Thunder: LeBron under most pressure ever?
ESPN’s Collin Cowherd said Friday that he agrees with TNT’s Steve Kerr. LeBron James is under the more pressure of any athlete ever. Wonder if that’s true?
First, we’ve got to distinguish between pressure and scrutiny. I would agree that LeBron is the most scrutinized athlete ever, simply for the time in which he competes.
Think of all the media analyzing LeBron James and the Miami Heat — and the Dallas Mavs, and Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose, and most every other high profile team/athlete in the NBA. You’ve got the old bastion of daily newspaper coverage, which all professional athletes always have had. But LeBron also has the world wide leader, the 24-hour ESPN cycle of critique on everything he says or does. And the world wide web, with web sites and bloggers that range from nutty to brilliant.
All professional athletes potentially face that kind of scrutiny, but NBA players have it worst. NFL players are more difficult to critique, because the game doesn’t lend itself to individual analysis so much. Football is a complicated, fluid game in which one player, even the quarterback, is so tied in with everyone else, it’s difficult for even seasoned football minds to know for sure who was responsible for what.
We can study baseball players as deep as we want, and baseball players are scrutinized. Heavily. The only salvation for baseball players is that, right or wrong (probably right), they are not burdened with the weight of winning. Victory does not rest solely on the shoulders of a superstar. If a baseball player plays well, and his team doesn’t win, no one blames the superstar, because baseball is an absolute individual sport. A pitcher, a shortstop, a slugging first baseman, there is a limit to what they can do.
But basketball is different. There is no limit. You certainly can do more. There are always more points that could be scored, more rebounds that could be snared, more defensive stops that could be produced. In basketball, team success is tied to a player’s greatness moreso than any other sport.
Don’t believe it? Quick. Who’s got the most World Series championships of any baseball player ever? I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of good guesses — I’m starting with Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto, with Mickey Mantle as my ace in the hole — but I’ll have to look it up.
(OK, here it is. The baseball list. 1. Yogi Berra 10; 2. Joe DiMaggio 9; 3. Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Frank Crosetti & Phil Rizzuto 8; 7. Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth & Johnny Murphy 7. Murphy was a Yankee relief pitcher, 1932-46, who also was general manager who helped put together the ’69 Mets)
So we really don’t equate greatness and championships in baseball. A little bit, but not a lot. And we don’t in football, except for one position, quarterback, where many consider Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins) better than Dan Marino (zero), or Bart Starr (five NFL titles) the superior to Fran Tarkenton (zero), both absurd stances.
But in the NBA, virtually every analysis of a player’s greatness starts with championships. Kobe’s quest to overtake Michael Jordan’s six. Bill Russell’s 11-2 domination of Wilt Chamberlain in titles. No rings for Karl Malone.
So NBA players and NFL quarterbacks clearly face the most pressure. The question is, does the scrutiny faced by 21st-century athletes equate to more pressure. And I would argue no.
I think pressure always has been with us, and if you can argue that the scrutiny creates more pressure, I could counter that conversely, modern athletes have more mechanisms to deal with the extra scrutiny. More handlers and managers to keep the public and press away.
I don’t know if LeBron is under the most pressure of any athlete ever. But I’ll trot out three that seem to be in his neighborhood:
1. Wilt Chamberlain.I know LeBron is King James and the Chosen One and whatever else the heck his business people going back to high school have labeled him. But I would argue that LeBron really is facing this kind of pressure for the first time. In Miami. In Cleveland, he was beloved. America largely loved him and his critics admitted he didn’t have a whole lot of help. There never was a great sense that LeBron failed in Cleveland.
Wilt Chamberlain never had such a honeymoon. Like LeBron, Wilt was a mythical figure coming out of high school. But unlike LeBron, mythical figures stayed that way in the 1950s. At Kansas, his one year with the Globetrotters, very much so in his 1960s NBA play, Wilt was the ultimate conundrum. He was both universally known and also a virtual state secret. Everyone had heard of him, everyone had read about him, but few had actually got to see him much at all.
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