By Jason Keidel
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As the NBA starts a season, all eyes are on Pat Riley’s prized trio in South Beach, though it looks more haunting than daunting to the naked eye.
LeBron James’ decision to move to Miami, awash in narcissism and aptly framed by our friends at ESPN (Jim Gray may as well have sat on his lap during the interview), is emblematic of a sport with no identity. In July, Mr. James surrendered his post as top player, team captain, and alpha male.
Rather than refining what he crafted in Cleveland, LeBron took his act to a football state with no state income tax. It feels like a rental, a guy leaving his wife for a gal he met last week, transient in a time and a league that needs icons.
The NBA is rudderless, anointing players kings when they have no rings. You see what little that has done for the league’s ratings. David Stern, for all his monologues about building the NBA into a global brand, told The Associated Press that he’s pondering contraction to keep his sport solvent in America.
Although LeBron made Cleveland’s moribund team a contender, we still didn’t buy him as messiah. The Chosen One. What exactly was he chosen to do? Indeed, LeBron took his role as savior and bounce-passed it to Dwayne Wade. Maybe we sensed that beneath the façade, behind the media machine that LeBron has become, there wasn’t much in the heart department.
Michael Jordan said he would not have migrated south. He knows the prerogative of legends is to be legendary, and to do it with the team that drafted you. Imagine Magic signing with the Celtics, or Bird in Malibu…
Perhaps LeBron’s greatest fault is that he’s not Jordan. No one is, of course, and each mistake LeBron makes just reinforces that truth. Jordan was as much an event as a basketball player, the perfect confluence of timing and talent. He was the impossible hybrid of hops and cosmic hunger. Too many players since Jordan had one or the other.
And while the game didn’t precisely die when he left, Jordan left a chasm in the game’s soul, leaving the league and society to chase the standard he burned into us. From Harold Miner to Vince Carter, the quest continues for a suitable replacement.
Only in basketball does this search seem essential. No one is looking for the next Ruth, the next Ali, or the next Jim Brown. Each athlete was far more than a period piece, but their sports remained important after they left.
Marv Levy famously said that he doesn’t want Pro Bowl players, but rather Super Bowl players. Basketball leans heavily on the former, becoming an amalgam of stars on a red carpet that leads nowhere. Stardom is the means and the end.
Lost in the flashbulbs is Mr. Bryant. No matter how unlikable Kobe has become he is the sport’s current champion nonpareil. But we can’t project our dreams upon him, his persona far too thorny for a group hug.
Perhaps the 1980s and ‘90s were the peak of a wave, spawned by Dr. J and retired by M.J. The game’s remaining fans sit on South Beach, waiting for the wave to return.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com