THE WEEK IN SPORTS
The words “sports” and “momentous” rarely go together. In fact, to say that this has been a “momentous week in sports” seems oxymoronic. The whole idea of spectator sports is to escape from the real world and re-enter a childlike state where you can concern yourself with how people run, jump or throw around balls, rather than wage wars, confront illnesses, or rearrange the tax system. Momentous? Impossible.
Yet every now and then, we sports fans live through a week that is so transformative that we simply must pause and take notice. This has definitely been one of those rare weeks.
Let’s start with the hardwood. The sports week began last Sunday night with the Dallas Mavericks winning their first-ever championship. It was also the first time that a player from outside of the Americas received accolades as being one of the game’s all time greats. And for good reason. Dirk Nowitzky, who hails from Germany, took over these playoffs with a display of outside shooting, passing, and inside toughness that was eerily reminiscent of Larry Bird in his prime.
But let’s face it – when you think about what has transpired in basketball this past Sunday, your first thoughts do not extend to the Mavericks or Nowitzky. The real story centers around the team they beat, and especially its star player: the athlete formerly known as “King James.” Talk about a fall from grace.
Less than a decade ago, the entire basketball world was ablaze with excitement at the prospect of witnessing a player whose talent was unmatched in the game’s history. Some compared him to Michael Jordan, except that LeBron James was so much bigger than Jordan. Taller and more massive, to be precise. And the story wasn’t just that James was THAT good, but that as luck would have it, he was able to be drafted right out of high school by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s right, the “Mistake by the Lake” was granted the privilege of hosting the man-child to which Sports Illustrated referred as “the Chosen One.” Even if you’re not from the Midwest you had to appreciate this story, reminiscent as it was of how a sleepy hamlet in northeast Wisconsin came to be called “Titletown” because of a team that would dominate the National Football League for years.
We knew that it would take the Cavs a little while to reach the level of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, but we also felt that the Cavs’ dominance was just a matter of time. LeBron James was the Rookie of the Year in 2003-4, and by 2007, he propelled the Cavs to the NBA Finals. In 2008-09 and 2009-10, LeBron won the MVP award and the Cavs had the league’s best regular season record. But a championship continued to elude the Cavs, and last summer, LeBron announced on a 60-minute ESPN telecast that he was “taking his talents” to Miami where he would play with two other superstars and win not one, “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships. LeBron, who has sported a “Chosen 1” tattoo on his back for years, came to be the most despised man in northeast Ohio.
This past Sunday, the LeBron brand officially crashed and burned. For the second straight year, when his team needed him the most, James was missing in action. And this time, America absolutely loved it! It wasn’t just Ohioans who wallowed in LeBron hatred; fans all over the country figured that they’d stumbled onto the best comedy since Animal House. The jokes abounded: “Did you hear that someone asked LeBron for change for a dollar? He only gave up 75 cents. ‘Sorry, I don’t have a fourth quarter,’ LeBron said” (That’s a reference to the fact that in the six NBA Finals games, he averaged a whopping three points in each of the fourth quarters – hardly Messiah material.) Or perhaps you prefer this one: “LeBron was right when he said ‘not two, not three, not four …” championships. He ain’t gonna win any!”
Clearly that’s wrong. He’ll get his championship. In fact, he still seems destined to win multiple championships when all is said and done. But I doubt he’ll ever get the affection of the public. LeBron, you see, committed two sins that an athlete cannot commit if he wants to be loved. To begin, he appeared to suggest that athletes can win championships without even having to work at it – all they have to do is get together with a couple of superstar friends during an off-season party, decide to play together, and … voila, it’s celebration time! Sorry, but we fans want our athletes to have to work for their titles. We want to think that a major league championship is like an odyssey; you can’t simply inherit one the way, say, George W. Bush inherited the Presidency. LeBron didn’t seem to appreciate that.
The other thing LeBron did is celebrate his own greatness before it was demonstrated. That’s a major no-no. Fans can choose to celebrate an athlete who has never won the “Big One,” but when an athlete publicly touts himself as the “Chosen 1” or “the King” … he’d better have some rings.
Right now, LeBron is about as accomplished as Dan Fouts, but he struts around as if he’s Joe Montana. He’s got the pedigree of George Gervin, but he talks as if he’s Michael Jordan. And he’s not alone – when he joined the Miami Heat together with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, Wade proclaimed that trio arguably the greatest trio in the history of basketball. But the last time I checked, the 60s Celtics and 80s Lakers both had trios of all-time greats who each had won many championships. By contrast, the trio of Wade, Bosh and James have won a total of 1, 0, and 0 titles, respectively. Greatest trio ever? Make me gag.
This past Sunday, the sports gods had their say: “LeBron: shut your mouth. Wait until you win a championship before you start tooting your own horn. In fact, why don’t you wait until you win, not one, ‘not two, not three …’ Why don’t you just let your ball skills do the talking. It worked for America’s new darling, Dirk the German. And trust us, no sooner will you get humble than you’ll win titles. Otherwise, it’s just way too much fun for EVERYONE to watch you lose, and we do want the fans to have some fun.”
So that was Sunday’s news.
I’m going to largely skip over the news from the middle of this past sports week. But let’s at least briefly acknowledge what happened.
In talking about LeBron and Dirk, I was making the sports gods look inspired by their pursuit of justice. They see a big mouth with a whale of talent go up against a less talented, but more humble opponent, and they choose to let the first guy fall on his face and propel the second one to stardom. Love those gods!
Or do I? Because only three days after the Mavs beat the Heat, the sports gods were saying “justice, schmustice” when they allowed the Boston Bruins to defeat the Vancouver Canucks and claim this year’s Stanley Cup. This was just the latest in Bean Town’s long list of championships – it seems like between the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins, that city has won about 100 titles in my lifetime. Vancouver? The Canucks are their one major league team in any of the big four North American team sports, and suffice it to say that despite playing in a few different championship series, Vancouver has won as many Stanley Cups as LeBron James.
Cruel, gods. Cruel. Did you really have to give the Canucks a two games to none lead before you made them fall apart yet again? That’s just wrong. Vancouver has given the world its most beautiful urban park. It deserves better.
So yes, the sports week started on a high note and, at least for me, took a dip in the middle. But it sure ended with a bang. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, there’s still time to find out: turn on your TV round about 6:00 p.m. Eastern time today, and prepare yourselves to watch greatness. You see, this week the sports world has been introduced to its latest version of “the Natural.”
One of my friends once said, in reference to Michael Jordan, “When I saw Magic Johnson play, I swore I’d never see a better basketball player. Obviously, I was wrong.” Well, folks, when I was watching the U.S. Open yesterday on TV, I found myself saying the same thing about a different sport. When I watched Tiger Woods play, I swore I’d never see a better golfer. It sure looks like I was wrong.
To be fair, I’m not predicting that Rory McIlroy, the 22 year-old from Northern Ireland who has now led after six of the last seven rounds of major championship golf, will be better in his prime than Tiger was. Nobody in golf’s history has been better in his prime than Tiger was. But what I am saying is that McIlroy seems more of a natural than Tiger – his strokes are equally brilliant, and FAR more effortless. And that means that McIlroy’s prime promises to last a lot longer than Tiger’s.
Tiger has already endured multiple knee operations. And this only stands to reason given the wicked torque in his swing. Tiger crushed the golf ball, but he was also crushing his own body in the process. If we do see him make a comeback, I predict he will become the golf equivalent of the junk-ball pitcher in baseball, who doesn’t have the fastball to strike out hitters but has learned crafty ways to turn curve balls into slow grounders. Those pitchers can be highly effective, but they’re not exactly Mount Rushmore material.
McIlroy is different. I don’t see anything violent in his swing. It all looks so gentle, so easy. And yet he’s just blowing away not only the field but the golf course. Nobody in history has reached 14 shots under par in a U.S. open, until now. Nobody had even reached 13. And the crazy thing is, he was practically doing the same thing at this year’s Masters until he choked on the last day.
Well, we’ve now come to the last day of the U.S. Open, and McIlroy still has time to choke once again. It happened to LeBron, it could happen to him, right? I don’t think so. This weekend has the feel of a coronation. And McIlroy has the feel of being the real deal. I expect he’ll do what Tiger used to do when he had a huge lead: go about his business with a workmanlike round, hitting fairways and greens on a regular basis, and making the occasional mid-range put. We’ve seen the prototype. We know how it can work. Only this time, we won’t watch a guy cussing and spitting and violently striking the ball, as if he’d rather be in the ring cleaning Mike Tyson’s clock.
No, this time, we’ll be watching a guy who looks like the golfing gods had him in mind when they created the sport. All true fans love it when that happens, and it doesn’t happen often. You won’t find a sports fan who doesn’t love Babe Ruth or Wayne Gretzky any more than you’ll find an art history buff who doesn’t love Rembrandt or Michelangelo. What’s not to love?