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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Simmons/Gladwell on LeBron and Definitions of Success

Posted By on Sun, May 17, 2009 at 9:23 AM


If you haven't read the epic Bill Simmons/Malcolm Gladwell email conversation, do so. It's fascinating stuff, even if, at times some of the theories espoused are maddening, far-fetched, and ill-conceived. There's also a lot of brilliant discussion and thought-provoking ideas.

Among the many topics they tackle is LeBron James. Namely, what drives him, is he the NBA's Bono, and just where is the King going?

Here's a snippet of the Sports Guy's take:

But you mentioned watching a documentary about the Police and realizing that Sting carried that band; the others were talented in their own right, only it bugged the hell out of them that Sting was better, and he was a blowhard to boot, so that led to many of their problems (and the band's ultimate demise). Then you look at U2: same four guys grow up together with a natural pecking order in place; everyone understands their own limitations; everyone gets that Bono is the alpha dog; and really, over everything else, that explains why they have chugged along for three solid decades without ever breaking up. (Hell, none of them ever even made a solo album. They were and are a band. Period.) Well, I thought about this. I analyzed it from every angle. And in my opinion, LeBron has a chance to be U2 or Springsteen in Cleveland. Now that he's winning, and now that the Cavs know how to build around his personality — in a nutshell, finding complementary players who won't be threatened by him, enjoy basketball, enjoy life and aren't afraid of failing — this could just go on and on for as long as he wants. Other stars will take less to play with him. Older players will take the minimum just to play with them for one season. Basically, it will be like Bruce deciding, "Hey guys, we're going on tour again," and the rest of the E Streeters dropping whatever they were doing to join him. Why? Because you don't turn down Bruce Springsteen. I don't believe LeBron can replicate Jordan's force of personality, and I don't think he can match his ferocious day-to-day competitiveness, because nobody can. But he's more fun to play basketball with, and he's more fun to hang out with. Like a cross between Jordan and Magic, if you will.

To which Gladwell responds:

And that's the thing I worry about with LeBron. You say that this could go on for as long as he wants, but the truth is these things rarely go on for as long as anyone wants. U2 is a weird exception. In most cases, John turns on Paul, Axl gets fat and Kurt Cobain commits suicide. [snip]

I've just been reading several of the books that were written about the fall of Bear Stearns, and those books illustrate another side of this story. Bear Stearns didn't fail because the employees were incompetent, because they weren't good at what they do. They failed because they were good at what they do. They were so successful for so long that they grew overconfident and arrogant and complacent. The biggest obstacle to success is success. My biggest worry for LeBron is that he wins the title this season. And if he wins again next year, and the year after that, then what do you have? A guy still in his mid-20s who has already done it all, and has no reason to doubt his own skills and judgments, ever.

I think the biggest problem with Gladwell's proposal that the biggest obstacle to success is success is that everyone's definition of success is different. There's plenty of players who would look at one title and say that's success. There's other superstars who would look at two, three, or four titles and call that success.

LeBron, on the other hand, I think has a definition of success, a barometer of his career, that quite simply includes some of the most ludicrous goals ever conceived by someone in a uniform. Think about it. We know his goal off the court is to become a billionaire. While others would say success is amassing $500 million or $750 million, those are simply benchmarks on the way to LeBron's ultimate goal.

On the court, LeBron is perhaps more aware of the history of the league than any contemporary player. He speaks easily and eloquently about Chamberlain and Russell and Magic. He wears 23 because of Jordan. You don't think he looks at Jordan's six rings or Kareem's six rings and says "I want seven"? You don't think he knows the numbers of all the greats and says "I want to be better than them"?

To say that winning a title this year, or even the next three years, would somehow make LeBron bored, would somehow take the edge off his game, would somehow make him complacent as if his goals had been achieved, would be to severly underestimate his goals from the beginning. A ring this year — sure, that would be success for this year. Just that. If that, or one or two more, is all that LeBron can muster out of his career I'm sure that he would be disappointed.

Best Ever. That's his one goal. Rings, MPV awards, points — those are all nice little achievements on the journey, but they're simply mile markers.

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