Monday, March 18, 2019

Most Valuable Players and G.O.A.Ts

I have mentioned a few times that the underlying attractions of sports relate back to real life.

1. We root for a team to declare our identification with a region, a school, or even a religion, as in the national Catholic fan base for Notre Dame football. When we move to a new area, we might retain our loyalty to the Green Bay Packers, or we might over time switch our allegiance to the Carolina Panthers, announcing that we are real true Carolinians now, or wish to be.  We go to games to be with others of our tribe, or invite them to our homes.

2. We follow sports for its enactment of mythologies - the young phenom versus the crafty old pro, the underdog succeeding on grit, the team that plays as a unit or works harder or is on the cutting edge of strategy, the athlete who overcomes prejudice or adversity, the silent or humble versus the brash and confident - we love those stories, we like to see other people enact them for us. Hold this one in mind, I'll be coming back to it.

3. We like the keeping score, the immediate knowledge whether something worked or not, and the certainty of result.  You get out what you put in.  While there are arguments and excuses, there are far fewer than there are in regular life. In highly individual sports such as golf or track and field, with very strict rules, the result is what it is.  You used fewer strokes or you didn't, you ran faster or you didn't.

4. We like the intrinsic qualities of a sport.  Some don't like sports with animals racing (or fighting), or don't like motor sports, considering them not quite legit.  Others like the interaction of man with something else as part of the appeal. We like graceful athleticism, as in figure skating, or we like a rawer athleticism, such as fighting or lifting sports. We like that people have to focus under pressure. The most popular sports in America combine these.  Football players have to have grace while engaging in violence.  Basketball is played with the legs and the tips of the fingers, they say. We like different sports for participation or watching.

5. We like being knowledgeable about things, and sports is one of those things. We like competence and mastery of a subject, and we also like knowing more than others. We like to learn how things work, and sports can sometimes provide insights into that.  While the lessons that children learn from sports has been oversold as a category, there is some truth to the idea that we learn something about working together, putting up with inconvenience and even unfairness for the sake of getting a task accomplished.  There is a value in teamwork, in encouragement, in trying different strategies and approaches. How do you find talent others are overlooking?  How do you motivate people?

I'm probably missing some things here, but that will do for now.

Whenever there is a discussion of the Most Valuable Player for a season, I have usually been of the mind that the best player is the MVP. Whether his team is any good is way down the list.  This is likely left over from baseball, where the best hitter, adjusted for position  played, has the strongest case for being MVP.  There is value in team sports in "making your teammates better," in terms of both skill and attitude - Tim Duncan comes to mind - but generally, I go with the Best Player, adjusted for importance of the position, argument.

I changed my mind on that this year, in ways that relate to tasks outside of sports, related to reasons 2 and 5, above.  I slowly became convinced over the last few years that Lebron James is the best player of all time.  But only on the court. That he saves it for the playoffs doesn't bother me that much - though because basketball is an entertainment business I can see someone making an argument about that, balanced against his obvious drawing power.

Yet here are the negatives.  By forcing teams to be assembled and coached in ways that fit him, he destroys them.  I used to regard how poorly teams did when he was on the bench, or after he'd left, as evidence of how good he is, but I've doubled back on that. Lebron has dictated personnel moves and styles of play to maximise the results for the 75% of the time he is playing. When he has other great players with him, they can pick up the slack during the other 25%.  But other great players don't seem to want to play with him, and he gets rid of players he doesn't feel complement him that well. He brings the best out of some players, but harms or even destroys the development of others. He gets the credit, others get the blame.

Plus, when he leaves a team, it's a wreck.  Owners and general managers have considered that a fair tradeoff, hoping that his enormous skills will bring them at least one championship.  As long as he was in the Eastern Conference against lesser competition, that worked well-enough,  His teams at least went to championship games. Yet this year, against the better competition in the west, it highlights the damage that Lebron's attitude causes. Had he been in the west all along, we would be much less likely to call him the Greatest Of All Time. He would still have done wonderfully well, dominantly well.  Just not as well. It reminds us that all of his great teams did not do spectacularly well when the finally came up against other good teams. They did well.  They won some championships, and not everyone can say that.

WE know people like this at work, in churches, in government, in clubs, in families - people who are immensely talented, but the adjustments that everyone else has to make to that talent ends up weakening the whole organisation.  We had a brilliant medical director who was more-published, and at least the equal of the others clinically, maybe better. But he was part of lots of other clinicians leaving, and he left the place a mess when he took a job in Michigan.

You know people like this. Hell, you might be married to one, supervise one, or in some way have to put up with one and wonder if it's worth it.  You might even be one.


Sam L. said...

I gave up on ball sports years ago.

Armed Texan said...

WE know people like this at work, in churches, in government, in clubs, in families

With my formative years spent in the Dallas area, I saw this particularly with Baptist churches. The ones that are not trapped in 1950s land were driven by a single personality. The pastor might be a great orator or administrator or something else, but the church is built around him. When he passes away or leaves or falls into scandal the church can no longer function.

Jonathan said...

Television increased the MVP effect. Internet increases it even more. Outstanding players are independent profit-centers who no longer depend on their teams for publicity. The same thing has happened in politics where charismatic oddballs can be successful independently of their parties. Bernie Sanders and AOC are like LeBron in that their individual success may weaken their team overall. Trump seems to be an exception as his individual success keeps his team from failing.