LeBron is now 2-3 in Finals appearances. When discussing the Heat’s attempt to claw back from a 3-1 series deficit to the San Antonio Spurs, James made the normal “Why not us?” argument. What followed was both strange and emblematic of a prevailing attitude toward playoff competition.
I’m not sure exactly when it became normal, but there is a sentiment in today’s culture that is neatly summed up by LeBron’s subsequent quote: “I’d rather get my two months off.” Basically, LeBron would rather miss the playoffs completely than lose in the NBA Finals.
How did this become even semi-acceptable for society on the whole let alone for the NBA’s best player? There used to be honor in a hard fought loss. Now it seems people are more concerned with being cool than appearing the loser. We have long defined “cool” as someone who doesn’t care about what people think, someone uninhibited by societal conventions. Over time this has morphed into someone who simply doesn’t care. If you care and you win, then great. But heaven forbid you care and you lose. It seems far better to mail it in and have a ready made excuse. “I wasn’t really trying, anyway. I could have won had I REALLY given it my all.”
This is not limited to sports. We all have things we pretend we could have accomplished if only we had given it our real effort. We fabricate excuses for why it was that we didn’t have time, money, or the freedom to really pursue our goals. But it is a blatant fear of failure and all encompassing worry about social acceptance. Everyone is afraid of being outed as one without extraordinary talent. Like the phrase “better stay silent and be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” this fear of total commitment has permeated all activities. If we give max effort and STILL we aren’t good enough, how are we suppose to accept ourselves? We live in America, where we can be whatever we want to be!!!
Right. I could be the starting Center for the Cavs at only 6 feet tall. We have been fed continual nonsense about how we all “can be whatever it is that we want to be, if only we work hard enough.” It’s a pleasant thought, and for a select few, it can be the reality. But for most, it only sets up a feeling of failure if one’s best shot is still not enough. For ego preservation it becomes far more relaxing to remain passive, indifferent and “cool.”
How does a normal person stand a chance when even the most gifted basketball player on planet Earth, a two-time NBA champion and 4-time league MVP still can’t accept that his hardest work can still not be enough? Don’t be fooled into thinking his quote comes from competitive nature. He is saying quite clearly that he’d rather not play at all than play and not win. He would rather give up the opportunity to play a beautiful game against the best players in the world if he can’t celebrate at its conclusion. That is the opposite of competitive.
This is obviously not the first time that LeBron’s competitive spirit has been questioned. No one who followed LeBron’s tenure in Cleveland can truly account for historic no-show against the Celtics in 2010. The Heat’s Finals loss to the Mavs strengthened the media chorus. LeBron seems to develop interesting ailments whenever it becomes slightly possible that he doesn’t play on the better team. Elbow issues, cramps, stomachaches, and lingering ankle issues have all been in the media whenever a James team is behind in a series. Would his brand suffer so greatly if he simply lost at full strength?
I want to be clear that I am in no way celebrating the plight of the “lovable loser.” Our necessity to identify someone very purely as a “winner” or “loser” has done nothing but further confuse our evaluation of success. There are countless examples in sports history of players who could never win the big game until they finally could. And for every vindicated John Elway, there is a ringless Dan Marino, a Charles Barkley for a Gary Payton. The Spurs have lost 10 playoff series in the last 15 years. Are they losers? Now that they have completed the job in 2014 and secured a fifth NBA championship in 15 seasons, are they strictly winners? It’s impossible to say according to the popular definition.
As the Cavs look to build a winning culture, it is imperative that the players and coaches give 100% effort, even if the odds of winning are low. It’s my biggest issue with Kyrie’s relaxed play. It is my biggest issue with tanking. A winning culture is not born from winning. It is not predicated on “cool.” It comes from being totally fearless in the face of defeat. It comes from the understanding that losing IS a possibility, but that one need “not go gentle into that good night.” All-in on effort. All-in on thought. There can be value in a loss. Loss can contribute to victory. When in doubt, look at the Spurs.