Don’t believe the fairy-tale mythology that sports promote
“Hard work, dedication, and sticking with the process” is how Toronto Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry responded to reporter Doris Burke’s postgame question, “What went into getting you here?”
While I am sure those things played a role, the most influential factors in Lowry’s journey to the Eastern Conference finals were out of his control. And that is true for the star of Lowry’s conference Finals opponent, LeBron James, and every other star in the NBA.
That fact aside, sports fans and media will spin a fairy-talelike mythology around a select few players, as if they have absolute control of the outcome of a game. Sometime in June, a new NBA champion will be crowned. That team will receive the Larry O’Brien trophy and be showered with champagne and praises of their virtue. Redefining the character of that team’s stars will build a narrative around them that recognizes no flaws and recasts their quirks and idiosyncrasies as assets.
Without knowing which team will win the title or who will be the Finals MVP, I can already tell you the tired tropes the media will force-feed each other and serve to players in the form of questions, during postgame news conferences.
The champions, as this narrative goes, will have begun this season feeling disrespected and carrying a metaphorical chip on their collective shoulder. Fueled by previous failures and a supernatural perseverance, the story’s protagonist, the team’s star player, will have won because he wanted it more and outworked every other team’s star player during the offseason. We may decide that the champion coach outsmarted the other bench’s general or they won because of an uncommon bond among selfless players.
Maybe the unlikeliest of all NBA playoff scenarios will happen: Lowry will lead the Raptors past the Cavaliers and on to defeat the Western Conference representative, winning the NBA title. Lowry will be launched into the upper echelon of stardom. That nearly forgotten scene of Lowry shooting alone, in the empty Air Canada Centre, after a Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat, will become an enduring memory of the 2016 NBA playoffs. That seemingly made-in-Hollywood scene would be perfect to cherry-pick and become a major plot point in this basketball drama.
If we end up with one of the three more likely champions, the narrative would be no less whimsical. James, driven by a tough loss in last season’s finals and public favor shifting from him to Golden State Warrior Steph Curry, wanted it more, outworked everyone, dug deep and willed his team and the city of Cleveland to its first major sports title.
Injured and practically forgotten for much of last season, Oklahoma Thunder forward Kevin Durant was driven more than ever before and outworked everyone, dug deep and took his rightful place atop the NBA. Curry and the Warriors, scorned by the chatter discounting last season’s championship as luck, outworked everyone, dug deep and proved themselves not to be a fluke, but maybe the best ever.
Actually, luck was a major factor last season, but no more than any other season. But there is no room for randomness in our processing the heroic story of the champion.
Yes, the stars do have a disproportionate impact on the game, relative to other players, but as any athlete or coach will tell you, the outcome of a game is decided long before the game begins. Some will have you believe the naive notion that games are decided by who works the hardest and has the most passion.
The less romantic, but more accurate explanation is that there are an unknowable number of events and decisions. They are made by countless people, years and worlds away from the NBA Finals, that create unpredictable circumstances that lead to a new champion.
It is impossible to fully understand the galaxy of things acting on one another to give us a finite event. It is disingenuous to depict that event as the result of a simple equation. Just because x is more than y does not mean that z is the greatest player of all time, or a choker.
This is also true of our lives.
Your station in life is more a result of things out of your control than your hard work or talents. As you read this from your spacious corner office atop a Manhattan skyscraper, from the screen of a cellphone in an impoverished country, from an antiquated monitor in a public library computer in Indiana, or while you sit in your Ivy League classroom pretending to take notes, remember there is no difference between you and the people whom you deem more or less successful.
Contrary to what the world will have you believe, the differences between billionaire businesspeople and criminals, world leaders and the poor, iconoclast and outcast, is less the dedication or virtue of the accomplished and more about luck.
Those of us who consider ourselves successful could easily tell the movielike narrative we’ve woven around our lives. It would highlight formative periods of our youth, detail the obstacles we have overcome, remember the doubters and competitors we surpassed. With a little effort, we could just as easily tell a story with serendipity as the theme, focusing on the unforeseeable results of your choice to go to a certain school, introduce yourself to a stranger, or quit your job.
Michael Jordan is not the best basketball player of all time. He is the luckiest.
Yes, as far as talent and achievement are concerned, he resides in the rarest of company, but he is no more committed, determined, or talented than other less-acclaimed basketball greats. It is often said that he made his teammates better, but little credit is given to the fact that his teammates made him better and made many clutch plays that defined his legacy.
He had no control over the team that drafted him, the players and coaches with whom he was teamed and the life journeys that brought those players and coaches to the NBA. Yet, we remember and discuss him as if he willed his way to greatness, no matter the elements of his environment.
We don’t acknowledge the impact of the media and the marketing of Jordan on how we think of him. Even the sudden death of his father changed the trajectory of his career, sending him away from basketball.
I know most will receive this as blaspheming a basketball god. But I think what I am saying is reasonable, even obvious.
Jordan is great and deserves a tremendous amount of credit for capitalizing when given the opportunity. But the idea that, given similar circumstances, another player could not have accomplished as much or more, seems absurd.
Just as absurd as ignoring all the influences on a single game that are not caused by the star, such as the bounces, the rebounds, the referees’ calls and more.
For most, the immortalized image of Jordan is one of him hitting a game winner, but for me it’s “The Shrug.”
In the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA finals, Jordan set the record for most points scored, against the Portland Trailblazers, the team that famously drafted Sam Bowie with the second pick of the 1984 draft, leaving Jordan for the Chicago Bulls.
After Jordan hits his sixth 3-pointer, he turns to the fans and shrugs, as if to acknowledge that what is happening on the court is beyond his comprehension. Michael Jordan, the brightest star the NBA has ever known, seems to be keenly aware that he is the beneficiary of a multidimensional, complex system.
While many will watch the NBA playoffs looking for occurrences that support a traditional dramatic storyline, join me in writing the counternarrative. The narrative that focuses on plot points that don’t support the hero narrative, on-court and off-court occurrences that illustrate how little influence the stars actually have.
And remember that no one controls outcomes in sports or life, no matter his title or talents. We can just be prepared and take the shot when we get an opportunity.