LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player in the world, brought a championship home to Cleveland this year with a memorable NBA Finals comeback. Kyrie Irving, the rocket fuel behind the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship engine, emerged as a breakout star with numerous spectacular Finals performances.
Kevin Love, a double-double machine in his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, well, got himself a ring. Having being brought to Cleveland to be a major cog in the Cavaliers’ championship run, he was all of 8.5 points per game and a game off the bench in the Finals, not the superstar that he was promoted to be when he was traded to Cleveland. The cycle of media-driven standards for the league’s major studs to be defined by the number of team championships won has become a form of mind control on the brains of today’s talents. One of those under such hypnosis is Kevin Durant, who has succumbed to the pressures of no rings and all scrutiny. Making his decision to walk away from Oklahoma City and his greatest ally, Russell Westbrook, for the team that ended his season, the Golden State Warriors, Durant, despite his amazing statistics over what should a Hall of Fame career, has become a statistic. He’s just another guy chasing a championship and is no longer the guy demanding one.
Too many people staring from the outside of sports don’t understand just how difficult and precious it is to get to a championship game or series. Losing the big game seems to diminish the road to getting there. When we all think about the Buffalo Bills in the early 90s, we’re constantly reminded in media chat about their four consecutive Super Bowl losses, and led to forget about the greatness displayed in four straight AFC Championships. Even James, who reached his sixth consecutive NBA Finals series this past June, was barely acknowledged for such an historic streak, mainly because the “Chosen One” is supposed to simply be measured by winning championships, not competing for one. This amplified popularity contest powered by tabloids, columnists and marketing maniacs has made for must-see TV every championship opportunity, but it has done nothing to define the goals and ideals of these individuals. Everybody wants to win a championship, indeed. But at what they’re willing to sacrifice for the judgmental media and marketing community? I think that’s ballyhoo circulated to an all-time high.
Some of the greatest competitors in sports never won titles, and they’re royalty. Take Dan Marino, for example. He’s easily regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the sport. Nine-time Pro Bowler. Former league MVP. Five-time passing yards leader from the regular season. A man who led his Dolphins lineup to a Super Bowl appearance in only his second year of professional football. Marino was a guy that future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning idolized, and continues to admire to this day. His legacy was set on his arm and his ability to command his teammates to be great. You win some, you lose some. Some players may never get there, and no greater contradiction can be emphasized from the public eye than Marino and … definitely these individuals I’d love to mention who emphasized championship play most years they were together.
Karl Malone and John Stockton were a gratifying yin and yang in the NBA for 19 years. They have two Finals appearances as a dynamic duo—one more than Westbrook and Durant—and have never been tarnished by their losses in such series. Sure, they lost to the legendary Michael Jordan and the dominant Bulls twice in a row in the late 90s, but those Bulls were something else. The Bulls were on a throne of greatness that wasn’t close to be challenged. The bottom line is that Malone and Stockton did some things just as great: put the Utah Jazz on the map, place money in the pockets of countless franchise employees and boost an economy in a state that wasn’t used to basketball money.
Durant, along with Westbrook, did those things for the state of Oklahoma. However, the difference is that Malone and Stockton made the Jazz their careers. Durant didn’t want to make Oklahoma City his career. That’s fine, but the reasoning is atypical to today’s pop culture: get the fame now, accept the consequences later. Franchises used to be built and preserved on the blood, sweat and tears of particular legends. Nowadays, franchises are morphed and restructured on a dime (and millions of dollars), as superstars have become more business partners than basketball players. There’s nothing wrong with craving a championship, but there can be something wrong with a superstar’s road to a championship.
Durant is great, indeed, and could go down as one of the best ever. But a view of greatness can get foggy when it’s shrouded in more greatness. That fog consists of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. If (and likely when) the Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship again next season, Durant would surely be a big reason in that extra made shot, that extra rebound, that extra offensive efficiency getting this team over the Finals rival Cavaliers. However, despite being a big reason for making an outstanding Warriors team even better, how can we look beyond what he was getting there? James, who also jumped ship for a smoother championship road, led the Cavaliers to a title after being a great player on a Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat squad that won two titles in the “Big Three” era with Chris Bosh. Tim Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to several titles. Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to their first championship. Kevin Durant? He’s helping a team that’s not his. No debate about Curry being the head honcho at Oracle. When the Warriors win, he gets the ultimate glory. Durant will get the acclaim, but Curry is on a different pedestal because he earned that prestige, much like Durant earned his coming up in Oklahoma City.
I can easily understand Durant joining the Warriors in order to learn about what a championship team is made of, but he did enough on his own (and with Westbrook) to understand that himself. James was a two-time Finals MVP with the Heat, but Wade was the catalyst of making the championship rampage even possible. Heat fans would always relate Wade to being the heartbeat of the team more than James. Durant was the heartbeat of the Thunder, despite the heroics and undeniable abilities that Westbrook brought every night while they were that dynamic duo.
The media does a great job of individualizing team sports. The culture of team sports has always been collectivistic, but media outlets won’t promote that in graphics. Franchises live and die on the measures of success and championships. The competitors that work hard for that success don’t need to be judged by the same criteria. Durant can raise the O’Brien trophy as many times as possible with the Curry-led Warriors, but his legacy won’t move an inch. He bought into the demands of those who are too blinded by trophies to see that glory comes in more ways than one. Winning one as the man is a lot different than winning one as a man. Robert Horry won six NBA championships. Think about it, people.