Posts Tagged ‘Cavaliers’

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and a Generation of Fans and Athletes Raised on Perfection

May 22, 2011

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of the 1990’s with their near impeccable run of titles may have been more influential than originally thought.  In fact, that influence may just be peaking.

Let’s revisit the squad that changed expectations for everyone.

How predictable it all became.  The Jordan Years, and the man’s uncanny ability to succeed.  He was mentally strong, extremely self-motivated, while he possessed outstanding athletic abilities. It all translated into glory.  He could do nothing but win.  Beating the odds became automatic. And each new challenge he encountered would read like a chapter in a bedtime story – ending happily ever after.

Other teams – Other players – they all had their disqualifying flaws.  Patrick Ewing was labeled a loser from his Georgetown years – ironically losing the NCAA Title to Jordan on a game-winning shot during his freshman year.  The Mighty Hoyas.  Taken down by a Freshman.  His heavily favored teams never did win that title he desperately needed. We all know what happens to the teams that should win, and don’t.  Labels can very easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Karl Malone and John Stockton represented boring basketball.  At least in an X’s and O’s sense.  They may have mastered the pick and roll, along with a million other life-affirming team traits. In their league, however, superstar heroics are what brings home the hardware. And the fundamentally-sound Jazz were not worthy of providing those moments.

How dare these pretenders try and take the trophy from its rightful throne.  If they were “Winners,” then why hadn’t they won  Must be destiny.  Even Scottie Pippen was aware that “the Mailman didn’t deliver on Sunday.” And he didn’t.

Real stars would never miss free throws in a close game, right?

It was just that simple.

That brings us to his Airness.  Michael Jordan.  The man, the myth, the legend.  The action figure with the million dollar smile.  The Phenom who could transcend the basketball court, wall street, pop culture, and even other dimensions – at least in Space Jam.

He was a winner.  And if someone was a winner, they never lost.

At least when it came to him.

That’s how it was for a generation raised on the NBA in the 90’s.

We were drinking the spiked Gatorade.

This won’t be the first time that MJ’s legacy will be mentioned in terms of its lasting effects on the league.  It’s pretty obvious that it will take many, many years until he is remembered more as a Bill Russell type.  A hero from the past, who’s achievements are no longer comparable due to the gradual evolution of the league.

I would venture to guess that Bill Russell’s ELEVEN championships are held in less esteem to the past few generations than the six championships of those ‘90’s era Bulls.

We only remember what we are actually around to see.

Championships from eras long gone can never be remembered in their proper context.  There is always the question of whether the competition was as consistent.  Or whether in the early years, the big men simply dominated because no one else was as tall.

No one would argue that it was due to an unfair break in genetics that made MJ unstoppable.  He was 6’6’. Blessed with talent, but not physically overwhelming.

What a disservice it then becomes, that Jordan’s teams were virtually PERFECT in its quest for multiple titles. Not only to the other contenders in the sport of basketball, but for every popular athlete in any sport .

There suddenly emerged a set of Jordan rules. Or at least subconscious guidelines that we created to judge the cream of the crop in the athletic world. They were never carved into stone. But I guarantee we have all used them as a barometer for judging the legacies of athletes.

1. Champions never lose to underdogs.  If that does occur, they risk losing way more than that season’s title rings.  In every series that the Bulls were deemed Goliath to some other team’s David, the giant prevailed.  Every single one.  No longshots.  No Odds-beaters.  Only trampled foes.

2.  Great Players must always take the last shots. Jordan not only hit more game-winning shots than almost anyone in history, but in doing so, probably missed more game-winning shots in history as well.  But that is inconsequential.  If the greatest champion of all-time (at least to some) made it a habit of taking nearly every clutch shot, then every one else afterwards had to follow suit.  That is, if they wanted to continue to possess their Alpha-dog street cred.

I Wanna be like Mike.

3.  One Championship will never be enough.  In order to be truly great, 2-peats, 3-peats, double 3-peats were the key to notoriety. I think we all remember Lebron’s halfway kidding introductory speech to the Miami fans, where he counted all the way up to 7 championships as his stated goal.  It’s no accident that he stopped at one more than Jordan. But once again, he was more than likely joking.  Seven championships seems like a tall order at this point in his career. He may someday regret even mentioning that in jest.

Take a look at Jordan’s body of work.  It reads like a movie script that would be too syrupy to be released.

Remember how little Michael was left off of the high school basketball team?

And remember how he used that negative event to inspire himself to practice harder, and used all of his willpower to show that coach that he had made a terrible mistake?

Yes exactly..

Who writes this swill?

No one.  This really happened.  These inspirational anecdotes would define his career.

He accomplished EVERYTHING.

It was virtually athletic perfection.

But many, many things had to come together for this triumph of a career.

He had to be drafted by a good organization willing to put the parts around him to succeed.  Maybe the Bulls didnt have to be spectacular in that regard, but he would not have been set up properly on the majority of the other teams in the league.

This executive support was on full display when he began his quest for a second 3-peat. Significant contributors such as Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, and of course, Dennis Rodman, all were brought together to help win.  It was a success.  They played their roles seamlessly.

And let’s not forgot that the team was headed up by one of the most highly regarded coaches ever to man the sidelines in Phil Jackson.  Some would argue that his titles were somehow diminished because of his all-star personnel. But it would be foolish to dismiss his accomplishments completely.  You don’t win as many championships as he has, all by happenstance.

No way.

By that logic, Kobe and Shaq should have ensured that Del Harris was wearing championship rings on his fingers and toes.

But there was more to be merry about.  The Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas.  That worked out just fine.  A top 50 player of all time, and closer to 1 than 50. A solid gold find that was certainly not an inevitability.

What if that never happened?

For the most part, Jordan did not suffer with constant injuries.  He did lose virtually an entire season early on. Afterwards he was able to avoid similar mishaps almost entirely. In professional sports, remaining healthy can not be taken for granted.  Ask Bill Walton, Greg Oden, Shaquille O’neal, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and plenty of others.

Even the mighty Tiger Woods may have to bow down to the reality of advanced wear and tear. It will most likely cost him his historic shot at breaking Niklaus’s Majors record. It’s a shame. It truly does take a stroke of luck just to be healthy over the course of a career.

I’m certainly not saying that Michael was just the recipient of good fortune.  He made his own luck.  I have never seen an athlete dominate the game the way he did.  Almost on command.  It was a sight to see.

However, its not realistic to expect that sort of dominance again in the modern era.  Even if MJ was drafted tommorrow, too many question marks would have to become explanation points for him to go on a similar run.

It took a lot of outside factors all coming together beautifully.

Maybe in a parallel universe he only wins 4 titles.

Maybe he loses a couple of them as well.

Maybe he slips in Kerry Wood’s hot tub.

Just ask Kobe, who has been a part of more finals than Michael.

You can’t win them all.

But you shouldn’t have to, either.  Not if your attending them in economy-sized Sam’s club numbers like Jordan and Bryant.

After that team finally broke apart, it slowly became obvious that no athlete of any skill set in any sport could be held to such ridiculous standards.

Let’s take the grid-iron for instance.

League mascot and golden-boy, Tom Brady, not too long ago, took a team riding the momentum of an undefeated season all the way up to the Superbowl.

But then promptly lost.

Thats right.  After 3 NFL titles, his team was perfect throughout the regular season and all the way up to the big game. And the only thing standing between the Patriots and perfection was a win against a team they had already beaten that year.  A team that was one of the lowlier underdogs of the decade in the form of the New York Giants. He was set up to be Jordan-esque.  Right there for the taking with a another strong performance.

But guess what?

They lost.

Didn’t you wonder what the deeper meaning of a mind-boggling loss like this would carry?

Perhaps there is no answer.

It didn’t signal the end of the Patriots being dominant.  It didn’t mean that Brady was no longer a superstar quarterback or that he wasn’t clutch. Gisele didn’t decide to leave him for Tony Romo.

It also didn’t mean that Bill Belichek won’t be remembered as a historically great coach. Of course he will.  That’s at least one more Superbowl appearance to put on the resume.

The Giants just won the game.

The Pats most likely would have won big if there was a rematch.

But there won’t be.

Stuff happens.

Except to his Airness it seemed.

He always came out on top. His record-breaking 72-10 team sure didn’t wilt when it came down to crunch time.

The Jordan years created this false sense of destiny in the world of sports to a generation that grew up with the certainty of the Un-Forgetta-Bulls.

Wayne Gretzky’s presence was felt as well.  The first part of his career was spent, much like Mike’s, gaining individual accolades, while his team grew stronger and more successful.  Enough time passed, and the Edmonton finally brought home the cup. And it wouldn’t be the first time.  Once he became the champ, he was crowned 3 more times.

But looking closely, even the great one suffered a bout of disappointing failure.  And in the midst of a colossal string of success.

The Oilers weren’t quite able to win 5 in row. They had to settle for merely a double two-peat. Edmonton was shown the exit by a hungry Calgary Flames team right in the middle of all that success.

Jordan would not have stood for that?


See where I’m going.  Gretzky is on Jordan’s level.  Maybe pound-per-pound in his sport, even better.  He certainly demolished the record books faster and by larger margins then Jordan did in comparison with his peers.

But he lost.

And it didn’t mean a thing.

The Cup was returned to its previous owners the next year.

But I will also admit that when I first heard of this failure at the apex of Gretzky’s powers, I was a bit disappointed.

Jordan never lost in his prime.


But he could have.

Great athletes lose all the time.

90% of his success was due to his incredible will to win, and inspirational athleticism.  But 10% was from factors beyond his control.

But he did have me going for awhile. I grew up thinking that every great athlete should experience similar levels of unobstructed success.  They should all make sensational plays in every pressure situation year after year in order to beat the “unworthy” stars from the other teams.  The Ewings’ or the Barkleys’ who, in my estimation, must not have wanted it enough, or tried as hard, or were as heroic or clutch.  That had to be the source  of their failure.  At least it was sold to the public that way.

Michael Jordan’s reign made a generation of fans buy into sport as fairy tale. Something reliable and expected. Not scripted, but without much doubt involved in regards to the outcome.

It created that little voice in the back of the head before a Superbowl that says, “Ok, I know the teams look relatively equal, but Peyton Manning will definitely play above his means today, because he is a superstar.”

Mythology doesn’t grind out wins though. Or recover on-side kicks.

And when Drew Brees led his team to victory over the shell-shocked Colts, I can at least speak for myself in once again feeling puzzled over where this event fits.

The best quarterback in the league, one of those guys that even your mother could pick out of a lineup due to his global stardom, had lost.  And not even in a particularly memorable way. It’s not as if he fell on his own sword.

It’s too confusing.

What do you make of a player who is arguably the best in the league, who has won a superbowl and also lost one.

In reality, those types of conundrums have always existed in sports.  It’s life, and it never has been black and white. But those Bulls teams made it feel like it could have been.

That’s the Jordan effect.  It took a combination of factors, hinging upon his otherworldly talents, to finish his NBA Novella. Don’t expect that sort of certainty ever again.

The stars may not have been aligned.  But they were pretty close in the night sky when Michael Jordan arrived on the planet.

And even now, in a league made up of players who mostly remember those days from highlight reels, those sorts of off-the-chart expectations have not completely subsided.

And at least for some, there may be a dark side to living in the shadows of the impossible.

Lebron James took maybe the worst supporting cast of players to ever play for a title into the finals against San Antonio early in his career.  Go back and look at the roster.  It’s much worse than you think.  Not only that, but he absolutely willed his team to that perch by scoring damn near every single clutch point in defeating the heavily favored Detroit Pistons to advance.

Most people have already forgotten about that.  The Spurs were a monster. The Cavs didn’t win.

Instead of remembering that season fondly, it has been cast aside as a season that “Lebron failed.” He didn’t ask to be the next Jordan, and no one should expect it.  He’s still a young man.  These years should be the exciting prime years. He could be leading the downtrodden city of Cleveland to the promised land.

What a story that would be, right?

No chance anymore.  People apparently told him one too many times that if he didn’t want to be a failure, he would have to start piling up rings.

Look how easy it was for Jordan.

Can’t Lebron even get one?

People forget the difficulty of a championship.  It’s a grueling journey.  A journey that, for most, will end before reaching the hollowed grounds of victory.

And as we all know, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Too many times those Bulls teams made us forget that.

Now in the eyes of the average NBA fan, Lebron has signed a deal with the devil. His team is now ridiculously loaded with superstar talent. Many lesser players could win with the help of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, least of all, King James.

It all seemed a bit desperate and over-the-top. But it did shed light into the dynamics of the pressure that was being exerted on him to win.  He would rather take on the role of a hated villain, then to gamble with the uncertainty of possibly never winning a title.

He will be booed at every visitor’s arena until his last dunk as a player. And at times, it seems that he is becoming, understandly, a bit unhinged – with angry, mildly threatening tweets early on, somewhat emotional press conferences and out-of-character overcelebrating on the court just recently.

Its not psychotic behavior.  But its not consistent with his mannerisms in the past. This was once the NBA’s version of the “Say Hey Kid” before the Decision loomed on the horizon.  A care-free fun-loving basketball prodigy with an infectious smile. It’s easy to tell that all the negativity has taken its toll.

It’s only natural.

And can you really say that the otherworldly “Jordan” superstar expectations thrust upon him since middle school did not play at least some role in his dramatic decision?

And now the next annointed MJ-like player, Derrick Rose is taking a speedboat full of young and talented Bulls up the river toward the Island of oppressive expectations that is the Miami Heat’s season. The newly annointed savior may be on his way to put the old one out of his misery, for at least this year.

Looks like Lebron James may be playing the role of Colonel Kurtz.

Or maybe he wins the big one, finally.

Maybe he will find himself in the unbelievable position of winning a title, but still being generally maligned.

“Jordan didn’t have to team up with Magic for his titles.”

And give Derrick Rose a few unfulfilling seasons, and see if he starts feeling the strain.

Maybe he will flee to his own island of misfit superstars to cope.

Of course its only Basketball.  But the ante has been ratched up for the time being.  It may be our entertainment, but its also one man from Akron’s entire legacy on the line.

But that’s what happens when you win six championships.  And furthermore, when you do it with nary a misstep along the way.

Its certainly not for everyone. Though the bar isn’t being lowered anytime soon.

We will continue to watch and see how the pressure manifests itself on the younger generations.

For More Ramblings, Follow me on Twitter (@ChiBdm)


How Michael Jordan Created the Lebron James vs. Cleveland Cavaliers Showdown

December 3, 2010

“Cleveland, its not you, its me.”

On the eve of his first showdown with his former team the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lebron James has gotten used to his new villain role with the Heat. Let’s not go as far as to say that he’s comfortable with it, but just accepting. No more disapproving Twitter updates. He finally knows what we know. Nothing he will ever do will ever make up for his bumbling of this situation. No clever “What should I do” type commercial will ever undo the damage. What could have been a painful divorce became an earth-shattering act of betrayal to all those who cheered him on during his Cavaliers tenure.

You know that moment when someone realizes that the girl they love will never again love them back?

The moment when its obvious that it’s over.

Up until that point there remains a faint mechanism in the brain that doesn’t allow a person to cross a certain line of incivility. It’s the unconscious voice that says ” Don’t overplay your hand, she might take you back some day.”

For Cavaliers fans, that child-safety lock has been gone for quite some time. And thanks to the new frontier of high-speed social networking coupled with the rise of Twitter – where anyone who has poseable thumbs can also have followers – the anti-Lebron crowd and their sentiments have created a good vs. evil scenario on a global scale.

But which side is good, and which side is evil?

By departing from the team and city that adored him, Lebron James did something that is quite common for an athlete in the “Loyalty-free” era. Businessmen do it everyday. Families are very often forced to uproot their entire lives to allow for opportunities offered to their breadwinner. It certainly is not looked down upon by the masses. Rather, its generally perceived as a necessity that will allow for a better future for everyone down the road. We live in a country where ambition is an ideal. And saying goodbye is certainly one cost of doing business.

But they aren’t Lebron James. They aren’t idolized by millions. They aren’t a part of a communities’ identity. In the Cleveland area, it must have felt like King James was a family friend. After all, he was raised in the area. He grew up in front of local tv cameras. Eventually it was his time to throw himself into the NBA ring. And when he was selected by the Cavs, it must have seemed like destiny. All that losing had finally paid off.

Those early years were a dream. He became a superstar faster than the likes of Kobe and Kevin Garnett, who had treaded the “straight to the NBA” ground before him. Those were the days when he could do no wrong. The culmination of those times was an unlikely appearance in the 2007 NBA Finals with a team that wasn’t exactly a winner on paper. That was before it was expected. Back when flashing a smile was an example of a free-spirited love for the game rather than an overly-analyzed sign that he wasn’t serious enough to be a leader.

His local fans were ecstatic. Finally a Cavalier that would end up as the star of a highlight clip rather than the victim. Here was a fanbase that had been put through hell. But that adversity had only served to make them more thankful and appreciative.

Every few nights he would take his act into their living rooms. And it was very rare that he would disappoint. He may not have known all those supportive Cleveland fans, but you can be sure that they felt like they knew him. Remember that this was before he made it abundantly clear that Akron and Cleveland were only close as far as mileage was concerned.

For Northern Ohio sports fans, those were the days. If a visual aid is needed think back to The Herman’s Hermits courtship montage scene in Naked Gun.

Yeah. THATS how good.

But isn’t that the way it always starts?

While Cavs fans continued to dote on their home-grown hero, the national media began to grow a bit restless. Apparently tired of their redundant comparisons of Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan, and Kobe’s unwillingness (in typical Kobe style) to play along.

Sure he had heard the talk before. But this time it was specific. He was quickly reaching the point in his career that Michael Jordan, at the same age, had won his 1st championship. Instead of adulation on Sportscenter, he was finding more and more chatter about his legacy. Furthermore, it became obvious that if he did not win a championship, than he would go down as one of the more colossal failures in the sport, if not just in general. That could certainly lead to a few restless nights. But it wasn’t quite an unprecedented situation.

If you have ever seen college photos of a young Michael Jordan, than you will see the face of someone who not only excelled at basketball, but had fun doing it. And not just basketball, but life in general. At some point (even before his Father’s death) he was robbed of his rambunctiousness and enthusiasm. As time wore on, the only grins that he offered were spent on taunting opponents or selling Nike shoes.

Ironically, he was enduring the same negative media onslaught that Lebron would later contend with. He may not have had to deal with comparisons to himself, but he did still have to deal with plenty of others. He was accused of not being a team player. Many experts dismissed him as a pretender to the throne. After all, this was the ’80’s. If a player wasn’t wearing Laker purple or Celtic green, then that player was most likely never going to get a ring.

It wore him down. He got serious. Maniacally serious. Gone was joy and exuberance, and in its place was an obsession for winning and a tremendous desire to prove his perceived “enemies” wrong. And with each title he stuck it to them harder and harder. Winning was everything. Unfortunately for his mental well-being, it became clear that he could never win enough to satisfy his own internal demands.

Like it or not, he is the measuring stick for all those who came after his reign. After Mike, stars could no longer just love to compete, they were expected to develop an all-enveloping desire to win. Friends, family, and mental health should just be considered possible collateral damage. It was made pretty clear that if an elite player did not win at least one title, then their Grandkids would someday read about what a failure their beloved Grandfather was. Don’t think this is lost on Lebron.

So, for the foreseeable future, every new “Great Hope” is expected to develop an unhealthy addiction to winning that is absolutely detrimental to living a happy life. It’s the reason that LBJ had to mention multiple championships as his goal, rather than just one. That statement certainly makes the thrilling idea of winning a title seem like just another ladder rung for someone who is never allowed to enjoy his achievements until he has six rings.

Thanks MJ. Thanks Media.

Flash back to the last two playoff runs of King James. Both ended in defeats to very good (but statistically inferior) teams. This was no longer acceptable. Not to the media, not to his peers, and certainly not to himself. He could put up big numbers and win boatloads of games for the next 20 years, but without a championship, he would go down in infamy. Free agency was on the horizon, and there were some better options.

And we all know what happened next.

I can’t imagine the heartbreak of Cleveland fans when they were trotted out and crushed after the decision. He was more than a great player for the local team. He is an international icon. Almost everyone on the entire planet knows of him – Yes, even your Grandmother at the rest home. And because he was from little old Cleveland – not New York, not Los Angeles, not Chicago – there had to be a great sense of pride.

It was not Local boy goes and does good. It was local boy explodes and goes global.

Not only that, but he was a good citizen. Jordan had his affairs and gambling to tarnish his reputation, but not LBJ. For all of the exposure he received, he was never linked to any untoward activities. He had a charming personality. He publicly showed a lot of love for his mother, who attended his games frequently. Even when he had to jump into the stands to quiet her abruptly one evening, it only served to make him seem like a young man who still gets embarrassed by his mom’s big mouth just like the rest of us. He certainly was refreshing.

And then he just left. Not only that, he joined up with his VIP buddies to form a superteam. As faulty as the logic sounds now, it seemed like he wanted to find the best team available that also provided a built in support system (Dwyane Wade.)

It also looked as if he didn’t care where he played as long as it was overly stocked with talent and provided the littlest competition for a title. Not only did he need Wade, but he wanted some superstar insurance with Chris Bosh.
Nothing else was allowed to matter, only a title. Pay-cut. Fine. Less points per game. Cool. Eternal hatred from those who loved him more than any other fan-base loved their star.

“Whatever. I gotta win.”

He folded to the external pressures. He drank the kool-aid. He was a young man who was hearing the tick-tock of the end of a potentially fruitless career. If he is hearing it now, then imagine how terrifying it would become with each passing year. He knew he did not have the mental strength of Jordan, or his insane drive. The only way to ensure a legacy was to load up.

He convinced himself that it was the only way. Suddenly Cleveland was the enemy for holding him back. And he certainly stuck the proverbial knife in.

It wasn’t only that he failed to respect the organization and tell them of his decision at least before the whole world knew. It wasn’t that his buddies, particularly Bosh, were running their mouths rampantly on Twitter desperately trying to hype up something that should have been handled with more understanding and care (and less gleeful teenage girlishness.) It wasn’t because of all the suspiciously biased news stories that accused him of being a bad teammate that were surfacing. It wasn’t even really that he had decided to leave. Ultimately most of the palpable anger came from his need to publicly humiliate Cleveland across the globe and his seemingly uncaring disposition for the city who had once embraced him.

I’m not one to beg for tears out of athletes to prove sincerity. But as someone who is not even from Cleveland (Chicago), I was left waiting for the part where he looked at the camera and leveled with everyone. Something to make his former supporters, many whom had followed him since high school, at least say to themselves “This really sucks, but I guess we did have some good times.”

Nothing like that. He wasn’t addressing an agent at an arbitration meeting, or a Nike executive trying to further intertwine their interests, he was speaking to his fans who always had his back like no others in the NBA.

Do you know how many kids hearts he broke that night?

Something heartfelt was sorely missing. And now its too late.

Lebron had just had enough. I’m sure that the experience wasn’t a cakewalk for him either. Weighing loyalty against friendships and legacies and finances was most likely very strenuous.

And this is where Lebron was stripped of most of his remaining pure love for the game. ESPN sources have described a very different LBJ than the one seen in the past. One who’s more serious and less freewheeling. Perhaps a little too solemn. Maybe this new mindset will help him in attaining that vaunted NBA championship one year. But even then, its hard not to feel a little sadness at the situation. King James has lost his youthful innocence (which is in short supply in this cynical world), and the embattled citizens of Cleveland have once again been reminded of the fact that they are, indeed, still Cleveland.

(I wish Harvey Pekar were here for the Lebron “American Splendor.”)

But now the story has taken an ironic twist. The Heat are an average team at present with injury problems, coaching issues, and just general confusion. They are, however, a team that at some point will go on a roll. On the flip side, Cleveland is playing nearly .500 basketball, which never seemed likely after the “decision.” Suddenly this match-up is no longer David vs. Goliath.

When Lebron enters the Quicken Loans Arena later today, the atmosphere will be similar to an ancient Roman gladiator event. The crowd will be looking for blood, and at this point Lebron may want to inflict some more pain on them for all the insults and cheap shots he has been enduring. It will be humanity at its worst and at its most visible. There will be no singing of Kumbayah at the buzzer. This will not be pretty.

And there really isn’t a good guy or bad guy (but for the record, I will be rooting for Cleveland .) King James is desperately fighting against being tagged as an eternal failure, while Cleveland fans will be fighting to avenge the sorrow that was inflicted upon them by someone they used to love.

Sounds a bit Shakespearian.

And quite honestly, I can’t really blame either side for anything besides public missteps and immature fits of anger. The wheels were in motion for this showdown long before the “decision.” And I’ll be watching, and praying for humanity.

Update: Humanity remained. Lebron scored 38. Doesn’t really change anything written above.

Kobe Bryant: Is the Los Angeles Lakers Star the NBA’s Knight in Shining Armor

October 15, 2010

It may have taken his whole career to get to this point.  But, the Los Angeles Lakers‘ superstar Kobe Bryant is now in a position to become the new hero of the NBA.  With the formidable three-headed dragon growling in Miami, he could be the only one in the league that can slay the monster.  And outside South Beach, that is something that most NBA fans (and league officials) would love to see.

The new “Superfriends” in Miami represent more than a team that is overly stocked with talent.  It threatens the whole fabric of the NBA. Competitive balance used to be something that the league could brag about.  Take a look at the San Antonio Spurs and their 4 championships.  That’s right, they played in San Antonio, a small market if there ever was one.  That never seemed to be an issue.  But in one fell swoop, the tables were turned on the whole sport. Goodbye small market success stories. If all the stars are going to join forces, it definitely won’t be in markets that won’t maximize their efforts.  You will never hear the words uttered “I’m going to take my talents to Bourbon Street.”

I believe its safe to say that most league officials would prefer their athletes to allow their fans to buy into the fact that the games are not just highly competitive because of talent on display. But also because the players don’t particularly like each other.  This has probably never been true, but its been a tradition that was worth keeping. Of course this is not the case anymore in the NBA’s new “Bromance” era.

Is it really a good idea for all of the NBA superstars to cheer each other on via Twitter to a point that’s bordering on flirting?

How would you feel if you knew that after a future Miami Heat and Orlando Magic playoff game, that Dwight Howard and Lebron James were going out for ice cream?

Its not a good precedent.  Its unnatural, and it has set in motion more potential “teamups” that will exclude anyone that doesn’t live in the absolute biggest markets in the country.  New Orleans should start saying goodbye to Chris Paul now.  The Nuggets seem to have already come to terms with life after Carmelo Anthony.  Both seem to be steering their ships toward a New York Knicks Superteam with Amare Stoudemire.  Despite the team being unsuccessful and embarrassing at times, with suspect management, just by virtue of being in the Big Apple, they are going to win the lottery. That’s a hell of a way to reward hard work and competence.

How do you think that feels to a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are building a winner through patience and craftiness?

If you are a Heat fan or a Knicks fan, don’t bother answering.  So far its been the same response. “Thats tough, sorry.” But I believe that there is something more egregious that may happen as a result.  The very idea of winning a championship will be downgraded.

After all, if all the superstars are on one team, then is it really much of an achievement if they win it all?

Should teams have to rely on injuries to have a chance to compete?

That makes the other general managers and owners in the league begin to reconsider what success in the NBA means to them. If its impossible to compete in small markets no matter how intelligently you build your team, than suddenly you have a Major League Baseball situation, where many teams just linger on mediocrity to make a little money. Its not a good situation for fans outside of Miami, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But there is hope.  There is someone out there that can turn this experiment into a failure, therefore changing the course of the NBA.  His name is Kobe Bryant.  It seems that only the Lakers have what it takes to make this whole debacle go away.

Can’t you just envision Kobe wearing a chip the size of a microwave on his shoulder saying “Oh…  So now you need my help.”

Never one to endear himself to the media, the “Black Mamba” has enjoyed nearly unprecedented success in the league.  He owns 5 titles, and has played on a total of 7 teams that went to the finals.  As of right now, his Lakers are attempting to replicate the Chicago Bulls teams of the ’90’s and complete 2 three-peats.  Many people have just taken their success for granted, just like those Jordan-era teams.  This is no longer the case.

To get things straight, Kobe has never really been a “bad boy” of the NBA.  He was more of a conflicted personality.  He came into the league in his late teens, and spent most of his early days back in the hotel room while his teammates partied.  He wasn’t like most of the other players, anyway.  He had traveled across Europe already as a boy, where he was exposed to much more than the average NBA rookie.  He spoke Italian in addition to English from those years overseas.  He was a bit inward as well, which was in contrast to most everyone else he played alongside.  He was playing with mainly inner city young men who had just escaped poverty, and were enjoying their first opportunity at being rich. The “international” Bryant did not fit that description.  He never seemed to be that impressed with his fame or money.  He had a quiet focus, and was an absolute perfectionist, leaving little time for distractions.

He began to slowly alienate more and more people as time wore on.  First it was his Coach Phil Jackson and teammate Shaquille O’Neal.  After going to 4 finals in 5 years (winning 3), he suddenly became the goat when the team split up.  He was accused of being selfish by O’Neal, and being too difficult to coach by Phil Jackson.  And after all that success, everything was lost when Shaq moved on the Miami Heat.  Putting this situation under the microscope, however, reveals layers that the average observer was not exposed to at the time.  Shaquille O’Neal constantly came into camp out of shape and would never put in enough work on the free throw line to shore up his biggest weakness.  He also had a huge ego.  And Phil Jackson obviously was not too exasperated with Bryant, since he has now won two more titles with him since the breakup.

There are two things that we now know about Kobe Bryant.  The first being that he doesn’t accept anything less than 100 percent from anyone on the court (including Shaq.)  And most importantly, he can be counted on to give his all during every game.  I can assure you that there was more going on behind the scenes in those days.

His biggest character flaw was brought right into the spotlight, when he was accused of rape while having surgery in Colorado.  As time passed, it became evident that he wasn’t guilty of rape, but wasn’t guilty of being a faithful husband either.  So suddenly he was the new poster child for infidelity, which believe it or not, is absolutely widespread in all sports leagues.  He apologized publicly and took his penance quietly, and was able to regain more of his reputation than it initially appeared that he would.

Before his last two titles, Kobe had been accused of simply being Shaq’s wingman, which bred some resentment.  I think that can finally be put to rest.  He now has 2 NBA championships with him firmly in the drivers seat as team MVP.

He has also been verbally beaten in the media for his demands to Lakers management to trade him if they weren’t going to contend.  Looks like someone lit a fire, because from that point on, they began to win titles again. So it looks like in hindsight, these demands may have something to do with his current success. It didn’t take a superstar team-up to do it either.  His team relied on him, another all-star (Paul Gasol) and some talented role players.  Pretty much the same makeup as most other championship teams.  He didn’t require the whole “Justice League”, it was simply a hall of fame player playing on a well managed team.  He earned it.

I think most of the hatred directed toward Kobe has to do with the fact that he is a winner.  He beat your team.  It doesn’t matter what team I am referring to, he has beat them convincingly more than once.  His teams win, and when they do, your team doesn’t.  He’s the villain by virtue of his skill.  I would argue that he is the most fundamentally sound player in the NBA, and that his real talent lies in that fact.  If you ever watch a highlight video of Bryant, he will rarely do anything that couldn’t be featured in a basketball instructional video.  Even his off-balanced shots have a technique to them that is unmatched. He has an intensity akin to Michael Jordan – less talent but the same intensity.  His competitiveness is off the charts.  And also, you won’t find him on Twitter having “pillow talk” with his opponent the next night.  He plays the game the right way, on and off the court.

And I thought Villains play dirty?

So this brings us to the current story of the season.  Kobe is looking more and more like David to the Goliath that is the Miami Heat.  On his shoulders now rest the hope for most of the league, including David Stern.  And there really is no other story this year.  We will remember this season as either the season that the Heat dominated and won (causing an exodus of superstars to “superteams”), or the season that the Heat failed.  Like Jack Bauer in 24, its down to one person.  Kobe, you have a chance to go down as a hero, the NBA’s new “Knight in Shining Armor.” Looks like everyone gets a second act.

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