My interest in the NBA reached its nadir during 2011-12. From the days in the late 1970s and 80s when I wouldn't miss a game of the Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers to this season was a matter of night and day. After the frustrations of the NFL lockout, I had no patience with basketball's labor difficulties. And like many people I was pretty disgusted with the entire spectacle of LeBron and the Big Three. I began tuning into the latter stages of the playoffs probably more out a sense of boredom than anything. But then I became fascinated with what I saw.
Most people I knew weren't rooting so much for any particular team as they were rooting against LeBron and the Heat. I could sympathize, but I had another problem. The Heat were playing the Boston Celtics in the conference finals. Let's see, I was a big Sixers fan in the 80s and a Steelers fan; for some mysterious reason I have an issue with Boston teams (Steelers/Ravens had nothing on Sixers/Celtics in its heyday). So I found myself taking up the cause of Miami and was rather pleased that they prevailed. I also couldn't help but notice how they won. LeBron had changed in a very positive sense.
Things were a little different in the Finals. Like most I believed that the Thunder would win, but soon I found myself rooting hard for the Heat for two reasons. First, it was now obvious to me that James was not just playing well, it was also clear that he had changed and grown as both a player and a man. He was displaying mature leadership, heart and clutch performances, sometimes under personal duress. Second, I was experiencing a backlash against all the haters among both the critics and the general population. I no longer saw them as expressing righteous outrage over the real indiscretions committed by James in the recent past, but as an ignorant and insensitive mob that refused to acknowledge and respect redemption.
Our relationships with celebrities can be weird and a little sick at times. We seem to vacillate from giving them far too much slack to going to the opposite extreme and according them none at all. For many the final word was in on LeBron James; he was a choke artist as a player and a jerk as a human being. Consequently, the critics were surprised, and dare I say somewhat disappointed that James had moved beyond his earlier limitations. There seemed to be some problems with many in fully celebrating LeBron's achievement which went beyond the mere mechanics of winning a championship, perhaps because the outcome of the process left them looking a bit like jerks themselves.
I have not lived a perfect life, nowhere near close to having done so. And please forgive me if I assume that most of those who are reading these words haven't done so either. We have had the advantage of having made our mistakes in relative anonymity. While we envy the fact that the triumphs of the LeBron James' of the world are played out on large stages with the attendant perks, the downside is that their failings are as well. In all too many cases when confronted with their shortcomings these celebrities make a show of contrition and then hope or assume that we all will have short memories and that everything will eventually blow over. James (and teammates Wade and Bosh) were embarrassed by last year's events on and off the court. But, instead of brushing it off and ‘moving on', they, as Tomlin is fond of saying, embraced that embarrassment, owned it and made significant changes in their conduct. My guess is that it wasn't easy.
There are a whole bushel full of lessons that we can take away from this as fans about what the crucible of high level, high stakes competition provides in terms of opportunities and challenges for both the participants and the observers.
I found myself making comparisons between LeBron and Ben Roethlisberger. Many in Steeler Nation made the final judgment concerning Ben in the spring of 2010; he was a bum, and we would be better off without him. I suspect that the Steelers and the league colluded in saddling Ben with a punishment that probably exceeded the true extent of the crime. No criminal charges were filed and if being a jerk earns you four game suspensions then our major sports leagues might have difficulty fielding teams on any given week. But it served as a wakeup call and started an arc of redemption that resulted, on the field, with a third Super Bowl appearance (albeit a losing one) and the heroic return to field in the second half of the Cleveland game this past season. Off the field by all accounts Ben has become a better teammate and appears a domestic paragon given his marriage and impending fatherhood.
Of course, there are those who believe that Ben is just engaged in a very effective exercise in public relations, and they may be right. But, like the critics of LeBron, their cynicism may be more grounded in their desire for self-justification, which would occur if they could successfully label Ben as both a jerk and a phony, instead of someone experiencing a very public process of maturation and growth.
I have been on record for a while concerning what I believe to be our overemphasis on talent and ‘measurables' as the key elements of competitive success. It's certainly an easy enough mistake to make for both players and fans. You need prodigious talent to even be part of the discussion in the major professional sports. But there is a difference between the acknowledgement that talent is a prerequisite of being part of the process on one hand, and it being the most determinant factor in being successful on the other.
I can appreciate the skepticism, disorientation and disbelief an athlete might experience after he has risen to the penultimate level on the strength of superior talent, then being told that it is not enough. Also the incomprehension of fans who have difficulty imagining what comprises ‘enough' at the elite level and must be dependent on the judgment of ‘experts' who constantly let them down because they (the experts) are in service to entertainment demands rather than the competition demands of the sport.
What the sport(s) demands is that while you can easily compete on talent alone, individuals, teams and organizations must actually learn how to win. This explains how some teams consistently compete successfully at the highest levels regardless of the variations of talent on both their and their opponents teams.
For example, Ben and Eli Manning are usually not the first guys mentioned when the discussion begins about the best quarterbacks in the game.
In spite winning and being named MVP of the Super Bowl for the second time, Eli Manning ranks third in terms of media attention in the Big Apple. The current obsession is with Jets' quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tim Tabor.
Yet over the past seven years the two quarterbacks account for five Super Bowl appearances and a combined four championships. Neither quarterback made it within the top 25 players in the league on the NFL Networks Top 100 program.
The time it has taken James to win a championship isn't all that unusual. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird won championships relatively early in their careers (as did Ben), but in all cases, including Ben, they did so with franchises with a lot of institutional experience competing for championships. Perhaps more typical was the number of attempts it took Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons to figure out how to get past the Lakers, and then the multiple attempts it took Michael Jordan and the Bulls to get past the Pistons. Thomas and Jordan were older when they started and had the benefit of coming from big time college programs under Bobby Knight at Indiana and Dean Smith at North Carolina respectively. James entered into the NBA straight from high school.
When you think about it, unless it's directly on the heels of a championship (like this year for New York) the Steelers and the Giants tend to be overlooked in the discussions about the best teams in the league. This suggests the standard of evaluation in these matters is a little off.
The 70s Steelers took three years under Chuck Noll to become playoff caliber, and then another three years to get over the final hurdle to a championship. Much is made of the fact that the team drafted four eventual Hall Of Famers that year. But some feel that the '72 team would have gone to the Super Bowl were it not for a blown special teams play in the AFCCG. And only one of those four draftees actually started (Lambert) in '74.
In subsequent years the genius of the franchise is how it has adapted to evaluating, selecting and integrating new personnel, new rules, especially those specifically designed to blunt the team's success (the Mel Blount rule; more recently Hines Ward) and providing consistent high quality leadership on the field and in the front office. They also have been very patient with the development of players and relatively wise with when and how they part ways with their employees.
Many fans were not happy when they allowed Plaxico Burress to leave via free agency and traded Santonio Holmes. Not unreasonable given the fact that each player has caught a last second, game winning catch in a Super Bowl. But whatever their strengths each player has issues with the exercise of judgment that has hurt their respective teams. Burress went to jail and Holmes now has the reputation of being a locker room cancer. You have to go back to the 90s to find situations where they allowed a player to get away for whatever reason that there was later regret (Rod Woodson and Mike Vrabel). The team learned and evolved.
Undoubtedly, one of the things that LeBron and company learned in a particularly humiliating manner is that talent alone was not enough. Humbled, they learned how to play together and how to exercise the type of leadership that enhanced their own efforts and that of their teammates. However, don't expect to hear much of anything about this, except from a few isolated voices during the extended post mortems following the playoffs. For now the best entertainment purposes are served by kissing rather than kicking LeBron so there will be some sucking up. So the opportunity for us to get the benefit of the higher lessons will likely be lost or obscured. Nonetheless, there are some things we can glean from LeBron's triumph that we can relate to the Steelers' prospects for the 2012 season.
Mike Tomlin is a very talented head coach, but he is also learning how to win as much as anyone. Some have been impatient or suspicious as he has labored to master his craft. For example, there are those who argue that Tomlin's early success was predicated on his inheriting Bill Cowher's team, a point I have serious disagreements with. But even if you accept the position on its face it does not explain why he was able to get Cowher's team to the Super Bowl twice while Cowher only managed to do so once.
If you are into patterns then Tomlin's tenure has something in common with the Star Trek movies. The odd numbered years haven't been bad, but the even numbered ones have been off the charts (two Super Bowls). This is year number six. In addition to what he is learning, he also has more control. His staff was as much a carryover from previous regimes as anything. Those that remain, mostly the defensive staff (LeBeau, Mitchell and Butler) are all top shelf. And his additions, (Everest, Montgomery, Kugler, Lake) all have been improvements. I'll take it on faith that he knows what he's doing with Haley. Time will tell. Also these are largely his players now as well.
Because of past successes all but the second year players and the rookies know what it takes to get to at least the championship game. Even free agent newcomer Leonard Pope has Super Bowl experience. There are a lot of reasons that we can get excited about the draft. The most important is not so much that they have the potential to be quality players; more often than not that is case of those selected by the front office. It's that so many in this year's group may be able to contribute at a high level very quickly.
There are no guarantees here other than the likelihood that this is a team that is ready to compete and has the tools to prevail. When the team won in '08 Tomlin made the point that it is not what a team is capable of doing, but what it is willing to do. LeBron has clearly been capable. This year he was also willing. We'll see how willing the Steelers are this fall.