I was once in an elevator with LeBron James.
It was 11 years ago, in the Four Seasons in Toronto during the city's film festival. I was on my way up to interview Todd Haynes about I'm Not There, his brilliant film about Bob Dylan's mythos; James was in town to promote More Than a Game, an excellent documentary about his high school basketball teammates (that for some reason didn't come out until nearly two years later). I got on first, and, as we do in elevators, kept my eyes on the row of buttons as the car filled up.
Yet while it's possible to ignore almost anyone in an elevator (my wife Karen once rode down 11 floors in another Four Seasons without noticing Julia Roberts standing next to her in High Hollywood Award Show-Going mode), I felt a disturbance in the force when these three or four big men got on beside me. I turned, and found myself looking into a wool-covered shoulder. I tilted my head up a ridiculous angle and there he was.
"S'up, King?" I managed. He laughed. His entourage saw no reason to wrestle me to the ground. Maybe that's why I like LBJ so much. Or maybe it's just because I appreciate excellence.
I like to think I'm pretty good at maintaining some perspective on a person's work versus the way they conduct their lives. A lot of my favorite artists are probably terrible people; a lot of nice people can't carry a tune. Sometimes being born with an obvious gift might contribute to making a person a nasty piece of work, but there are plenty of untalented jerks out there as well. We don't know a lot of people with whom we develop imaginary relationships, we only feel like we do because there's so much information about them available in the world, because the best way to sell us anything is to have us identify with a brand.
I don't know LeBron James; but I've very familiar with a character he's helped to create to sell us soft drinks and automobiles and the notion that he's a thoughtful person who also happens to be the most talented basketball player I've ever seen.
I was careful not to say "best" because I don't have much interest in arguing the relative merits of James versus Michael Jordan. (Or for that matter, Wilt Chamberlain, who I remember well and is too quickly dismissed when sports fans engage in meaningless arguments over the Greatest of All Time.) Human beings have gotten better at playing games over time; basketball players are faster, bigger and stronger now than they were 25 years ago.
LeBron is Jordan but three inches taller and 50 (at least) pounds heavier. I'll leave it to you poets to weigh their hearts.
Contrary to what a lot of gasbag columnists and meathead coaches will tell you, winning isn't everything, not even in athletic competitions. Winning is hard, and most people who compete in sports lose at least as much as they win. Losing is not worthless; it has its own lessons and--like winning--it can be done well or poorly.
Back when I used to have heroes, a lot of them lost a lot of the time. I tried to imitate Jerry West in junior high school; he was 1-8 in NBA final appearances. One of my favorite baseball players was Matty Alou, who was a poor man's Pete Rose (though without the Shakespearean and Barnum-esque qualities of Charlie Hustle).
I think about the Lakers of my youth; in my mind they were the greatest assemblage of basketball talent I'd ever seen. But they weren't, not even in their day. The Boston Celtics met them in the NBA finals seven times from 1959 to 1969 and the Lakers lost every series. Even with West (who somehow acquired the nickname Mr. Clutch despite all those championship series losses), the elegant Elgin Baylor and, later in the decade, a Chamberlain who would sublimate his scoring to concentrate on passing and defense, the Lakers played the Washington Generals to the Celtics' Harlem Globetrotters. (The Celtics' aggregate record in those series was 28-14.)
Anyway, the Lakers' losing all those finals didn't alienate me. I still watched (or listened to) nearly every game they played. I got to know those teams deeply, names like Mel Counts, Happy Hairston, Dick Garrett, and Keith Erickson still resonate with me. And I wanted the Lakers to win, but their failure to overcome the Celtics (a team with even more Hall of Fame talent than the Lakers, though, in retrospect, all those Celtics--from Bill Russell on--seemed to be over-achievers) didn't disgust me.
I still think there's something noble about James taking the Cavaliers to the finals this year.
And, though I have a certain affinity for the sports teams of my wife's hometown, I won't hold it against him if he takes his talents to some other city to try to form a better team, one that might challenge the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets for next year's title. (Or perhaps he'll join one of those teams.)
This is a different--and fairer--era than the one I grew up in when the career options of pro athletes were severely limited. Now the power lies with the players, who more and more are the ones who determine the destiny of franchises. While this might upset some billionaire owners used to individuals and governments submitting to their will, I think extraordinary talent deserves to be rewarded commensurate with the entertainment it provides and the joy it inspires.
We've seen it before, when Hollywood's old studio system broke down and famous actors--the real commercial drivers of movies--became something more than contract employees. Now movie stars are able to get their own projects made. For better or worse they can dictate the conditions of their employment. In sports like the NBA and overseas pro soccer leagues (where helmets and other gear don't obscure faces) it's become apparent that more and more of us are invested in individual players and their brands than in a team that's supposed to represent regional interests.
Jerry Seinfeld famously remarked that most sports fans were actually rooting "for laundry," for the jerseys that from season to season might be inhabited by different if not exactly interchangeable players. That's still the case with most college sports (though change is coming), and only special talent commands concessions. Most of us have to work for a living.
But, despite all wishful platitudinists insisting on "I"-less teams, no uniform ever made a man.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 06/19/2018
Print Headline: The uniform never made the man