Assessing The NBA Finals with Joseph Campbell

Dirk Nowitzki
I'm really, really tall. (Wikipedia)

A few nights ago, I dreamt  I was playing basketball while talking about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth.  And also, I was playing basketball with Joseph Campbell.  After deftly receiving my in-bound pass, Campbell started explaining the archetypal hero of the monomyth to me:  “Some people find this hero in Beowulf or Roland or Hercules. Other people find it in him.”  With that, Campbell passed to Larry Bird, who was wearing a Mavs jersey.

It’s pretty clear that the ball was a symbol of authority and of the power to speak.  Ball’s in your court.  Get the ball rollingGive me the ball. Those “only the person holding the ____ can speak” totems from Youth Group.  Bird,  a quintessential Campbellian hero in his own right, also stood for a Dirk Nowitzki finally poised to vanquish the foe and bring back the Promised Land’s boon.

Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Mark Cuban, and Co: Congratulations.  You deserve it.  You persevered through years of not-yet frustration, losing the dance to a LeBronless, Boshless Heat in 2006…a finals team led by Dwayne Wade’s talent and will and more than a little closeout power from the old Diesel himself.

As for LeBron James, let’s end the whole “same breath as Jordan or Russell or Chamberlain or Abdul-Jabbar or West or Erving…” discussion.  That narrative’s over.  In a repeat of last year’s playoff loss to the Other Big Three,  LeBron shut it down when it mattered most, something Michael Jordan can never once be said to have done.  As far as that comparison goes, that’s it and that’s all.  James still has time to win lots of hardware, but this loss, coming when it does, as it does, is going to stick for a while.  King James, so far, just can’t close it.  Please note: I’m not making fun or delighting in this.  If James gets this block straightened out, we’ll see the player everyone expects him to be deep into the playoffs.  He will hoist trophies and win multiple rings.  His regular-season talent, aggression, and drive won’t abandon him on the big stage.  LeBron needs to talk to somebody and beat this thing, and I say that as someone who rooted against the Heat this year on principle.  Who doesn’t want to see this guy be the best he can possibly be?  Witnessing greatness excites us and reminds us of what interesting, compelling creatures we are.  That’s why we love heroes. That’s why we watch.  We are the narrative species.

In LeBron’s hero epic, the next step every year is always supposed to be the redeeming grace of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.  I’d make more Grail allusions if they weren’t so obvious, but I will suggest that redemption isn’t quite the right word for what a Heat win would have meant.  The Mavs’ win is vindication:  Nowitizki had none of the public ill-will LeBron carries.  Dirk had much to prove, especially to himself, but this win caps many good years that fell short, sometimes tragically.  The Mavs’ win feels like the proper end to an authentic quest.  It feels good and fitting and right.  A Heat win would not have vindicated or redeemed James in the same way.  It would have been an important Step One to those 8 or so championships James predicted last year, and only outdoing Bill Russell will really redeem the careless and off-putting hubris of the James to Miami saga.  No, a win for LeBron would have been accretion, one small step toward a compelling case for his kinghood and greatness.  That’s gone.  The Heat have to win the next 3 titles at least to start this process anew.  But first, LeBron has to learn how to close.  His archetypal, Campbellian enemy is not the media, public perception, or the Big Stage.  It’s whatever shuts down inside him when he’s playing on it.  Concur that Grendel, sir knight, and the basketball boons will follow.  Ignore it and you’ll retire having achieved far less than your talent makes possible, and, more importantly, without the long-lasting peace of knowing yourself and overcoming your fears.  That’s about more than basketball.  That’s about more than heroes.  That’s about a kind of fulfillment crass achievement can’t bring, and that’s the truly heroic journey we’re, all of us, on.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Scottie Pippen’s Lack of Perspective. Oh, and Also Batman.

Dick Grayson in his original Nightwing costume...
This is why I’m hot.

From the summer of 2011.  A kinder, simpler time.

A few days ago, Scottie Pippen said that while Michael Jordan remains the greatest scorer in the history of basketball, LeBron James might be the best all-around player ever.  And then everyone said “ffffwhat?”” and I thought about Batman.  See, when Dick Grayson, the first and best Robin, got tired of feeling like an underrated sidekick instead of a respected, equal partner, he didn’t go tell Mike and Mike.  First he whined to Superman, then he became Nightwing, the coolest superhero not named Batman.  Dick Grayson, even in his recent stint as Batman, has never been and never will be Batman.  But as Nightwing, he has a little something for himself, and he’s a respected, bona-fide champion of his own burg across from Gotham.

With Pippen, having been Robin is the deal.  There’s no Nightwing role in basketball unless you play right now for the Heat.  Super Sidekick isn’t the job you dream of as a kid, but six rings?  Two three-peats?  Being the second best player on the best team of the 90s, and, as some have it, the best team ever?  Yep, okay.  I’ll take it.  Right now, Pippen is widely considered the best sidekick in recent history almost by default, which isn’t to diminish his own skill set or career.  He wasn’t just in the right place at the right time: he had to be, and was, the right player. He is the greatest of lieutenants, at least by acclamation, which is the same metric everyone uses when talking about Michael Jordan’s own supremacy.

Everyone except Kareem Adbul-Jabbar. He posted “How Soon They Forget: An Open Letter to Scottie Pippen” on his website yesterday.  And if you expect Kareem to take Scottie to task for disrespecting Jordan, you don’t know Kareem.   First, there’s the part where he says Pippen, while possessing a great basketball mind, is ailing from limited perspective.  Wilt Chamberlain, he reminds us, is the greatest scorer ever.  He also talks about how much better the league was back in the day, and says “So MJ has to be appraised in perspective. His incredible athletic ability, charisma and leadership on the court helped to make basketball popular around the world — no question about that. But in terms of greatness MJ has to take a backseat to The Stilt.”

Kareem’s real point, though, is that neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James nor even Wilt Chamberlain can lay claim to the mantle of greatest player ever.  He doesn’t exactly say so, but he’s squarely in the Bill Russell camp in this discussion.  “The ring’s the thing,” he says, and we all know Russell has eight straight.

Kudos, I say, to Kareem for being the grumpy old guy in the corner who says “the 90s schmine-ties. Back in my day ____.”  Kudos for questioning all of this acclamation business.  Somewhere, Skip Bayless is just wishing Kareem would have called Pippen a “prisoner of the moment.”  Negative points, though, for being kind of rude and passive aggressive about it. That’s part of the deal, I suppose.  Minus a few more points also for not also saying what he’s making everyone else point out:  that he, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is the NBA’s all-time points leader and by that metric alone should be at least second on everyone’s three-person list of greatest scorers.  By making Chamberlain’s case, Kareem is also making his own and he’s about as subtle as a skyhook.   Come on, now, friend.  You think we didn’t catch that?