I’ll never forget the time Bob Gibson gave me The Look.
Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history, a hard thrower with a competitive streak that turned ice-hard at the slightest hint of challenge. Forget about digging in against him; if you hit a long foul, there was a good chance you’d be brushing dirt off your backside after the next pitch, especially when The Look was blazing from beneath his Cardinals cap.
I met with him to discuss his autobiography, and thinking about the teams he played for on the eve of baseball free agency, I made a comment that seemed reasonable at the time. “Those Cardinals teams may have been the last dynasty to break up naturally,” I said.
The Look – or an only slightly softer version of it – crossed his face. “Why,” he asked, “is it ‘natural’ if an owner sells or trades you, but not if you choose to leave on your own?”
“That’s a very good point,” I acknowledged sheepishly, resisting the impulse to add “Mr. Gibson, sir.”
It still is. And it’s a point to remember when considering the outrage directed at LeBron James for devising his own personal Dream Team in Miami.
My initial reaction to the Miamification of El Rey was anger on behalf of the Ohio community he professed to love so much. This was quickly replaced by the thought that something felt wrong about the three most sought-after free agents deciding to pool their talents and create a superteam. That it was somehow a shortcut to winning a championship, something that is supposed to be a hard and testing grind.
Bill Simmons at ESPN.com has been one of the most vehement spokesmen for this view. He referred in a recent mailbag to “the irrefutable ‘Jordan would have wanted to beat Wade, not play with him’ argument.” (Really? Jordan would never have considered playing with Hakeem Olajuwon or Charles Barkley if Jerry Krause had surrounded him with Delonte West and Joe Smith and Daniel Gibson instead of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong? He coexisted pretty well with James Worthy and Sam Perkins at UNC. Don’t tell MJ he didn’t learn anything from Dean Smith.)
Simmons draws a distinction between situations in which two Alpha Dogs wound up on the same team and James and Wade choosing to play together: “If two ended up on the same team by coincidence – like Kareem and Magic, Shaq and Kobe, or Michael and Scottie – that’s one thing. That’s sports. S— happens.”
But that s— doesn’t just happen. A general manager or an owner put those guys together. The same was true when Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain joined forces in Los Angeles; when Oscar Robertson went to Milwaukee to play with the young Kareem; when Moses Malone hooked up with Julius Erving in Philadelphia; when Tim Duncan teamed with David Robinson in San Antonio; when Len Bias was drafted by a team that had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton…
Why is it ‘natural’ if an owner sells or trades you, but not if you choose to leave on your own?
We’ve been told time and again that it’s impossible to put together a truly great NBA team in the salary cap era. We’ve also been told that LeBron James is a most unusual player: a speedy and overpowering scorer with the playmaking instincts of a much smaller man, possessed of a genuine sense of team and the desire to make his teammates better. We’re about to find out if these two propositions are true.
LeBron has developed into a phenomenal individual offensive force, but his skills are broader than that, and they can only come out in full if the team around him is up to it. He’s put himself in a position to enhance a more talented group than he was going to find in Cleveland. He’d rather be part of a great team – one he might turn into a transcendent one – than try to drag an adequate team to a championship singlehandedly. Sure, it’s more fun to spend the winter in South Beach than in Akron. But looking at it from a pure basketball standpoint, when did it become a bad thing to prefer to share the scoring load? Are we really going to criticize LeBron for not wanting to be Kobe?
There’s a long tradition of teams trying to buy championships. Tom Yawkey, owner of the Red Sox, spent half a million dollars – an unheard of sum in the 1930s – to acquire Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe Cronin. George Steinbrenner was lauded at his passing for his dedication to winning and willingness to spare no expense to bring in the best players available (whether he needed them or not). The same can be said for Arte Moreno and Gene Autry, with varying degrees of success, in their respective times as owners of the Angels of Anaheim, Los Angeles, and both; for Mark Cuban with the Dallas Mavericks; and for Isiah Thomas with the New York Knicks, however incompetently.
This time it was the players themselves who brought the stars together, but that doesn’t make it unnatural. That’s how sports work today. Disagree with Mr. Gibson at your own risk.