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Is LeBron James the Miles Davis of Basketball?

Original LeBron James photo by David Alvarez

Over at Hardwood Paroxysm, I wrote a post about how LeBron James might be remaking our understanding of competition and collaboration in the NBA.

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2 comments
  1. mthompson said:

    (I don’t feel like registering somewhere to post on HP, I’m posting this here.)

    Good article — I’ve been thinking all year about this exact analogy, with those exact Miles Davis groups in mind.

    There’s this crazy idea in a lot of popular sports coverage these days that superstars like LeBron and Wade ought to want to win championships “by themselves”, that collaboration is cowardice. Of course, anybody who knows the history of basketball and the makeup of teams like the 80s Lakers/Celtics, the 90s Bulls, the 00s Lakers, etc, knows this is nonsense; Magic, Bird, MJ, Kobe, and Shaq hardly accomplished what they did “by themselves”. But beyond just being historically wrong, this heroic individualist doctrine takes a very restricted, blinkered vision of what makes sports great, both for the participants and the audience. Seeing LeBron or Wade do something spectacular in isolation is, by itself, spectacular; but watching LeBron and Wade run one of their ridiculous hail mary fast breaks this year is even better. It is the artistic and creative side of sports; two human beings collaborating, sharing their (already remarkable) expertise with each other to create a performance even greater than the sum of its parts.

    Jazz is the perfect thing to look at to magnify this point. Defiant individualist masculine competitiveness is a really big part of jazz history, especially the bebop era Miles came out of. But jazz isn’t a competition; nobody keeps score; no team gets a trophy at the end of the night or season. Jazz is a form of creative expression, and it is patently obvious that it’s best when individually good musicians get together and push each other to be better than they would be by themselves or with less individually good collaborators. Competition is still part of the tradition; Bud Powell trying to show up Charlie Parker on the bandstand one night is almost exactly the same thing as Kobe Bryant trying to show up LeBron at the All-Star Game; but this means not that the best artists were at their best when they each had “their own” group, but rather that they were at their best when they were on the bandstand together, making each other greater than the sum of their parts.

    The popular view of basketball has a hard time appreciating this side of it because “sports” and “collaborative art” seem, on the surface, mutually exclusive. Basketball, unlike jazz, does keep score; it is a competition; teams do get trophies at the end of the year. But there’s no reason a competitive sport can’t also be an art. It is an art in that it features human beings doing spectacular (almost “superhuman”) things which require spectacular expertise and ability and have “no use”, in the sense that their actions do not cure disease, provide sustenance or housing, produce cars and other things people need to live, et cetera.

    Not only is basketball an art, it is an (African-)American one, just like jazz. Herbie/Ron/Tony collaborating or LeBron/Wade collaborating is just human beings delighting in what they can do with each other’s expertise, for no other purpose than just delighting in what they can do. We should delight in it too.

    I think it’s an interesting question _why_ so much hatred/derision has been directed toward LeBron for his decision to join up with Wade and Bosh. How in the first place did it get to be that the popular opinion accepts “heroic individualism” as the #1 priority in professional team sports? Insofar as people who watch sports watch it just for the competition or just to root for their home teams, how did it get to be that sports is just “about” channeling our urges to watch human beings at war (a la the old gladiators) and/or in particular to channel urges to watch the local tribe (the home team) beat up everyone else? No doubt sports has and still does express those aspects of our humanity, but so too does it express the artistic aspect of it. Why has that latter aspect been obscured so in the way most of the media portrays sports and the way most people consume it?

    I have some (sketchy) ideas about how the blindness to the artistic/collaborative aspect is a consequence of the capitalist relations of production that shape our society, because in order for capitalist relations of production to reproduce themselves (in other words, in order for a small percentage of people to continue profiting off most of us) the population must be indoctrinated with the metaphysical world view of capitalism — on which human beings are all individual isolated atoms who do things only for the sake of their individual survival, rather than social animals who, among other things, can collaborate with each other just for the sake of creative collective action. Sports are a prime form of entertainment for a large segment of the American working class, and the sports media by and large is controlled by a few massive entertainment monopolies. (Sports leagues are monopolies too.) So, when memes like “LeBron is a coward because, rather than stick to his hometown and fight his way to the top with nobody else’s help, he left home and joined up with others; just like black people who, rather than fight their way up the class ladder without help from others, go to the government for help” are as prevalent as they are, it’s no accident, or not just a consequence of gutteral popular opinion. It is because the very few entities controlling professional sports and the media wants those messages to be what everyone talks about, and wants to make sure that’s what “popular opinion” will be.

    • Thanks so much for the really thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. I’m definitely on board with your idea that there’s a very definite psychological underpinning to this idea of the conquering hero. I actually wouldn’t say LeBron is a perfect comparison to Davis, but there’s something about his recognition that he’s not the alpha dog that rings true for Davis. For all his swagger, I’ve always felt that Davis figured out early on that he wasn’t going to be a Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown as a player, so he chose to be something broader and more comprehensive than a great soloist.

      In any case, there’s a very real resistance towards sharing credit in a lot of arenas. In writing, for instance, we really like to believe that a book must be the product of a single mind–the author–and discount the contributions of editors and other readers along the way. And if a book lists two authors? Forget it: we assume that neither was good enough to do it on his or her own. I’m going to be ver interested in seeing what’s LeBron’s legacy becomes once he’s retired. I suspect he may change the game in some very fundamental ways that go beyond his impressive stats and physical abilities.

      Thanks again.

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