Monday, June 1, 2015

A-Rod and LeBron: Opposite Sides of the Superstar Coin

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2015 at 9:17 AM

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The LeBron James story gains heft with every new chapter. Five years ago, the best player in the NBA left his own backyard of Cleveland to help form a super team in Miami. He and the Heat reached four Finals and won a pair of championships.

Apparently hearing a call home — and showing some maturity by forgetting the rather violent reaction in Ohio to his awkward and nationally broadcast departure — James chose the free agent route last summer so he could again play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He rejoined a franchise that, in his absence, had won 19, 21, 24, and 33 games, not so much as sniffing a playoff berth. The Cavs had an All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving and persuaded three-time All-Star Kevin Love to join the fun, but no one has called the 2014-15 Cavaliers a super team.

These Cavs, of course, will play for the NBA championship, starting this Thursday night in Oakland, California. And it’s entirely the LeBron Factor. Love separated his shoulder in Cleveland’s first-round playoff series with Boston. The Cavs proceeded to sweep the Celtics. Irving missed the second and third games of the Eastern Conference finals — against an Atlanta team that won 60 games and earned the conference’s top seed — and it simply did not matter. Cleveland swept the Hawks like leftovers from a public jersey burning.

So LeBron James is the first player outside the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s to reach the NBA Finals five straight years. This will be the first time, though, he’ll face the league’s reigning MVP (Golden State’s Steph Curry), which could mean James is motivated to prove something. That’s a horrifying thought if you wear Warrior colors.

During Michael Jordan’s prime, it was understood that the MVP was awarded to other players now and then — Charles Barkley in 1993, Karl Malone in 1997 — to keep things interesting, as there was no doubt who the planet’s best player was, one season after another. (There was a time, remember, when the world’s greatest basketball player swung a bat as a Birmingham Baron at Tim McCarver Stadium.) I thought the conversation about history’s greatest player ended when Jordan drained that buzzer-beater to win his sixth championship in 1998.

LeBron James is 30 years old. There’s a conversation.

• Did you see last week that Alex Rodriguez — designated hitter with the New York Yankees — broke Lou Gehrig’s American League record for runs batted in? Surely you did. A player with the most famous team in America broke the career record in a Triple Crown category of a player as famous for the disease that killed him as for his supreme brilliance on a baseball diamond.

You didn’t make a journal entry? Didn’t scream into the Twitterverse with awe and admiration? Neither did I.

Remarkably and ironically, Alex Rodriguez — New York Yankee! — is an invisible player. He’s donning those hallowed pinstripes for a team contending in the American League East. He’s adding to career statistics — in a sport that speaks the statistics language better than any other — that will leave him near the top of several major categories (not least of them, career home runs, where he now trails only three men). But no one cares. And no one is counting the numbers any more.

Rodriguez, of course, is the most famous abuser of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Unlike Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire, A-Rod chooses to continue playing (and cashing enormous pay checks) despite being exposed as a cheat. Twice. Despite spending the entire 2014 baseball season suspended by the commissioner’s office for that very cheating.

I wouldn’t have wasted column space on the man were it not for how extraordinarily invisible he’s become. A New York Yankee in cheat’s clothing. Meanwhile, the spirit and lasting legacy of Lou Gehrig endures, more “visible” 74 years after the Iron Horse’s death than the impact of a current record-breaking DH.

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