From Oscar to LeBron: The Road Well Traveled
All-Star Weekend is a nostalgic time for me: invariably, I find myself transported back to January, 1954, when my father treated me, at age ten, to great seats at the fourth NBA All-Star Game, in Madison Square Garden. It was a hard fought battle that went into overtime, necessitating a re-vote for MVP, honoring Bob Cousy instead of George Mikan, a change that turned out to prefigure many of the changes we are witnessing today; changes that make it undeniable that the game Bill Russell described as a simple one, played by grown men in short pants, is no longer — if you ask any team’s Data Analytics Department — so simple. Just weeks before that game, as if to discard future baggage, the NBA barred one of its duly-chosen participants, its lock-certain Rookie of the Year Jack Molinas for point shaving.
Arguably, “The League” arrived that night in 1954, though there were subsequent battles for survival, the most notable occurring a decade later when Oscar Robertson led the newly-constituted Players’ Union in its threat to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game, a tactic that got the players their first pension plan and ultimately succeeded in securing a seat at the table through an historic collective bargaining agreement.
The NBA is no longer the sentimental dance-hall league of its infancy. TNT, which produces the All-Star Game, now sports a 24-hour cable station (NBA-TV) that caters to a demographic that responds to advertising for fashionable men’s divorce attorney firms like Schmuck and Schmuck, and looks to entice and protect DUI defendants from license-jeopardizing legal action, using the catchy slogan “No cuffs.” To the best of my knowledge, NRA representatives have not as yet stepped up for a piece of the action, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time: abetted by rule changes limiting defensive hand-checking, it’s truly become a shooter’s league.
Having jettisoned Molinas, the league evolved rapidly after 1954, adding a new archetype of the agile big man (Bob Pettit and Bill Russell). Soon, a cadre of black players transformed the game, with Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson entering the league, one each year, over a span of three seasons. The last of these three to come aboard (in 1960), Oscar brought with him a self-taught textbook game that represented both the invention and the perfection of all the elements of modern basketball.
What aspect of the modern game did Oscar not perfect? You say his range and outside shot were not quite those of Jerry West, his contemporary? But had the three-point shot existed then, Oscar would undoubtedly have developed the range he instead disdained, preferring to nudge out that extra foot and taunt would-be shot blockers: “You’ll get the next one, big fella.” When the bamboozled defender would go up another inch or two, so would Oscar, while repeating his taunting mantra.
But yes, the rules have changed. Whereas talk used to be that the way to help smaller players survive was to raise the baskets to eleven or twelve feet (a totally misguided idea, as the “little men” would actually have been the ones most detrimentally affected), the introduction of the three point shot in 1979 turned out — completely unexpectedly — to be the progenitor of a seismic change. Great outside shooters like Steph Curry became able to contend for MVP trophies and inspire wrong-headed (if well-meaning) comparisons to all-time greats whose physical gifts were far greater, as are those not only of LeBron James, but a host of contemporary stars, from Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and James Harden.
The reverberations from the introduction of the three-point shot have spawned a sea-change in the types of players coveted by championship contending teams (and all others as well), rendering meaningless (according to my 30 year old son, himself a former college player) any serious attempt to compare players of different eras against one another, because such radically different skill sets are now required.
For example, muscular power forwards like Maurice Lucas and Charles Oakley would be ill-suited for the floor-spacing intricacies of today’s offensive strategies, which demand that big men be able to stretch the defense away from the basket with the threat of their three-point shooting accuracy . And the barring of defensive hand-checking has made Curry’s slithery elusiveness a prized skill in ways not previously imaginable. For my money, defensive stoppers from earlier eras — Al Attles being a prime example — would have shut Curry down (and bruised him in the process), whereas for David’s, the Attles of today, trying to play Curry in the same way he battled Robertson and West, would have six personals in no time.
Over the years, as the league became progressively more prosperous — on its way to evolving into a fraternity of multi-millionaires — the all-star game has become increasingly meaningless, with the carnival aspects of the week-end overwhelming the game itself, a gradual change that was greatly accelerated when TNT took the entire enterprise away from network television in 2002.
The cartoonish super-hero aspects of the game became predominant; the game itself was derided as being “in full cartoon mode.” Even token defense was frowned upon, with Anthony Davis’s 52 points in last year’s 192-182 fiasco making a travesty of records, a travesty seemingly furthered this year by eradicating the entire East-West format, replacing it with one involving the two leading vote-getters, Curry and James, choosing up playground style, leading to speculation that the game’s competitive tension might be increased — at least a little bit — by the new format, which pitted some regular season team-mates against each other.
TNT introduced the game with a “Sports And Society” program cobbled together to stress community responsibility and activism. All wanted more energy, more competitiveness. Coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr were especially outspoken. Captains Curry and James designated their respective favorite charities to receive large donations totaling half a million dollars, 70% going to the charity of the wining captain. James’s chosen charity was the Los Angles After School All-Stars. Was this a tip-off clue that LeBron, who becomes a free agent again this summer, is headed for the Lakers (who have the requisite “cap room”) next season?
As the players were introduced (all were adept at impression management). one was struck by the mammoth differences between the body types of the captains, whatever the similarities in their suave demeanors, Curry resembling a sweet little kid and James a small but solidly constructed building.
Remarkably, after some ridiculous entertainment introduction, including a badly botched National Anthem, the new format clicked in and worked beautifully: there was playground defense and energy; a competitive tension was maintained throughout. I ain’t the demographic no more, as the ancillary entertainment made quite clear, but I got a shout out for you, Commissioner Adam Silver! “You set the game back five to ten years. Works fine for me.”
Fans were treated to an incredible last five minutes, the whole quarter really. Suddenly, we were in some kind of basketball heaven, watching the best players in the world go at it with playground intensity. But, the rule of the playgrounds has always been that cream rises. And as always, one person stood out. If this was his introduction to L.A. (along with fellow free agent Paul George?), who could begrudge it to LeBron? Having put his foolish self-presentation of “The Decision” long behind him, he can now safely (for his image) remove himself from Cleveland in favor of LA., and take his fan base with him. That fan base should include all who truly love the game.
The game’s entirely fitting ending came when James, his team finally up three after having been down fifteen, smothered and overwhelmed the smaller Curry, trapping him in the corner, with no room to fire (reminiscent of his historic chase-down block in Game Seven of the 2016 Finals that James stole from Golden State) to preserve the 148-145 win he had engineered for Team LeBron.
The $350K check went to the Los Angeles After School All-Stars. Adam Silver spoke: “There can only be one MVP: LeBron James.” With what has become characteristic grace, The King accepted the award. His demeanor said simply: “Another day at the office.” Maybe it still is a simple game, even with the pants no longer so short.
While, to paraphrase the ultra-genial Silver, Lebron is still The Man, the intriguing Team LeBron squad made its stretch run with three guards, Kevin Durant, and James (the strongest man on the floor) at center, where he was matched up against what, barring serious injury, should be the future: heir apparent 7’2” Joel Embiid, with the supple agility of a guard and a feathery three-point shot. If James can be said to be unique in basketball history in that he merges the archetypes of best all-around player (Oscar) and big man who dominates with size, strength, and power (Wilt’s archetype), the only part left over belongs to Embiid. The league’s future is awfully bright
LeBron In Time
So maybe it’s time for a fresh evaluation of LeBron’s place in the pantheon.
He is now the subject of entire courses in Sociology, at the college level. With not just his game, but also his behavior and demeanor, on this special night in the spotlight, James acted like the league’s spokesman and elevated himself to statesman status. (In his fifteenth year in the league, he shows no slippage in his unparalleled greatness, so it is imperative to hold off on adding the adjective “elder.”)
At whatever age, James has now, if one includes his philanthropic commitment to charities and children (Cleveland could be the third “c”), distanced himself from the socially irresponsible Michael Jordan, the man to whom he has so often been derisively compared, and made the case for adding himself to the pantheon of Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
With LeBron’s re-assertion of his regal status inevitably comes scrutiny of how he uses his power and influence. He has of course his personal agenda, attention to his legacy. This dictates winning more rings. In the final year of his four year contract with Cleveland, he stands poised for another run at an NBA title, or at least his eighth consecutive trip to The Finals; four with Miami before the last three with Cleveland.
Despite all the Cavaliers’ turmoil and the massive roster changes, and the overwhelming brilliance of Golden State’s collection of home-grown talent bolstered by the infusion of Kevin Durant (whom some are saying is currently LeBron’s true peer), who can count out Cleveland? Especially so since the Houston Rockets have a real chance to gain home-court advantage versus the Warriors. As these teams have nearly identical records, can we be that certain that Houston will not upset Golden State in the Western Finals?
James is of course not the first NBA star to have influence beyond his outsize talents. As indicated earlier, Oscar Robertson, as president of the players association, brought the owners to the bargaining table by threatening to boycott the all-star game. Earvin Johnson was a seminal force in promoting both black entrepreneurship and AIDS awareness. Shaquille O’Neal followed in Magic’s entrepreneurial footsteps. Michael Jordan’s political aloofness created a vacuum, in addition to being a lost opportunity, until Charles Barkley filled it, inflating it mightily with gusts of alternatingly fresh and flatulent air.
Can James capture the moment of his great popularity and influence, in this most urgent and perilous of times, and become a meaningful force in the Resistance and the Opposition? Can he and will he? He made a good start many months ago when he called Trump a “bum,” and, just before All-Star Sunday, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham (Instagram?), handed him great bully pulpit material by saying that he should “shut up and dribble.”
But although LeBron’s well-earned nickname is “The King,” the NBA is not a simple monarchy; it more mirrors and reflects (can I get away with that combination?) the workings of oligarchic capitalism that we are seeing in the business world .
Who are the meritocratic oligarchs now? Durant, James, Westbrook, Davis, and Harden are the givens. Maybe Kyrie? Some think Curry too. Giannis Antetokounmpo soon. I think Embiid. Maybe Porzingis, if he heals. But, damn, so many guys are so uniquely unbelievable now.
Anyway, I’m not talking deep Marxist scholarship; just a basic understanding of the inexorable momentum toward squeezing out the smaller market player, with ever more intense concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of a few oligarchs, as reflected by today’s trend toward the concentration of super-star talent in a few franchises, with James’ widely-derided “Decision” seven years ago proving to have been a watershed, a new way to play an old game: assembling a championship contender. James’s decision was essentially to play with his friends, an option not previously open to stars of bygone eras.
The Next Level
In 1991, with Scottie Pippen ascending to elite level status, it was established (by the Jordan-Pippen duo) that at least two great players were required to field a championship team, with Horace Grant and then Dennis Rodman providing — arguably — a third star in that constellation. Only now, it happens much faster: the cards are re-dealt more easily, even with complicated contracts containing no-trade clauses, while owners are left gasping “as if free agency wasn’t enough!” Sometimes it works; sometimes not. The James Harden-Chris Paul combination has energized Houston, whereas an even bolder assemblage (Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George attempting to share just one basketball) in Oklahoma City has not fully jelled.
But does the case of LeBron James represent some kind of unique development in the place of athletes as political figures wielding power? James came into the league from high school with a $90 million shoe contract before ever playing an NBA game. A careful yet bold entrepreneur, he has managed his image expertly, with the one exception being the way he initially left Cleveland, which has long been overshadowed by his triumphantly populist return three years ago, resulting in three straight trips to the NBA Finals. In those three Finals, he has been the opposition to the dominant Golden State Warriors, winner of two titles in three years, sandwiched around a third year in which they set a league record (73) for regular season victories.
During that record-breaking season, the Warriors had jumped to a 3-1 lead in the Finals, which very probably would have ended 4-1 had not Draymond Green disqualified himself from Game Five by foolishly taking James’ bait and making it about balls of a different sort: feeling his own maligned, Green struck out at LeBron’s. Having been stepped over by James’ legs, he took a shot at what The King has between them.
Cleveland’s stirring comeback in that 2015-16 Finals series of course featured James, who strung together three magnificent performances, but also Kyrie Irving, who provided the support and scoring power that James needed to help him combat the Warriors’ overall superiority and depth.
But suddenly last summer, after the Warriors won back their title, Irving publicly bridled at remaining in James’s shadow (if indeed he really was), and forced a trade away from Cleveland, settling in with Boston, Cleveland’s closest competitor in the East.
Does James’ seemingly unique position change the way we should think of power balances? Who holds the cards here? Wherein lies power? Have things significantly changed? Typically, if James moves, others generally follow, Irving’s case being an anomaly.
When we talk of monopoly and oligopoly’s concentration on an ever-dwindling number of teams at the apex, LeBron’s unique position is of enormous significance. Is he The King or one of the oligarchs? Consider that he alone can shift the entire power balance at will by leaving Cleveland again, create a new group of oligarchs with his friends . It’s as if James wants to own the league.
Does he wield unique power, and can that power translate to influence off the floor? Magic Johnson got coaches fired and hired in Los Angeles in the early 80’s, and made a point of promoting black capitalism. He changed a lot, paved the way for LeBron, but James grew up in an environment dominated by the gear-saturated AAU recruiting mill, where you got to form a local all-star team and play with your best buddies, and it didn’t feel like you were at the bottom of a top down world.
This is the time when we should call out to James to use his cultural capital and to stand in the forefront with Gregg Popovich, to create a new culture of activism among elite athletes. He made a good start in his statements about the All-Star Game’s new format, and sounded as if he had the players’ backs in asking that they play a bit harder.
May the new format that he enhanced and legitimated by his grace and play be a springboard to bring his outsize influence and popularity to bear.
That would truly change the game .
1 When TNT announcers Chris Webber and Reggie Miller salute Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by quipping that his sky hook has never been duplicated, they ignore the fact that traditional pivot men are no longer used in that fashion. Jabbar’s line of development (the thin, touch-oriented big man) gets three points for his money today. Joel Embiid knows this quite well.
2 Anyway, I’d much rather watch a Kyrie Irving foray to the hole than survey the Amazon archives for a lean piece of sirloin from the shelves of Whole Foods.
3 There is a rough parallel here to the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws that allow billionaire tech oligarchs to play freely.
4 And realize James’s stated goal of many years ago: to become a “socially conscious mogul.”