Thursday, May 13, 2010

Greatness in Sports, Part I: What is greatness?

As I write this piece, game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics is about to begin. Currently, the fourth seeded Celtics lead the top seeded Cavaliers three games to two. Right now, the talk is about whether or not LeBron James can lift the Cavaliers to victory and what his major malfunction was in games 2 and 5 of this series. If Cleveland loses tonite, they are eliminated from the playoffs and LeBron's status as the best player in the NBA will be (rightfully) questioned.

I, over the course of several entries, am going to discuss greatness or at least what I feel constitutes greatness in sports. This, the first entry, will delve into the criteria I am going to use to establish what a truly "great" athlete is. For the most part, these will be reflective of both team and individual sports. Where there is a difference, I will make that clear.

After establishing what I feel defines "greatness" I am going to delve into LeBron James and whether or not he can be considered a truly great player. This is something I've been wondering about over the past few years between his grandstanding about being a free agent two full seasons before that happens, his celebrations and antics during games, and his lack of playoff success thus far. Of particular note will be the aforementioned games 2 and 5 performances. If the Celtics manage to defeat the Cavaliers tonight or in this round, I will discuss what that means for LeBron and his legacy thus far. If Cleveland manages to somehow win this series, that too will be looked at.

Once I finish discussing LeBron, I will point out some current and past athletes who I consider great, why they are great, and compare what (if any) differences they have with LeBron. The primary focus of that will be the NBA and combat sports (boxing and MMA), as those are the athletic endeavors I am most comfortable and interested in discussing. With all that being said, it's time to get down to brass tacks and break down what makes a competitor great.

What is greatness?

Greatness is defined as being remarkable or exceptionally outstanding. In sports, the word great or words comprised of it, the word great is bandied about without any real thought to iset. There are several, to be exteremly modest, athletes who could be considered amazing or very talented, but greatness is something that transcends just pure talent or unique physical gifts, although both of these items are essential to greatness.

Greatness is a combination of talent and physical gifts that makes an athlete perform well. One cannot be a successful athlete without having some kind of combination of the two. If you look through the annals of sports, every successful athlete has these attributes. Babe Ruth, a truly great baseball player with no easily definable physical gifts, had an incredible ability to hit a baseball like no other. Of course, Babe Ruth was great for more reasons than just hitting a baseball. Babe Ruth was a larger than life personality.

If one was to take a look at all the iconic athletes of the last century, it would be apparent that nearly all of them had a personality that transcended their sport. Truly great athletes transcend, or as I'll discuss later have the ability to transcend, the sport they compete in and become a global icon. In order to do that, the person needs to have more than just an ability to play be good at his or her sport. Patrick Ewing was a very good center in the NBA, but he would never be considered an icon or be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in basketball. Babe Ruth was a national icon because of his cartoonish appearance and lifestyle. Muhammad Ali changed what an athlete could do or be. Michael Jordan became a global icon that the world had never seen before due to a combination of his ability as a basketball player and his charisma both on and off the court. With those two elements in place, there are still two more that are vital to an athlete to be considered truly great. Without them, someone like Michael Jordan would be no better than Allen Iverson, someone with great natural talent and a large personality.

The first is intelligence/mental toughness/mental edge. For someone to be truly great, they need to be smarter than the vast majority of their peers. An athlete that is great is pretty much always one step ahead of whoever is guarding them, fighting them, playing against them, etc. They also can't be psyched out or toyed with or thrown off their game mentally, but possess that ability to do it to their foes. Anderson Silva dances and pulls Matrix moves on his opponents before he destroys them. When Michael Jordan got the ball against the Utah Jazz in game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals with the Bulls down one and 17 seconds left, the Utah crowd lets out an "OOOOOOOOO," like they were punched in the gut. Everyone in that building knew what was going to happen once Michael got the chance to put up a shot. That's the kind of mental edge that only someone who is great could have. When put in the same situation, one that would test their own mental toughness, they do not let it defeat them. No one could name a time when Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan was beaten mentally. Even in defeat, their mind does not wilt. They could be beat up physically, like the 1990 Detroit Pistons did to Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but their mental toughness would not abate. A weaker mental competitor than Jordan would have wilted after the beating he endured from the likes of Bill Laimbeer and the rest of the Bad Boys. Even after a brutal defeat, Jordan was able to come back the next season and lead the Bulls to a championship.

This leads to another essential tool for the great athlete, one that links heavily with the prior paragraph: an overwhelming desire to win. A winner does not crumble mentally and after a defeat is able to come back and successfully compete at the highest level. If one was to look at the greatest players or performers in each sport, they are all champions of some level. Michael Jordan was the ultimate winner, Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Randy Couture has managed to beat back Father Time over the years and win championships in his 40s when most men should not be able to compete in a combat sport. These men all had a desire to win and a mental toughness that pushed them past just being exciting performers or talented athletes and turned them into icons in their respective sports. Winning a championship doesn't automatically make you great of course, and conversely not winning one doesn't make you less than great. Dan Marino is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but he never even sniffed a Super Bowl. In team sports in particular, a great player is at the mercy of those around him. Kevin Garnett was superb in his prime, but he had vastly inferior teammates for the bulk of his career. A basketball or football or baseball player needs to have competent teammates who do not wilt under pressure and are at least competent in order to win a championship. Despite not winning a title, the ability to raise your teammates above a level they would be incapable without you and at least compete for a championship is a sign of greatness. I mentioned Allen Iverson before and during his prime, he led the 76ers to the NBA Finals and made them better for years. He however, wanted to win in a fashion that made him a star, even at the expense of his team's success. Kobe Bryant was guilty of the same thing for the bulk of the last decade. A great player is able to make a team succeed by making them better without having to be the center of attention at all times. In combat sports, winning a title is essential since it is the ultimate sign of greatness in an individual sport to achieve championship status.

To summarize what makes an athlete great, it is a combination of physical gifts, talent, a larger than life personality, mental toughness and intelligence, and a powerful desire to win. In the entries that will follow, I'll delve into some case studies that show particular athletes and how they fit into my greatness criteria. Some people (Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali) will pop up again and be explained in greater detail, but the very next entry will be about LeBron James and where he currently fits in the greatness debate.

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