When hype and heroism part company
It's been a humbling year for our greatest stars: LeBron, A-Rod, Tiger and Big Ben
We hold these truths, by now, to be self-evident:
• That sports heroism is ephemeral.
• That how things appear, and how they actually are, can be radically opposed in real time.
• And that the passage of days and months, above all other factors, almost always produces the Great Reveal. That's what time does, right?
Barely 15 months ago, the following thoughts all were in play in mainstream sports America: LeBron James was poised to become the next Michael Jordan; Ben Roethlisberger was on the brink of NFL superstardom; Tiger Woods was relentlessly tracking down Jack Nicklaus; and Alex Rodriguez, though hardly devoid of controversy in his career, was nevertheless going to become the Clean Alternative to baseball's all-time home run king.
Wow. That didn't take long.
So do we approach the next 15 months in wonder or in dread fear?
Watching James slink away from Boston on Thursday night, the thought was inescapable. The man's body language screamed relief, not rage. His Cleveland Cavaliers had just completed an improbable lay-down in the face of some solid play by the Celtics, just a horrible abdication of aspiration by a purported championship contender. But from the look on James' face, you couldn't tell it from a summer league showcase game.
Afterward, the Celts' Kevin Garnett, who spent too many of his years chasing a ring he couldn't get in Minnesota, essentially told James to move on as a free agent, try to find his Nirvana elsewhere. It worked for KG, albeit a little late in his career, and you understand where Garnett is coming from. It's clear the man wishes he had made the difficult decision to leave Minnesota years before he actually did.
But James plays for a Cleveland team that made the NBA Finals three years ago and won 66 and 61 regular-season games the past two years, respectively. There are coaching issues, certainly; and the personnel around James may be merely decent instead of superstar-laden. But isn't a leader supposed to lead?
Still, we're talking about mortal failings here, not moral ones. If the worst ever said of James is, "He's no MJ," it's not the end of the world. It might be difficult for some fans to accept the idea that James is going to have to join a better team to win a title rather than make his own team title-worthy, but that's life. Jordan had some sweet supporting casts over the years, and a pretty good coach, too. Timing is everything.
No, it's the hype machine that takes the strongest hit here, and is that such a bad thing? James has been godded up so many times over so many seasons that it's a wonder he can fit his head through the door of the locker room. What the past two seasons suggest -- they don't prove it; they only suggest it -- is that James is no savior. He's a player of remarkable, unique skill who could help a good team win a title. That makes him, basically, Garnett-plus, not Jordan.
Tiger Woods is no Jack Nicklaus, for a list of reasons that you don't need me to reissue right now. But it's still fascinating that, while Woods' primary drive has been to pile up enough major championships to eclipse Nicklaus in the record books, he has self-sabotaged that very effort in almost every way imaginable.
The notion you hear put forth most often is the one that makes the most sense: Woods' fall is the most dramatic in the history of sports because he had the most airspace to cover. You could scarcely be higher in the sporting stratosphere than Woods was a year ago, or six months ago, for that matter. But that was before he brought his own career down to a bended knee, or a wrenched neck.
And while you can't prove it by anything that anyone will ever say out loud, there is also this: Tiger walked off the course at Sawgrass last weekend, absolutely stepped away in the middle of a championship on the final day of competition. LeBron figuratively stepped away from his team in the middle of a conference semifinal, particularly in Game 5 in Cleveland, when he compounded a lousy shooting night -- hey, it happens -- by appearing almost totally disengaged from the horror show that was unfolding around him. And that should never happen.
Unrelated events. Related perceptions.
Ben Roethlisberger's football team underperformed loudly and he was found to be, at the very least, a man lacking almost any judgment when it came to his standing as a public figure in the world of sports. He embarrassed a proud and storied franchise, which is quite a thing; and no matter what transpires on the field, Roethlisberger no longer is being compared with -- well, to any of the greats, certainly. He blew up his own name, too.
And A-Rod? Let's be honest: It was just a hope. It was a hope that Alex Rodriguez could somehow bash his way past Barry Bonds in the record books without also being fingered as a drug cheat, because then it might be possible for the great Henry Aaron to feel peaceful about his 755 home run mark being taken down.
But I think that ESPN.com's Howard Bryant has it mostly right in the title of his new book about Aaron. Maybe we're not down quite yet to "The Last Hero," as Bryant dubs Aaron. But given the events of the past 15 months, this much is clear: It's like crawling across glass trying to find the next one.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.