The first basketball game I remember watching was the 1991 NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls were in the process of defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the first of six championships won by the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. In the process, Jordan would cement his legacy as the greatest player ever, but all I knew then was that Michael Jordan was mesmerizing to watch and that I had just become a Chicago Bulls fan.

The most recent basketball game I watched was last Sunday night when the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat to win their fifth championship. Their first came the season after Michael Jordan retired, and this would have been their sixth, if not for Ray Allen’s clutch three-pointer in Game 6 of last year’s Finals. This year, as with last, I was rooting for San Antonio to win; for that to happen, Lebron James needed to lose yet another NBA Finals.

Hoping the prideful will be brought down is enticing, but it’s very easy to move from that to hoping that they stay down.Ever since “The Decision,” I’ve wanted to see Lebron lose more championships. He’d already lost one (a sweep of his Cavs by the Spurs in 2007) and had embarrassing playoff exits thereafter. For all the hype suggesting he might rival Jordan as the greatest, there was little in his resume to back it up. To be fair, Jordan didn’t win his first championship until his seventh season in the league. Around the same seven-year mark of his career, James left Cleveland for South Beach, boasting the move would net him and the Heat over seven championships. That hasn’t happened yet, despite Miami’s appearance in the Finals each year of James’s tenure there. So far, just two wins.

I admit, I take pleasure in James’ failed prediction. I also admit that until recently I conflated my pleasure in the failed prediction with pleasure in James’ personal defeat. Everything about “The Decision” left a bad taste in my mouth. Lebron’s public prediction of large scale victory unwittingly (or wittingly?) tapped into the Goliath archetype, and the problem is people don’t like to root for Goliath (except for Philistines). I, and many others, transferred my distaste for that media stunt onto Lebron himself.

Over the last year, however, my attitude has changed. This change started as I worked my way through Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball last summer. Simmons’ book has helped me gain some missing objectivity about both Jordan and James, and, I think, this objectivity has enhanced my overall experience of the sport. In The Book of Basketball Simmons presents his plan for a rebooted NBA Hall of Fame, which would include the top 96 players of all time. James doesn’t fare too well in this list, with Michael Jordan at number one, Bill Russell (the only player who could legitimately have promised over seven championships, since he won eight in a row and eleven total) is number two. Lebron shows up at twenty. Simmons hints that James could certainly move up (the book was written in 2009), but his resume would need to be beefed up for that to happen. He’s won two championships since Simmons’ book came out, but he’s still lost more big games than he’s won. And as I read Simmons’ commentary, I realized Lebron could never really challenge Jordan’s legacy because a) he doesn’t come through in big games and take command and b) he seems like too nice of a guy, the key revelation that led to my changed attitude about him.

I was struck, too, by Simmons’ defense of Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest basketball player of all time. Though I was familiar with the stats, my subjective experience watching Jordan clouded my understanding of their significance. Because I was watching Bulls championships in elementary and middle school, in a time without internet, my understanding of Jordan was limited to SportsCenter stories or information offered in game broadcasts. Simmons broadened that perspective by revealing a Jordan behind the scenes. Here was a player that not only succeeded in being the greatest by willing his team to win in the face of adversity time after time, but also held grudges and relished demolishing opponents.

Though I had always revered Jordan, I was struck by how ruthless he came across in Simmons’ description. He was out to destroy his opponents and anyone who doubted or trash talked him along the way. Jordan’s greatness on the court came at a price: this struck me anew as I was listening to the CAPC podcast (Episode #48). I may have sensed this side of Jordan when I was younger, but that impression long since faded into the background — replaced with just the memories of clutch performances on the court. But now, I couldn’t ignore the fact that even long after his retirement, Jordan is still out for blood, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame acceptance speech (which most definitely outpaces “The Decision” in terms of hubris). Reading Simmons’ book forced the question: how could I remain absolutely loyal to Jordan and disgusted with James, despite the hubris that lies behind both?

Faced with that question, I realized that my attitude toward Lebron may have resulted from the publicity of his move to Miami and not merely his choice: who (besides Clevelanders) can really fault him for wanting to have a better chance at winning a championship? Once I realized this, it seemed ridiculous to root against a player who is probably the greatest athlete playing the game today, and who is a stand-up guy on and off the court to boot. A little objectivity goes a long way in avoiding the snares of the subjective.

It is (somewhat) irrational to hate-watch sports; they are simply competitions between athletes that are, generally speaking, of little historical or lasting significance to the fans. As an observer, I stand to gain nothing of value by actively hoping someone else fails. Hoping the prideful will be brought down is enticing, but it’s very easy to move from that to hoping that they stay down. Instead, our hope could be better employed in desiring that some good comes of an athlete’s humbling. (Insert Jesus Juke here)

And still I was content to watch the Heat lose last Sunday. Or, rather, I was thrilled to watch the Spurs win. I’ve always been a fan of Tim Duncan, and the Spurs usually end up being the team I root for in the Western Conference. Rooting for someone to succeed is a very different (and more positive) experience than rooting for someone else to fail. The realization I had about James doesn’t change that I hope his stint in Miami is ultimately unsuccessful, nor does it make me an instant Heat fan. But the objectivity gained from reading Simmons’ book allows for more enjoyment of the sport. I can watch James play and, rather than mock his mistakes, appreciate his talents, no matter his team (as he now has the potential to opt out of his current contract). I can also hope that, should he ever relocate from South Beach, this time around he can just make a decision to stay or go and leave the predictions to the pundits.

img via Keith Allison

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