We are part way through the NBA finals with the series tied up at 1-1 and heading back to Miami for games three through five. This is the time that we begin to overcomplicate things. We isolate a single incident or moment and fail to see the bigger picture. After every game we either change something about our predictions or tell everyone that we are psychic and predicted everything exactly the way it is happening. I don’t want to read another story on the first two games, much less write one, so I decided to look at the history of Lebron James and how far he’s come since entering the league.
To assist me with my article I’m enlisting the service of the late John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches, teachers and people to grace the game of basketball. Wooden needs no background to even the most casual of basketball fans but many of his lessons and maxims are lost to the youth of today.
When reading through a book on Wooden, who preferred to be known as a teacher to coach, I began to wonder if Lebron had ever heard one of his lessons. I thought, “Does Lebron even know what Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is?” After doing a quick Google search*, I concluded that they never met and Lebron had never been questioned about the Indiana Rubber Man.** This inspired me to compare Wooden’s teachings with Lebron’s career thus far and add a few of my own thoughts to the mix. For each quote, I will tell you if Lebron has learned the lesson or not and then explain my reasoning. Let’s begin.
*The search was “Lebron+Wooden” and I got to page 2. Please prove me wrong. I’m sure I am.
** Wooden’s nickname while playing at Purdue. He hated the Wizard of Westwood name that so many people used for him
“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be”
This quote is the one that motivated me to first write this article. It is Lebron’s fatal flaw, the thing holding him back in the eyes of many such as myself. Lebron is a great player and if anyone denies that he is do yourself a favor and stop talking to them about basketball. His failure has nothing to do with playing great in the 4th quarter or failing to bring Cleveland a championship before leaving. It isn’t even related to his seeming inability to win the game on a last second shot. Lebron’s greatest failure is his willingness to change.
Look at Lebron in the last few weeks. He’s been playing out of his mind. You’d be crazy to find a negative in his game, yet I don’t believe everything is rainbows and butterflies for Lebron yet. He has done nothing different in any of these games than he has for the last seven years. Through every single one of his playoff wins he has performed far better than satisfactory and yet in everything he does I still see the same ability as the Cleveland Lebron from a few years ago. There is nothing wrong with that, he is far more talented the majority of other players in the league playing at the level he is, but I just wish there could be more. What happened to his post up moves that he apparently learned in the offseason? When will we see those? He needs something more and it just isn’t showing itself.
Coach Wooden used this quote to reference his own failure to change before winning the first of his many championships. Lebron could very well win his first championship this year without changing anything but what it equates to is running into a locked door over and over until it finally falls down. If it doesn’t work, he’s going to have to realize it takes more than just a meaningless mouth guard to win.
“Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
Lebron? Not yet, getting there.
Coach Wooden was a master of strategy. Yes, he won with superstars like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, but he also took a team of players no taller than six foot five to the NCAA finals for UCLA’s first championship win. This lesson is a continuance of the first in that Lebron needs to realize what works and what doesn’t in order to finish out this series with a win.
What can Lebron do? He can attack the basket with the scariest combination of speed and power ever seen in the league. He can rebound and pass with best of them and inspire his teammates to play better than they could with any other teammate.* What he can’t do is settle for unbalanced jumpers and shrink away from the moment. Shrinking away doesn’t mean he has to take the last shot or score 15 in the fourth quarter, but his presence must always be felt. Even if he isn’t directly involved with the play, he has to make the Thunder account for him and recognize that at any point he can take over. He is certainly better at this now than he was last year, but there are still flashes of the old Lebron during games.
*He’s essentially the best NBA Street Vol.2 player ever.
“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
Something that Lebron gets a lot of slack for is his late game play. “He isn’t clutch” and “Michael would have done it” are two popular criticism of the NBA’s most talented player. People are going to have to get over it because it gets old after a while. Lebron will never be MJ and he will probably never be the type of clutch player that people want from him. He makes mistakes, but so has every player to ever play in the league. The good thing is Lebron does try. He does what he thinks is best for his team to win the game. We may disagree with his methods and we may want him to take the shot instead of passing to a teammate, but that isn’t his shtick. Lebron may be “wrong” but he is still a doer and we can’t fault him for that.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
Lebron? He may finally have figured it out.
Lebron never looked confident with himself last year. One second he’s asking us what we want from him in a commercial,* then he’s pouting and saying he doesn’t care what we think. The worst part is that it’s hard to figure out when Lebron is being genuine and when he is putting on a show. I don’t even think he realizes if he’s putting on airs or not.
This year was more of the same from Lebron and yet the playoffs saw a completely new version emerge. The old Lebron was still present in the Knicks series but I believe Lebron2.0 came around during the bout with the Pacers. Danny Granger called out the superstar for “antics” unbecoming of a superstar of his caliber. Lebron said it had nothing to do with the rise in his play, but I don’t necessarily believe that. That’s when we saw Lebron cut the crap and shoved his “antics” down the Pacers throat.
It continued even during the Celtics series, and near the end Lebron said he felt “drained”. The drained feel didn’t come from Lebron’s play or the tight scheduling of the season. Instead, it came from finally letting go of expectations; it came from quitting the act and just playing basketball. Lebron has turned off the camera, shut out the audience and is doing what he does best. He has finally realized that he can’t please everyone and as long as he is comfortable with himself and his character, there isn’t a need for anything more.**
*Which I cannot find to save my live. Nike seems to have made the video private and I can’t find the original version anywhere. If you have access to it feel free to help out.
**Hmmm…maybe now that I think about it, this is Lebron’s “change” from the first lesson. It isn’t on the court but it is a mental change…we’ll see if it’s enough.
“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
Lebron? Yes, No, Yes.
I truly believe Lebron James is a humble human being. He says all the right things, authentic or fake, to the media and to fans when it comes to his talent. There are two knocks to this point and they are his tattoo and comments after the finals last year about the fans living their lives.* However, I believe that these two play into the next part of the lesson.
Being humble and being gracious can be two completely different things in this context and Lebron hasn’t completely learned the lesson of graciousness. He often makes things about him when they don’t need to be. While being thankful for his natural talent, he doesn’t always realize how his actions come across to the general public. He sees his close friends and family are fine with something and believes that their opinion is that of the rest of the world.
The third point is something Lebron has just recently learned. The tattoo is permanent and a constant reminder of “the Lebron that was” but it is nothing to judge him on presently. The Decision will always be a part of his legacy, unfortunately for him, but at this point it’s over with and we have to move on. After his last MVP acceptance speech we saw what Lebron has learned. He was dismissive of the achievement, letting fans and critiques alike know that while it was nice to receive the award, it was not necessarily what he was looking for in this season. The self-importance seems to be gone, at least for now. For Lebron’s sake I hope he can keep it up.
*For those unfamiliar, Lebron called out fans who hated on him during the finals saying, “All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”
What have we learned in class today?
So what does this mean for the “king without a ring”? Keeping it simple, Lebron has learned a little in the past year and a lot in the past month. While his mind is finally in the right place to play basketball, there is the forever present “He does X well but there is still Y that he isn’t doing.” It seems as though he has improved his mindset about the game of basketball but his on court play does not always reflect that.
That is why Lebron is so polarizing. He is truly a half-empty/half-full athlete to root for, this year more than ever. While it seems as though his mind is finally in the right place, his on-court play does not always reflect that. He still takes the occasional dumb shot and we don’t see him go to the post nearly enough. Luckily for Lebron, the rest of his game may be good enough to pull him through to the other side but we still have to wait through this week to know for sure. For the sake of basketball, let’s hope that John Wooden’s ghost visited Lebron in his sleep and taught him how to put on his socks.
Even after all of these lessons, the most important one still has not been touched on. Perhaps one of the greatest teaching tools created by coach Wooden, the Pyramid of Success, is a lesson for another day. I hope to get to it before game 4, so stay tuned. If it strikes your fancy, be sure to follow me on twitter @alexsherron.
Straight cash homey.