Writer’s Note: This is a long post, but it’s about the NBA, Writing, and the Key to Life.
I am a fan of NBA basketball. In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve been a near fanatic for most of my life. I grew up watching the greats: Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Frazier, Jerry West. I was a fan through the Magic vs. Bird years, and endured, and eventually rooted for Jordan’s Bulls. These days, I watch most every Miami Heat game, while choking down occasional helpings of my hometown team, the Wizards.
This week, sportscasters and writers are aflame with LeBron James’s recent feat: scoring 30 or more points while hitting 60% or greater in six straight games. For all you non-basketball fans, suffice it to say it’s an unheard of level of efficiency.
So now, laughably, all those same people who were bashing LeBron two years ago are gushing all over him now. Some have even begun the whispers – maybe LeBron is as good as, or (gasp) better than Jordan.
Now, before you Jordan worshipers douse me in Haterade, let me quickly say I’m not getting into that stupid debate. There is no such thing as a Greatest of All Time (GOAT). The best offensive player in history was Wilt. The best defender was Bill Russell. The winningest NBA baller was Russell with 11 championships – hell, even Robert Horry had 7.
The arguments remind me of those who try and determine who was the best writer of all time (which I wrote about previously). Each of the greatest among us has different gifts, and to attempt to compare one to the other misses the point. No one was as enduring as Shakespeare. Yet, even the Bard never reached the economic heights of J. K. Rowling. Picking Jordan as the GOAT diminishes everyone else whose path to success was different or who played under different circumstances.
Sure, Jordan was arguably the best NBA championship performer of our generation. (I couch it in those terms because I never saw Russell play.) He also had the greatest impact on young players worldwide, and was certainly the most economically successful. So, does this supersede Wilt’s 50 points per game season, or Oscar Robertson’s triple-double (points, rebounds, and assists) season? Not in my opinion. A crate of apples isn’t better than a crate of oranges; it’s just different.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Everything. See, I’ve been pondering why Jordan, who was less heralded than LeBron at age 19, yet achieved the same number of MVPs, reached the same number of NBA Finals as LeBron at this stage of his career, and managed to win 3, while Mr. James has but one. My conclusion: it’s all about coaching.
No, I’m not saying that Jordan was an inferior talent whose brilliant coaches got him over. Instead, I am saying that to achieve greatness, to maximize one’s potential, one has to avail oneself of whatever resources are available. This includes finding mentors, using strategic and tactical resources, and most importantly, doing what they teach you.
Let’s quickly look at the two players’ paths. Jordan left high school and went to the University of North Carolina, playing under legendary coach Dean Smith. Coach Smith was a brilliant tactician who won 879 games in his career, including two National Championships. Jordan helped win him his first. Jordan was great in college, but no one foresaw what he would become. In part, that was because he played alongside another 1st-ballot Hall of Famer, James Worthy, and a very talented Sam Perkins. After three seasons, Jordan went pro.
We all know what happened next: He developed into a brilliant offensive (and defensive) weapon, and won six NBA titles, the first coming a year after new coach Phil Jackson arrived. Jordan won all six titles playing with 1st-ballot Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, and the last three with Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. Does the pattern sound familiar? We’ll get to that later.
The rest is history. By the time he retired everyone (but me) agreed he was the NBA’s GOAT. (I still like Wilt. And Magic. And The Big O. And Kareem. And …)
LeBron took a different path. He was decreed the Second Coming of Jordan while still in high school. He forwent college, going straight to the NBA, along with enormous endorsement contracts. He carried played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for seven years, taking them to the Finals once, before making The Decision to join Batman Dwyane Wade, as the Heat’s new Superman. (There ain’t no Robin.) Now, in year 3 of his stint with the Heatles, LeBron has become that which everyone always thought he would be, back when he was a teenager.
So, what’s the lesson here, you ask? Well, let’s compare:
– Jordan left high school and honed his craft under the tutelage of a master coach. Dean Smith taught him the game, and Did Not allow Jordan to use his athleticism to the detriment of developing other skills. In effect, he pushed him out of his comfort zone.
– Jordan improved his game year by year, as LeBron has done. However, he began to win titles when he 1) teamed up with another All-Star performer (Pippen) playing under probably the best basketball coach of all time.
– LeBron, by contrast, missed the 3 years of being coached up by a master teacher. Instead, he jumped straight to the pros, where he was expected to be the alpha dog, the main attraction, and the only real superstar.
– LeBron’s coach in Cleveland was good, but not great, and certainly no Phil Jackson. Throughout his career, LeBron had been admonished (by critics) to develop a post-up game (playing close to the basket where his size and quickness gives him an advantage), and to develop a consistent jump shot. He resisted both. Since he was the alpha dog, no one made him.
– He finally paid attention to history and began to recreate what Jordan had: finding two Hall of Fame caliber teammates and a better coach. More importantly, he worked in the offseason to improve his jump shot, and took private coaching from Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his low-post game. In effect, he finally used his resources and accepted coaching.
The result? No one has seen anyone make basketball look so easy before. We don’t know how good the man will be, and that’s the entire fun of it.
Let’s step back now, and apply these lessons learned to writing, or to any endeavor you may be undertaking.
1. Learn the fundamentals. Both LeBron and Jordan have a single thing in common beyond working harder than everyone else: they made few mistakes on the court. Both are students of the game, and applied what they learned. If you’re not dead, you haven’t finished mastering the fundamentals. (If you are dead, stop haunting my blog, you ghost-ass bitch.)
2. Coaching makes a difference. Jordan never won a title playing under less than a Hall of Fame coach, despite his talent. Why? Success is hard. If it weren’t it would mean nothing. Those 3 years of college LeBron missed probably did more to limit him than any opponent. Imagine LeBron in Cleveland after being forced to learn to play power forward as well as he did point guard. He would have entered the league the player he is becoming only now.
3. Step out of the comfort zone – I promise you that both players were forced out of theirs. Dean Smith didn’t play alley oop ball to the exclusion of all else. Phil worked his offense, irrespective of who had to sacrifice to make it work. LeBron made his historical 30-point, 60% run playing the power forward game he had steadfastly refused to play his whole career. You cannot grow without stretching.
4. Get Good Teammates – For writers that means find artists, marketers, agents, publishers, editors, critics. GOAT or no, Jordan won no titles without Pippen. LeBron won none without D-Wade (who won none without Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron). Writing takes an inordinate amount of individual effort. Publishing, however, is a team sport. You will not win it alone.
5. Ignore Haters, but listen to critics – this one will determine whether you succeed or fail, in my opinion. Coming out of college, the NBA draft thought Sam Bowie would be better than Jordan. Sam Who? When LeBron left Cleveland, haters said he would never win a championship. They said if he won one, no one would credit him because it would be Wade’s team. LeBron was Robin; D-Wade was Batman. When the Heat won the title, nobody said either thing. Haters don’t study history. If they had, they would have noticed LeBron was following the Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson model of playing with Hall of Famers. Lone Wolves don’t win titles. However, critics also said LeBron needed to play the low post and shoot more consistently. Year 1 with the Heat, he didn’t. They lost. Year 2, he did; they won.
6. Don’t measure success with numbers – Robert Horry won more titles than Jordan. Pippen won as many. Udonis Haslem has twice as many championship rings as LeBron. Give yourself permission to measure your success by achieving whatever it is you set out to achieve.
See, the lesson here is simple. Basketball is the key to understanding the universe. That’s why God made the planets round. We’re all part of the game. Life is a team sport. Play it to win.