There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically — two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don’t think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way…I hope people will see that there are different ways of winning.
“There are different ways to hunt.”* The irony of the narrative inextricably linked to LeBron James’ career is that he always understood clutch situations far better than the rest of us. In fact, James failed in the clutch only when he relinquished himself to the predominant narrative, when he didn’t trust his preternatural basketball comprehension. In contrast, Kobe Bryant never commanded control; his efforts sprung more from desperation, from achieving the seemingly impossible. Michael Jordan’s moments always seemed the perfect encapsulation of his psychotic will, of his determination literally manifesting itself in memorable game winner after memorable game winner. Kobe’s and Jordan’s approaches made them synonymous with the most intoxicating of basketball plays: the game-winning shot.
*It should be noted that the killing/hunting metaphor is particularly obnoxious. However, since this is so ubiquitous in sports discussion one can hardly blame LeBron for speaking in such platitudes. Further, his choice of metaphor is hardly important with regards to the insight the quote provides.
LeBron was very clearly never interested in any of the late game glory, or at least not in recreating the Jordan and Kobe clutch experience. He wanted to use his skills to manipulate the defense into giving his team a good shot. If that meant he took the shot so be it; if that meant he passed to a wide-open Donyell Marshall in the corner, that was okay too. Miles Davis was famous for his understanding of space and silence. There was no excess. The time between notes was just as important as the notes themselves — the notes played equal to the notes left unplayed. For LeBron, the shots he did take have always been as important as the ones he didn’t, both to him as a player, and us as fans. For whatever reason, it’s been difficult for LeBron to get the general public to understand this approach. The shots he didn’t take always stood out as missed opportunities and the ones he took and missed served as the miner’s canary for his clutch-less soul.
Thus, the above quote essentially amounts to LeBron’s “Can I Live?” It’s his articulation of a frustration that he’s not only carried with him his whole career, but now overcome**. However, LeBron’s comments on acceptance of variety and diversity touch on something much larger than just clutch situations: LeBron is actually drawing on a much more widely applicable concept with regards to our appreciation of the NBA.
**It would not be incorrect to point out that it’s odd to say someone overcame a narrative that he never really deserved. However, the nature of overcoming generally includes besting or beating something that you likely never really deserved in the first place. Much like how you, the reader, had to overcome reading this footnote.
“Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way.” Do they? Given his career path, I understand where LeBron is coming from, and certainly there is a significant level of truth to what he is saying in regards to clutch situations, but overall,I think we as fans desire variety. This fact is made even more obvious when we are without the NBA. Recently, because of the NBA’s absence, I have been enjoying an unhealthy amount of NFL football. The various draws of the NFL are obvious: the RedZone channel, all the games more or less on one day, fantasy football, the high stakes given the low number of games, fantasy football, fantasy football. Just as obvious are the evils: Roger Goodell, concussions, the owners, rinse and repeat. But even ignoring the pressing moral issues inherent with the sport there is a soullessness to football that leaves the viewer with a level of deep stomach-upsetting sadness.
This feeling of uneasiness originates from the NFL’s lack of individuality. The league itself has scrubbed the personality right out of the sunday viewing experience. It wants you to root for teams, not players, and God forbid anyone ever do anything interesting after scoring a touchdown. But more than that, the sport of football itself doesn’t seem to foster or value style, or expression. Each player has such a specific function on the field, and half of those players more or less just ram into each other over and over again. As such, it takes a lot of work to see a player as more than just a cog in the machine. Even the great skill position players carry a level of redundancy: Dez Bryant making an incredible catch doesn’t really feel that much different than AJ Green making said catch. A great throw from Drew Brees doesn’t really look different than a great throw from Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. The closest thing we had to fun, truly unique individuals were probably Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, and both those guys were deemed crazy, and failures, and on and on we go. The whole thing feels so antiseptic***.
*** I imagine if the NFL, the league organization, had a smell it would be some combination of hospitals and Windex.
Basketball, and the NBA, are the direct opposite of this. The league itself deserves credit for celebrating and promoting not only its stars, but its unique individuals. This is the league where Zach Randolph, a player who shoots layups like a four-year-old who has to slingshot the ball toward the rim because the ball is half the size of his body, can be dominant on the inside. Where you can legitimately wonder whether JR Smith played poorly in the playoffs because his knee was hurting or he partied too hard with Rihanna****. This goes hand in hand with a sport that inherently blurs lines between fundamentals and showmanship, rules and expression. The conversation about positionality alone demonstrates the fluidity and creativity basketball not only allows for, but encourages. Players often don’t fit inside neatly defined positional boxes, and fans can debate questions like “what is a power forward” or “what position does player X play?”*****
****OR, his knee was hurting because he partied too hard with Rihanna. Case closed.
*****Which is obviously a very “inside basketball question”, but again no one is asking “What is a left tackle”? Nor should they.
“I hope people will see that there are different ways of winning.” This is what I think LeBron was tapping into — the expression and the individuality of the current NBA. What makes basketball beautiful and compelling is the room for difference. There’s so much to take in, so much to try and experience and understand. While I am sure many of you root for your respective teams, and are excited to once again see them play, I imagine that if you really press yourself, what you miss most about basketball has nothing to do with the team itself. If you’re a Bulls fan, you miss seeing Derrick Rose skate his way to the rim, launch himself, and contort his body in amorphous fashion before finishing. Pacers fans cannot wait to see Hibbert expertly wall off them rim, or Lance Stephenson crazily careen between defenders on his way to the basket. Pistons fans are intrigued by the embodiment of length, athleticism, and promise of Andre Drummond. Blazers fans want to see how Damian Lillard evolves, how he builds on an excellent rookie campaign.
No matter your team allegiances, there are things we all miss. We miss the “those are only a good shot if he takes them” three-pointers that Stephen Curry buried the Nuggets with. We miss the way Chris Paul dribbles, which somehow is entirely unlike the way everyone else dribbles. We miss the power and audacity in every Blake Griffin dunk. We miss automatic Chris Bosh 20-footers. We miss Rajon Rondo and his creativity, his complete disregard for any suggestion of what point guards should or shouldn’t do, or what passes can or can’t be made. We miss Ty Lawson’s ability to seemingly teleport to the rim (we hope he might finally be a little more aggressive this year). We miss Marc Gasol’s offensive brilliance, his unselfish nature, his beard, his intensity. We miss Jamal Crawford crossovers, Tony Parker spin moves, and whatever move Kyrie Irving might try next. We miss Javale McGee’s Javale McGeeness. We recognize that there’s some form of brilliance to whatever it is he’s doing. We miss James Harden attacking off the pick and roll, Dwight Howard dunking a put-back, and Ray Allen curling off a screen for a 3. We miss JR Smith’s everything, Larry Sander’s sarcastic thumbs up, and Tony Allen’s fast break adventures.
All of this and more is about to return. Get ready. Basketball is back.