An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

Advertisements

The Normal Rules Do Not Apply — Until They Do

We hear about the Anthony Weiners and Dominique Strauss-Kahns, the John Edwardes  and Arnold Schwarzeneggers, the Bernie Madoffs and stud athletes and CEOs who break the rules or break the laws, and we shake our heads and wonder:  How could they be so reckless and brazen?

I suspect that part of the reason is that such people simply have not lived in the real world for a very long time.  Even if they began somewhere close to normal, for years their lives have been spent in a kind of protective cocoon, surrounded by aides and boosters and supporters and staffers and contributors.  People arrange their meals and social functions for them.  They really don’t need to carry cash anymore.  They get chauffered to events in limousines.  When they arrive at a restaurant, a guy whispers in their ear to let him know if there is any problem — any problem whatsoever! — and it will be taken care of immediately.  They fly first class, get to board when they want, and sip their complimentary champagne and try to ignore the stream of disheveled coach passengers who walk by.  Why shouldn’t these folks feel that they are different from normal people?  They live lives that are different from normal people.  And when they make little missteps, those missteps always — always! — get taken care of by members of their retinue.  The missed tests get retaken.  The tickets are torn up.  The meetings get delayed to accommodate their late arrival.  Their peccadilloes are forgiven through cash payments or side deals or secret agreements.

But then, at some point, a line gets crossed.  The police get called.  A send button is inadvertently hit and reckless private communications become public.  A person who is facing jail time and knows about the misdeeds decides to roll over and cooperate with the crusading prosecutor in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.  And then the mystified member of the elite finds that the cadre of fixers and sycophants aren’t there anymore, that their confident assurances, angry threats, wheedling, bullying, and lies, don’t work anymore.  Suddenly, they are being treated like the common people who, for years, they have seen only in passing or at carefully arranged events — and they realize, to their amazement, that those common people seem to be enjoying their travails.

I imagine that the one common emotion felt by every member of the mighty who has been brought low is . . . astonishment.

A Statue For Jesse Owens

Many people may be surprised to learn that the most legendary athlete to compete at The Ohio State University was not a football player — instead, it was track-and-field star Jesse Owens.  On Thursday, on one of the few sunny days we’ve had recently, the University unveiled a new statue of Jesse Owens at the southwest corner of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.

Owens’ athletic achievements were extraordinary.  Most people know about Owens’ Olympic accomplishments, but his efforts the prior year at the Big Ten championships (at that time still called the Western Conference) were equally amazing.  On one day — May 25, 1935 — Owens equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash and broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the long jump.  Four world records in one day!  At the 1936 Olympics held in Germany, Owens then reached iconic status by winning four gold medals in the heartland of Nazism and disproving Adolf Hitler’s racist Aryan superman myths.

When many of us think of the model for an athlete, we think of Jesse Owens, who performed exceptional feats under enormous pressure and did so with grace and class.  Many of the pampered, steroid-using, self-absorbed athletes of the modern world would do well to study Jesse Owens and learn from his example.  Perhaps this latest tribute will help in that regard.