- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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DALLAS -- The All-Star Game falls on Valentine's Day this weekend, so perhaps you'll excuse the racy metaphor: In the NBA, the flirtation is often more titillating than the actual consummation.
Because of the strength of this summer's NBA free-agent class, let's just say NBA fans have gone beyond flirting to the heavy petting stage when they discuss next year's possible whereabouts for stars such as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the headliners of the 2010 free-agent class.
Will LeBron end up in New York or New Jersey with D-Wade and Bosh? Will LeBron go to Miami to be with Wade? Will Wade and Bosh end up with another team no one has talked about yet? Welcome to the NBA's version of "The Bachelor."
For an NBA fan, there's nothing better than putting together imaginary scenarios involving your favorite superstars. Barbershops across the country should be turning over a quarter of their profits to the NBA for the time their patrons spend arguing about trade situations that, of course, will never happen.
I can take the harmless conjecture. But what I can't take is the idea that the NBA would be better off if LeBron and D-Wade or LeBron and Bosh, or some combination of the three, wind up playing together. Sometimes, it feels as if fans want the NBA to become "Super Friends." Even though Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were far more compelling individually than together.
This being NBA All-Star Weekend, players such as Wade, James and Bosh have had to address their respective free-agency situations in response to repeated media inquiries. Not surprisingly, because it's in the interest of good business, none of them has excluded any team, player or situation.
But I don't want to see LeBron with Wade in Miami, New York or any other city. I don't want to see LeBron with the Lakers alongside Kobe. I don't want see LeBron, Wade and Bosh together on any team. I don't even want to see Wade, Bosh and Joe Johnson together in Chicago.
The assumption seems to be that two or three megastars on one team is a good thing. But I can't think of a more boring setup.
The NBA might have its problems, but its current parity isn't one of them. In fact, it's one of the appealing things about it. Every part of the country has a superstar, from Brandon Roy in the Pacific Northwest to Dwight Howard in the Southeast to LeBron in the Midwest to Kobe Bryant representing the Left Coast.
The reason the NFL is the most popular league in the country is because it operates under a system that promotes player movement, and that has heightened interest and created juicier storylines for a variety of teams. Who could ever have imagined that Brett Favre would one day lead the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game? Who could have imagined the New Orleans Saints would one day be Super Bowl champions behind Drew Brees? Even the Detroit Lions, arguably the sorriest franchise in professional sports, have reason to hope because of the way the league works.
The idea that the NBA needs several superstars on one team is misguided. Every superstar needs help, of course. But it's working for the NBA to have LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh (admittedly, a lower-wattage star than Wade and LeBron) in their respective cities, each competing separately for a championship.
Call me a purist or even a grump, but there's something to be said for a star bringing home a title to the team that drafted him. That's how you build a legacy. Certainly, stars such as Karl Malone and Gary Payton jumped to other teams late in their careers in pursuit of a championship, but they earned that right by spending years in Seattle and Utah first, trying to win titles as the centerpieces of their franchises. And although Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett came together to win a championship in Boston in 2008, they were complementary pieces rather than individual superstars who could singularly carry a team the way LeBron, Wade and Bosh have. (Although the jury is still out on whether Bosh is a true franchise player.)
"I think it's more special when you do it as a centerpiece," Bosh said Friday. "The perception is a lot different with the way people view you."
Maybe I'm spoiled. I grew up watching Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan all win titles with the teams that drafted them. Occasionally, there were those flirtatious whispers that Jordan might leave the Bulls to join the Knicks -- rumors that started because fans knew how much Jordan loved to play in Madison Square Garden -- but no one ever really believed them.
The players in that era would have sacrificed a limb before leaving the teams that drafted them, at least until they won a title. It would have been like giving up. Jordan is considered the greatest because he won six titles with teams consisting primarily of him, plus role players. Had he ever paired with another superstar, he might not have been looked upon as invincible.
Magic, Bird, Jordan and Thomas all suffered through an NBA rite of passage. Magic lost to Bird. Bird lost to Magic. Thomas lost to them both. And Jordan lost to Thomas. They were all frustrated with losing -- just as Bosh, Wade, LeBron and even Kobe have been -- but playing against one another made them greater players.
If LeBron and Wade or some of the others wind up on the same team, how will we measure their greatness? How can we ever know what they were truly capable of as individuals? And wouldn't it be better to see them competing against one another in the playoffs than playing together on the same team?
If LeBron leaves Cleveland and tries to win a championship with another team, in my mind, that knocks him down a peg. There has never been a player like him in the history of the NBA, and very rarely is an athlete of his caliber in any sport put in the position to win a title in his hometown. New York might be a bigger market, but bringing a championship to title-starved Cleveland would be special.
Kobe was/is criticized sharply for playing a role in the Lakers' split with Shaq. But there's no question that had he not won a title without the big man, he never would have been in the conversation with Jordan as one of the greatest players ever.
The great ones always should go it alone.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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