Demanding Overtime

People spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes winners win. All we know, mostly, is that it's dark, strange, and mostly invisible.
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Charlie Jones has a story in his 1997 book What Makes Winners Win about playing bridge with Arnold Palmer. It goes like this: In 1969, Jones was assigned to cover the World Series of Golf for NBC in Akron, Ohio over Labor Day weekend. After the tournament, Palmer, a guest analyst for the occasion, asked Jones if he’d like to join him and his wife at their home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania for a few days; Jones, who lived in California, was scheduled to work in New York later that week, and so this made more logistical sense than a return trip out west. Also, one does not turn down a sleepover invitation from Arnold Palmer.

On the second night of the stay, Jones joined a friendly bridge game between the Palmers and some neighbors. Jones, by his own admission, “played horribly and barely managed to get through the game.” He was so embarrassed, in fact, that he swiftly devised a plan to redeem himself.

Looking ahead to springtime, Jones knew that he’d be back in the area for a tournament in nearby Ligonier, Pennsylvania. He vowed to become decent enough at bridge to impress Palmer and his friends. Jones studied the game and read every book he could. By next May, he was more than prepared.

On the Wednesday night before that tournament began, Jones and Palmer joined another bridge game with their fellow broadcasters. Because Arnie was scheduled to go off with an 8:05am tee time the next day, it was agreed that they’d stop the game at 11pm.

As the clock struck eleven, Palmer’s team was losing. It appeared that Jones’ hard work had paid off, and that redemption — or at least a modicum of face-saving — was his. Palmer, though, insisted that they keep playing. Midnight came, Palmer was still losing, and he again insisted that the game continue. Same at 1am. At 2am, still losing, Palmer took a bathroom break. While he was away, Jones’ partner Tom — one of the neighbors from the earlier match — suggested that they throw the game, because Palmer would never stop playing otherwise. Jones grudgingly agreed, and within a few hands after returning from the restroom, Arnie had taken the lead. Once that happened, he immediately threw his cards down and said, “Well, that wraps it up for me. I’ve got to get some rest. Remember, I’ve got an 8:05 tee time in the morning.”

It had taken hours to figure it out, but Jones had finally realized something that was true the moment they sat down: this particular game of bridge was never about him. When you’re competing against Arnold Palmer, in any game or any way, it begins and ends with Arnold Palmer.

***

Palmer has a unique talent, but elite athletes, at their telescoped apex, all have something in common with the way in which he whittled away everything in his being that might have distracted from the narrow scope of winning. There are no leisure activities for someone with these priorities; there is no leisure, period.

If this does not seem like a club to which you’d like to belong, congratulations: you are not Arnold Palmer, or Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, or Serena Williams, or Lance Armstrong. It’s not unusual for humans to hate losing, and there are plenty of athletes (and non-athletes) that value winning above anything else on earth. But while many and maybe most professional athletes fit those categories, there are others whose entire essences are signified by the idea of winning things, more things than everyone else.

To even come close to understanding the pathology behind this win-at-all-cost behavior, it's helpful to cross-examine contrasting cases. LeBron James is a figure constantly spread across the boards of our inspection tables in attempts to find what makes him tick, and more specifically, what makes him lesser—which, for whatever reason, seems to be the bog standard opinion on the best player of his generation—than the aforementioned gods. Some of this criticism is pure scandalous histrionics, but rings and body language are both red herrings when discussing the science behind obsessiveness in sports. Really, we separate James from those other figures in our minds simply because he doesn’t act in the way those other mutli-ringed lunatics do.

LeBron’s perceived lack of these disorderly personality traits scans strangely, if only because the ostensible standard is so fluid and strange. Could it be that Lebron’s triumphs manifest themselves in more unconventional—or more socially conventional—ways? His most precious victories could well be his accomplishments as a father or a husband, for instance, which would in no way be a shameful thing but which would make him an outlier among the weirdo immortals above. Or perhaps it is the genuine friendships he’s made throughout his basketball career; the same brand of kinship that led to his four-year collaboration in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. These are reasonable, healthy things to value. But they are not what we’ve come to expect from members of LeBron’s cohort. When these champions say that they hate losing more than they love winning, or that winning matters more than anything else, we might as well take them at their word. It’s an unsettling prospect, but so is spending an extended period of time around Michael Jordan. That’s part of the deal.

***

Which brings us back to LeBron. LeBron the generational superstar we’ve seen fold under pressure—at least insofar as a more assertive performance might or might not have trumped the Dallas Mavericks in 2011—and the one we’ve seen dominate en route to back-to-back NBA titles. Because he is still playing, and perhaps even still improving, we are not yet finished figuring out what to make of him; because he is transparently human and because he has been so closely watched, we’ve all gotten to know LeBron over these first eleven years of his pro career. Because he is who he is, and because of how we see him and because he is not finished, we do not quite see LeBron as we eventually will. He has appeared fallible in ways that Jordan and Palmer never did. But also, we do not watch him in the same way, and we are still watching.

In a way, that was not the case with such stubbornly opaque Jordan/Palmer-style legends. The way LeBron plays tends to double, rightly or wrongly, as a peek into his personality. The way he facilitates instead of dominating the ball, his tendency to speak of collective undertakings and responsibility—this is, depending on the observer, either mature and responsible or misguided and weak. LeBron might contend that the human fulfillment provided through so broad an outlook benefits him, and he might be right. But an army of pundits stand ready to refuse this, and throw his more outwardly pathological peers and predecessors in his face as a critique.

***

Winning shouldn’t be viewed as a basis for success in this discussion. It should rather only be considered a byproduct, even a symptom, of habitual behavior. However zero-sum the sports media’s approach to it can be, winning does not in itself justify everything, or even anything. One can simply point to the many innocent bystanders hurt by the single-minded pursuit of this. Lance Armstrong’s ruining of reputations and lives en route to his now meaningless seven Tour de France titles, or, on a much lesser scale, Luis Suarez’s constant propensity for biting and diving, no matter the consequences. We don’t know these villains’ minds, either. Anyway, that’s not why we watch them.

Though I'm sure Jones enjoyed his time with Arnold Palmer, those hours are likely not something he qualified as "recreation;" Arnie surely didn't, although for separate reasons. Whatever the initial pleasures of engaging with a colossus like Palmer, the experience almost surely ended with bewilderment and disappointment, regardless of the new book fodder from the failed pursuit. He never got to fully enjoy his "win," because of Arnie's loony demands. He would never get to enjoy anything like a win, anyway.

And so, no one won, really. Jones got to partake with the comic book heroes, but didn't get to become one. Palmer got to win, but probably didn't gain any true friendship from it. But who needs friends? Well, other than human beings.

And here, finally, is the problem with our tendency towards armchair sports-psychology—these are all people, after all, and as such so complicated that they will be difficult for other people to know. This should, it seems, make them more difficult to condemn. Whatever our many differences, there are ways in which I might see myself as similar to LeBron. However, I absolutely share some of the quirks of a full-blown narcissist, as do probably many writers and artists in general—a need for admiration, the fantastic pursuit of excellence and/or love, and an underlying presence of envy: I feel all of those things, too, and I bet you do as well. But I also recognize a disconnect. Characteristics that we might deem as flaws are the very things other individuals, in very different lines of work, need most.

They’re what drives them to excel, and in turn, what brings them power, money, and glory. That’s where I tend to diverge from that type with full acknowledgement, although not without suspicion. At some point, the abstracted analysis is objectively futile. Perhaps LeBron sees a conclusion beyond ring-polishing. Maybe his trek “home” to Ohio is a superlative sign of his empathetic soul, that his time away from Lake Erie's gusts left him so uncomfortably cold, even in South Beach, that he needed to fulfill his legacy on his own turf. Although, of course, the person who felt that way perhaps never would’ve left to begin with.

Who knows? I sure don’t. That’s the thing about attempting to diagnose people you’ll never meet, and whose lives you’ll never really know. There’s plenty of stuff to work with, but whatever the conclusion, you end up looking like a goddamn egomaniac.


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