by Kent Sterling
I’m never sure if LeBron James is truly nuts, or just an imitator of hyper-competitive kooks of the past, and this mini-drama about Pacers coach Frank Vogel brings no more clarity to that doubt.
Michael Jordan is completely insane. He takes umbrage at any perceived slight. People say things, Jordan gets revved up, and everyone apologizes to try to calm him. That behavior went on for years in Chicago – on the basketball court, pool table, and everywhere else Jordan competed.
The fuel Jordan needed to hate opponents was just as easily manufactured as delivered.
Dick Butkus, the hall of fame Chicago Bears linebacker, would watch film to invent reasons to hate each of his opponents until he was a raging beast on Sundays, or for preseason scrimmages.
And now, James has extracted umbrage from an inaccurately conveyed Vogel quote. James was told Vogel said the Heat “are just another team.” What Vogel said was, the Heat “are the next team.” No matter, the crazy train is rolling.
Or is it?
James has always appeared too sane to be a great competitor. There is a screw loose in the greats that provides the advantage they need – that point of differentiation – to make them fundamentally different. What makes them great competitors also causes marriages to go up in flames, children to wander in their behavior, and people to avoid funerals.
Only three men from baseball attended Ty Cobb’s funeral after a baseball career that was singularly splendid, but prompted hatred among both teammates and opponents.
Bob Knight is another cantankerous competitor whose intensely demanding expectations of players has caused rancor among that tight community, and many who know him.
Behind many great competitors, there is a wake of bruised souls worse for knowing them.
James does not appear to be that kind of guy. It seems he enjoys being with his teammates as people, rather than simply seeing them as tools that can be used to lever the wins and trophies he craves.
The Heat are definitely the beneficiaries of James’ physical gifts, but those seem to be so overpowering that he doesn’t need to dip into the sack of bizarre and self-immolating actions that were Tiger Woods’ calling card prior to the demolition of his marriage. It seems Tiger has worked to find some peace while recapturing some of his former greatness.
Winning excuses a lot of bad behavior, but LeBron appears to have dodged most of the self-absorbancy that many indulge. Maybe we just haven’t heard about it. There was a time when we were shocked that Woods was banging Perkins waitresses in the back of his Escalade, so who knows? But we haven’t seen anything from James, other than unique success, that would portend madness.
Given his fame and the proliferation of media, you would guess that James’ misdeeds would be front and center if they existed.
James is likely trying to use the nonexistent Vogel slight to put teammates on edge a little bit so they don’t overlook the Pacers in Game One as they did against the Bulls a couple of weeks ago. The Pacers are a more difficult challenge for the Heat, and they would have a tougher time overcoming a split at home in this series than against a team missing three key cogs in Derrick Rose, Kirk Heinrich, and Luol Deng.
James has worn two numbers in his career – #23 and #6. So far, he seems to have a lot more in common with a the most famous #6 than Jordan’s iconic #23. Stan Musial managed to be a hell of a nice guy while playing at a singularly high level too.
The petulant warrior image does not fit James well.