By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Esquire.com
Most people think that LeBron James won his fourth Most Valuable Player (MVP) this month because he leads the league in scoring. But that’s not the case. It’s because he leads his team to victories. Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Although people definitely know LeBron exists, they don’t often recognize his leads in ways that are both obvious and subtle.
In a sport that boasts some of the world’s best and best-paid players, how does a player like LeBron James distinguish himself as an MVP? Simple. He follows these MVP directives:
1. Have a consistent work ethic. MVPs lead by example, and the most important example they can show their teammates is a dedicated work ethic. Leave the superstar attitude and sports-apparel contracts at home and focus on one thing: becoming a better player and better team. As Coach Wooden once said, “Many athletes have tremendous God-given gifts, but they don’t focus on the development of those gifts. Who are these individuals? You’ve never heard of them — and you never will. It’s true in sports and it’s true everywhere in life. Hard work is the difference. Very hard work.”
Anyone who has played with Kobe Bryant cannot help but see the sacrifices he makes to stay in shape and play through pain. Kobe is never late for practice, he never complains, and he is always looking for a way to beat his opponents. Because the MVP comes to work every day on time and prepared to work, he makes it that much harder for his teammates to slack.
2. Develop versatility. Shooters shoot. They score points. The TV camera replays their basket. The crowd cheers and it feels damn good. But scoring alone doesn’t win championships. MVPs like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and myself are in the top echelon in multiple categories. This means that our teammates could count on us to do more than shoot. We know of MJ’s scoring ability, but he also often led the league in steals. Larry had an outstanding 3-point field-goal percentage as well as a free-throw percentage, and he led his team in steals. In the 1976 season, I was in the top three in scoring, rebounding, and field-goal percentages and led the league in blocked shots.
While Dirk Nowitzki is a great shooter, he doesn’t have outstanding skills as a rebounder, shot blocker, passer, or defender. So, even though he scores a lot of points, he is a one-trick pony who does not embrace the characteristics of an MVP. Nowitzki’s team, the Dallas Mavericks, did well when there were other players who could do the essentials of rebounding, defending, and distributing the ball. Unfortunately, the perennial Western Conference frontrunners, the Spurs and the Lakers, play at a very high level with more versatile talent. Hakeem Olajuwon was the go-to guy for the Houston Rockets, but he was also a very effective rebounder and defensive player who led the league in multiple categories in 1994, including MVP. When will we see another center do that?
3. Play to your strengths. Although I just praised versatility, it’s also important that you recognize your weaknesses. You don’t have to excel in every aspect of the game (such as Shaq’s free throw shooting), but you do have to do what you do best — often and successfully.
For example, Bill Russell was able to deny the opposing team any easy shots near the basket. He was also a great defensive rebounder. That meant the opposing team rarely got more than one shot at the basket every time they went down the court. Bill Russell tailored his game to rebounding and blocking shots because those were his strengths and how he could best contribute to his team.
4. Keep the team involved. Points scored are of tremendous value to a team, but when a player scores a lot of points without involving his teammates, he is making it more difficult for his team to win.
LeBron scores points in bunches, but he does it without forcing the issue. When other players have the opportunity to score, LeBron will give the ball up, especially when the other player has a hot hand. He is a leader who enables his teammates to be their best. This builds team cohesion and team confidence — which lead to team championships.
5. Be fearless when your team needs you most. Many NBA games are won or lost in the final minutes. This is when each player is not only battling the other team, but also their own roiling fear, adrenaline, hope, and physical exhaustion. This causes a lot of players, even pros, to lose focus, take bad shots, force a play, turn over the ball, or blow an easy free throw. MVPs have an inner thermostat that they can turn to icy when they have to. Teammates recognize this rare quality and feed them the ball when it absolutely, positively, has to be delivered through the hoop. That doesn’t mean the ball always makes it through the hoop, but they know that player is confident that it will and is willing to take the heat if it doesn’t. Remember Jerry “Mr. Clutch” West’s shot in the 1970 NBA Finals? Three seconds left, and Jerry hurls a 60-footer that swishes through and sends the game into overtime (see above). Or Kobe’s game-tying 3-pointer in Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals (see below). Michael Jordan said it best: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Every time an athlete approaches my record of six MVPs, I’m asked how I feel about it. Reporters want to know how I’d feel if he broke my record. I think they imagine me curled up in a fetal ball clutching my MVP awards, muttering, “Please break an ankle.”
In fact, when the day comes that my record is broken, this is what I’ll say: “Finally.” I think it’s possible that many record holders enjoy seeing other athletes reach the heights they have obtained because it’s a sign of hope. It shows we’re learning from the past and improving because of it. When Alan Shepard, the first American in outer space, splashed down in his capsule, he didn’t think, “Man, I hope no one ever goes to the moon.” He probably thought, with a grin, “This is only the beginning.” That’s how I feel.