleashes his frightening athleticism in ways never before seen in the game’s history. So long as we get our money’s worth, can we really judge why they play the game and where it ranks in their value system?
But then I go back to those lessons we learned so long ago, about people and basketball and the code they are supposed to share. That there is a right way to win and a right way to grow, both within the context of a team as well as individually, and there is a right way to respond to hardship. Even amid a possible changing spectrum of priorities, those values don’t lose any bit of their significance. Dirk
Nowitzki isn’t just a better player for fighting through five years of basketball hell; he’s a better man for it. LeBron James may be on his way to revolutionizing the role of the professional athlete, but as evidenced by so many of his actions over the past year, he has a ways to go in perfecting the craft that made him famous in the first place, not to mention embracing the teachings it espouses.
As I watched parade floats plod through the blistering Texas heat, I couldn’t help but smile when the trophy was held aloft as the main car passed by my vantage point on Victory Avenue.
The right team won.
The right superstar won.
Want MORE Mavs? Scoop, essays, insight, videos, analysis ... Sign on up! It's about a dime-a-day for the very best in Mavs coverage from DB.com. And yes, we keep it rolling all summer long ... You won't get 'em covered like you get 'em covered here! Go Mavs and Go Premium!