From Wilt and Russell to LeBron: How NBA Stars' Motivations Have Changed

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From Wilt and Russell to LeBron: How NBA Stars' Motivations Have Changed
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LeBron James is both old and new, a copycat and an original. Aside from being "just" an NBA champion, a league MVP, an Olympic gold medalist and Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year," the do-everything forward for the Miami Heat is the best basketball player on the planet right now.

But (obviously) he's not the first to be the best or even the first to be great. He's both the pinnacle and product of basketball's long-running evolution from a game dominated by giants on the interior toward one that favors perimeter players who can do it all. As in nature, the forces of change in hoops can only act on and progress from that which already exists.

So while LeBron as Champion/Basketball Prototype/Global Icon may be unique, the ingredients and motivations for greatness contained therein are derived from a long and celebrated lineage that can be traced to him directly through his predecessors.

 

The 1950s and 1960s: Bill and Wilt

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It was only fitting that King James was christened at his coronation this past spring by none other than Bill Russell. The greatest champion the game has ever seen—two NCAA titles at the University of San Francisco, followed by 11 rings with the Boston Celtics—presented the Finals MVP trophy that bears his name to LeBron when the Heat finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder in June.

Russell set the standard for competitive greatness to which all of basketball's best have since aspired, wittingly or otherwise. Winning wasn't just a thing to do for Bill; it was the only reason to play the game. In The Book of Basketball, Grantland's Bill Simmons mentions, time and again, how maniacally competitive and committed to winning Russell was. He made his teammates better, assumed the team's coaching duties once Red Auerbach retired to the Celtics' front office and took the sport to heart to such an extent that he was known to vomit before big games.

It's tough to imagine LeBron as a player-coach or even as serially stricken by nervous nausea. He's shown that he wants to win, to the point that he willingly spurned his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with a superior squad in Miami.

During that fateful moment in July 2010, though, LeBron demonstrated a weakness for vanity similar to that of Wilt Chamberlain, Russell's greatest rival. By all accounts (including Wilt's own), Chamberlain was less concerned with piling up accolades on the court than he was with, well, enjoying life. As he wrote in Wilt (via The Book of Basketball):

"...I tend to look at basketball as a game, not a life or death struggle. I don't need scoring titles or NBA championships to prove that I'm a man. There are too many other beautiful things in life—food, cars, girls, friends, the beach, freedom—to get that emotionally wrapped up in basketball."

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with Wilt's outlook, or even that LeBron feels that way about the game. If anything, on the spectrum of "Basketball Equals Life" that runs between Russell and Chamberlain, James is much closer to Bill's end than Wilt's.

Still, it's understandable that LeBron might've fallen into Big Dipper-like moods before. Like Wilt, LeBron was a high school phenom who was fawned over from a relatively early age by the basketball world. Both were incredible athletes and physical specimens for whom the game seemed to come so naturally—Wilt a 7'1" behemoth with an impressive background in track, LeBron a 6'8" man-child who could've easily played tight end in the NFL if he'd so chosen. 

Both were spoiled by teams for which they played in or near their respective hometowns. Both also established reputations in the NBA for posting eye-popping stat lines, at least within the context of the game and the league at his particular time. Both enjoyed tremendous success as pop-culture crossover stars, though LeBron has yet to build up an IMDb page as stacked with Conan credits as Wilt's.

The difference? LeBron's numbers, more often than not, have been in service of his team's best interests, while Wilt's were all too frequently supportive of only his own. For instance, in 1967-68, Chamberlain went out of his way to lead the league in assists largely to prove that he could.

Even to the detriment of the Philadelphia 76ers' prospects for success.

Perhaps LeBron has engaged in self-aggrandizement via the stat sheet, though that doesn't seem likely. What seems to be the case, rather is that, at the age of 27, James understands full well the importance of producing for his team rather than for himself, a lesson that even Wilt never quite took to heart.

 

The 1970s: Kareem and the Doctor 

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving were never the antagonists that Russell and Wilt were during their heyday, though the former two were no less the life blood of basketball once the latter two drifted into retirement. The New York natives were winners through and through, and achieved victory so frequently with a style and grace that the game had not yet seen at that level.

The Captain won three prep titles at Power Memorial High School in New York City, cut down the nets three times while at UCLA and earned six NBA championships to complement his six league MVPs and all-time scoring title. Kareem's accomplishments were bested only by the beauty of his signature shot—the Sky Hook—which LeBron has recently added to his ever-expanding arsenal.

Kareem made clear that winning basketball could be an aesthetic delight, that even with superior physical gifts, a move of skill honed over years of practice could be the most devastating of all. The growth and development of LeBron's game from year to year would seem to indicate that he knows this. A sharper shooting stroke and a more advanced post game have transformed James into a more efficient player than ever before.

Dr. J was no less awe-inspiring than the 7'2" giant against whom he competed during three NBA Finals in the 1980s. Erving's two titles with the New York Nets in the ABA and one with the Sixers in the NBA pale in comparison to Kareem's stash, but his impact as a proponent of basketball as an aerial art form was no less important. He regularly flew through the air with the sort of ease that characterizes nearly every one of LeBron's forays to the rim, albeit without quite the same thunderous force.

Still, it was Doc's style of play that changed professional basketball as we know it. His performance in the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest against David Thompson further established basketball as a spectacle sport, Erving as the chief purveyor of said spectacle and the fledgling league as a thorn in the NBA's side.

The following summer, the ABA merged with the NBA, thanks in no small part to Doc's star power. The Nets sold him to Philly after the New York Knicks turned down a golden opportunity to take on his contract, thereby changing the course of hoops history forever.

LeBron's yet to be caught in a team-changing kerfuffle quite like that, though he can probably relate to what Kareem pulled the summer prior in 1975. That year, he agitated for a trade away from the Milwaukee Bucks, who'd followed up a loss to the Celtics in the 1974 Finals with a non-playoff campaign. His push for a bigger stage landed him with the Los Angeles Lakers and shifted the landscape of the league for nearly a decade-and-a-half to follow.

To be sure, LeBron took his talents to South Beach by his own volition rather than by demanding that the Cavs abide by his wishes via trade. Then again, free agency had yet to hit the NBA when The Captain jumped ship for LA.

In any case, Kareem's change in locales cast him in none too favorable a light outside of his landing spot, just as LeBron's did with his in 2010. Yet, both moves were motivated by glitz and glamour as well as by the glory that comes with victory.

Victory that both titans achieved in great quantities upon taking up residency at new addresses.

 

1980s: Magic and Bird

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Of course, Kareem didn't do it all by himself with the Lakers. He was lucky enough to land in LA four years before Magic Johnson exploded onto the pro basketball scene. That same year (1979) saw Larry Bird do the same with the Boston Celtics.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest that Magic and Bird are the two closest matches for LeBron's game and greatness. Both were transcendent talents who not only redefined the way the game was played, but also elevated the league itself to new heights. Larry Legend, while a far better shooter than LeBron will ever be, was also a deft passer who posted similar assist numbers to those that James has thus far compiled. He also proved to be a strong rebounder and a tenacious All-Defensive performer, as has been LeBron's charge in recent years.

Yet, between the two, it's Magic to whom LeBron is more frequently compared. Both are/were forwards who played like guards and both have/had a flair for theatrics on the court. LeBron hasn't quite manned all five positions like Magic once did, but he's come close.

But Magic was never considered an elite defender by any measure. Nor did he spend time as a wing or a power forward to the extent that LeBron has in his career.

Still, it's the larger-than-life persona and the budding rivalry with a sweet-shooting swingman (Kevin Durant) that would appear to make LeBron a closer match for Magic than for Bird. LeBron and Magic can also share the experience of battling—and eventually overcoming—their Bostonian tormentors, and how the initial failures made the later successes that much sweeter.

In any case, all three are/were ultimately driven by an almost sociopathic need to win. Bird's took him to five NBA Finals in the 1980s, and Magic's to eight. LeBron's already been that close to the top twice in the 2010s and figures to approach at least one of the two in that regard before the year 2020 rolls around.

 

1990s: MJ

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Neither of those two icons had to wait long to taste the sweet nectar of success, though. Magic lifted the Lakers to the title as a rookie in rather memorable fashion and was named the Finals MVP for doing so. Bird picked up his first ring the very next year as an NBA sophomore.

LeBron, on the other hand, had to wait in line for some time. He didn't get to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy until the end of his ninth NBA season, at the age of 27.

Not unlike Michael Jordan, who didn't capture the first of his six until he was 28. His Airness had to watch and learn while Magic, Larry and Isiah Thomas paraded to title after title through his first six seasons. It wasn't until 1991, when Jordan's Chicago Bulls vanquished Isiah's Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and Magic's Lakers in the NBA Finals, that the game's most revered player finally reached the mountaintop.

LeBron had a similar road of his own to traverse. His path was impeded by the Pistons in 2006, Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs in 2007, the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Boston Celtics in 2008 and 2010, Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic in 2009 and Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

Along the way, James learned that stagnation would not be an option if he were to fulfill the lofty prophecies set years prior. Like Jordan before him, James worked diligently to expand and refine his game, to become an elite talent on both ends of the court.

He followed in Jordan's footsteps off the court, as well. He became the crown jewel of the same Nike sports apparel empire that MJ had built from the ground up in the 1980s and 1990s. He established himself as a global icon, albeit one without the championship cachet that had made Jordan (and later Kobe Bryant) international celebrities.

Not until 2012 did LeBron break through, unburdening himself of the proverbial primate and allowing his global brand to thrive. He had to overcome tormentors past (the Celtics) and present (Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder) to get there.

But if James were ever to actualize the prodigious, Jordan-esque potential with which he entered the league—the year after MJ's final retirement, by the way—he would have to do so the hard way. If he were to become the latest, greatest wing to carry a team to the top, he would have to do so by accepting responsibility in crunch time rather than shirking it, by tackling his apparent fears head-on rather than hiding from them.

Because James wasn't the natural-born assassin that Jordan was upon his NBA debut. He wasn't blessed with the same "clutch gene" that made MJ so dangerous so early on. He wasn't—and, perhaps, still isn't—driven by the same unrelenting, sociopathic desire to win at all costs and humble his opponents while doing so.

Then again, who has? However LeBron measures up in that regard, he isn't likely to be undone by ghosts or any lack of interest because, for him, neither truly exists.

 

2000s: Kobe and Shaq

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Not yet, anyway. Not like Kobe Bryant, who's still chasing Jordan, both as an individual scorer and as a team champion. Not like Shaquille O'Neal, who seemed content with being "only" one of the 25 greatest players of all time when he could've very well challenged for a spot in the most exclusive rung of the basketball pantheon.

The two won three titles together with the Los Angeles Lakers as one of the most dynamic duos in NBA history. They dominated the league on the court and established themselves as media moguls off of it.

Yet, a review of the Kobe-Shaq era in LA wreaks of opportunities squandered, not unlike LeBron's time in Cleveland. The infighting between Bryant and O'Neal—the former's desire to be "The Man," the latter's lack of commitment to his conditioning and the general dysfunction that stemmed from it—held the Lakers hostage in 2003 and 2004 and resulted in the subsequent disbanding of a once-beautiful partnership between the league's two top players.

Which era's motivations do you think had the biggest influence on LeBron James?

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Both stars wanted to strike out on their own, to win titles without having to share the spotlight with one another. Kobe struck twice, in 2009 and 2010, but only after Shaq notched his with the Miami Heat against the Dallas Mavericks in 2006.

LeBron ultimately followed Shaq's lead to South Beach—and, ironically enough, met the Mavs in the Finals—but was in no way on the decline as O'Neal was. Nor did he leave his prior destination (Cleveland) to be the star, but rather to join forces with the same All-Star guard (Dwyane Wade) with whom Shaq won his fourth championship.

And only immediately after James attempted to win his first with Shaq as his teammate with the Cavs.

As numerous as the entanglements between James and O'Neal may be, the comparison to Kobe is a bit more apropos. LeBron hasn't coasted on his unprecedented physical gifts as Shaq once did.

Rather, he's followed the Kobe model, which essentially mimics the Jordan model, and added to his arsenal year after year while staying in impeccable shape. Such has allowed LeBron to assume an even more prominent position both on his team and in the NBA, even amidst the omnipresent forces of change.

 

The Age of LeBron

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For Kobe, though, there was a ready-made mold for him to fit into. He had all the makings of Jordan 2.0 and, by and large, has lived up to the billing.

LeBron, on the other hand, has had no such luxury (or is it a crutch?). He came into the NBA as an über-athletic Magic Johnson, or as a bigger Oscar Robertson, or as a modern-day Elgin Baylor or all of the above.

In reality, there was no honest precedent for what James would become. The sport has never seen a player who does everything as well as LeBron does—who passes and handles like a point guard, shoots like a two-guard, flies down the floor like a small forward, can bully his way into the paint like a power forward and who can rebound, disrupt shots and defend like a center.

Off the court, he's leveraged the infrastructure of stardom that came before him and the power of social media that's come along since to become a sports celebrity the likes of which has never been seen. The confluence of modern forces has made James a mythical figure to be revered (and reviled), as well as a pop culture personality with whom the average fan can connect through Facebook, Twitter and the like.

LeBron's a unique superstar for a unique age and, as such, is likely driven by unique motivations.

But as unique as he may seem on his own, LeBron, too, is both the sum of all that has led up to him and the harbinger of what's to come in the ever-expanding cross-current between basketball and the cultural mainstream.

 

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