An Alpha Among Alphas

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If you’re not sick of the Miami Heat yet, you will be. Everything that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh do and say for the foreseeable future will be covered, evaluated, and overanalyzed ad nauseum. The absolutely ridiculous level of the talent amassed in Miami demands constant and obsessive coverage,  if only because this situation is unlike anything the league has seen in the current era (at the very least). The unprecedented exists to be explored and to be cherished, until media oversaturation makes everything a tad bittersweet.

That allure of the unknown is what makes analysis of the Heat so intriguing. They don’t just have the potential to be a great team. They have the potential to completely change the way we think about basketball.

Everything we know, think we know, write, and think to write about the NBA is subject to framing. It’s the multi-faceted lens through which we view the game, and it affects the way we judge every player, every action, and every result. Among the most basic of these lenses is something of an archetypal set, in which we expect players to fully function within the historical roles laid out before them. It’s not about being a point guard or a power forward, or even a scorer or distributor, but something as fundamental as being a team’s alpha personality. There are leaders and there are followers, and the basketball collective has deemed those that follow necessarily inferior to their noble and revered shepherds. Those with great talent are expected to lead, as if considerable production and leadership qualities were linked by something other than convenience.

That dominant, alpha personality stems from nature…or at least what we thought was nature. The thinking goes that in primal packs of feral dogs or wolves (as well as various other species), the strongest and most assertive of the bunch naturally assumes a dominant, or alpha, role. As a society, we’ve embraced the concept almost universally, and alphas are lauded for their competitive spirit, willingness to dominate, and confidence. Being in charge has been made glamorous, largely on the evolutionary basis that the strong take control and the strong survive.

That same mentality exists in basketball just as it exists in any other human sphere, but with a very public, added pressure to assume an alpha role. Jordan embodied it. Kobe is consumed by it. Some of that fire is within them, but there’s no question that it’s also stoked from the outside.

Jordan chided LeBron for the very notion of surrendering that role in order to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Not because it was the wrong basketball or business move. Not because it wouldn’t give LeBron the best chance to win the first title of his career. But because after years of drinking a smoothie blended of alpha testosterone, individual brilliance, ridiculous success, and hubris, the very idea was unfathomable to Jordan.

This need to dominate not only one’s opponents but also one’s teammates is deeply embedded in sport as a whole, and there’s really no escaping it. Athletes strive to be alpha dogs, and if that desire doesn’t come naturally, it’s manufactured and nurtured within them from as early as possible.

So how about this for a foundational shake-up: What if everything we thought we knew about natural leadership and the alpha mentality turned out to be wrong? What if the very idea is an observational error propped up by years and years of confirmation bias?

Jeninne Lee-St. John of TIME Magazine examined the latest in canine sociology, with a specific emphasis on how the recent research impacts dog training methods. However, there’s something running far, far deeper here, that’s absolutely relevant to all things human:

The [alpha] debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out the alpha pair. As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring’s status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.

The point isn’t necessarily that seniority offers a more instinctive pecking order, though there is some truth to that. Rather, the significance here is in the potentially flawed model that persists all around us. There is a desire to compete and lead inherent in human nature that goes far beyond anything wolves could ever possess, and the motivations and logic behind those desires are fairly complex. However, the basis for the ‘one leader dominates all’ approach is based, semantically anyway, on the assumption that nature wills it so. This is the way it’s supposed to be because this is the way it’s always been, and this is the way it’s always been because of something existing in our very constitution. Yet maybe we’re only seeing what we want to see; what if there’s nothing natural — or even all that effective — about the alpha approach at all? What if we’re limiting our potential (in basketball and in life) as human beings by subscribing to an artificial and counterproductive brand of leadership?

The Miami Heat are interesting for myriad reasons, but fairly high on that list are questions and curiosities over the team’s leadership structure. What leadership role does LeBron James take on what used to be Dwyane Wade’s team? Or Wade on a squad where he’s no longer the best player? What about Erik Spoelstra? Pat Riley? Or Chris Bosh, who made it very clear coming in as a free agent that he wanted to be at the center of his new team’s universe? There’s so much yet to be determined in regard to the interpersonal politics of the Superfriends, and it doesn’t have to be decided by LeBron and Wade subtly fighting their way toward alpha supremacy. There are clearly other motivations at work here, and perhaps even a very natural willingness to bow to the will of collective leadership.

Seth Carstens