The weekend had a very familiar feeling for two very different stars of their respective sports, both experiencing disappointment on the biggest stage half a world away from each other. In Oakland, LeBron James’ Cleveland team were manhandled by the Golden State Warriors, falling into a 2-0 hole, loosing the two games by a combined 48 points. In Paris, Andy Murray put up strong resistance in patches, but eventually fell to Novak Djokovic in the final of the French Open, his 8th defeat in a major final. Both men have born their fair share of heartbreak, both had to deal with the constant questioning of their legacy. How will they be remembered? As the generation defining athletes that they are or as the men who more often than not came up short at the end?
“If you ain’t first you’re last”, such is our view of sports and sportsmen. Our society is obsessed with winning, winning without qualification. In 2007 LeBron James led a Cavaliers team that was mostly filled with garbage, only one other player on the roster had an all star appearance in their entire career, to the NBA finals. Once there they were completely overwhelmed by the San Antonio Spurs and lost 4-0. This is arguably James’ greatest achievement to date, greater than the two championships he won in Miami. However, this is rarely remembered it just gets added to tally of finals defeats to hold against him.
Similarly Andy Murray’s run to the final of the French open last week was one of his most impressive achievements to date. It was always assumed that Murray didn’t have the game to succeed on the slow clay courts of Paris, this year especially when damp conditions slowed the courts even further. Despite this Murray produced some of his best tennis en route to a final few thought he would ever make during his career. There is no shame in loosing to Djokovic on clay, there is however a narrative forming that Murray has a mental block against Djokovic as he has now lost 5 Grand Slam finals to him. Like for LeBron the losses are now stacking up for Murray.
Murray has had the misfortune to play in what has been the greatest era of mens tennis. He has contended with the likes of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal for the entirety of his career, throughout this unprecedented period of greatness Murray has been the only consistent challenger to those 3 legends of the game. How will Murray be compared to say Andre Agassi a player who won more Majors but in an inferior era?
For LeBron his misfortune is to mostly have played on average teams. During his entire first stint with the Cavaliers James never had a reliable second option to ease the opponents focus on him. Yet James still consistently dragged these Cavs squads to the playoffs. He showed in Miami, when surrounded with talent, that he is capable of leading a team to a championship, winning back to back titles in 2012 and 2013. However, there is almost more focus on the year he failed in 2011. When his Heat squad collectively froze against the Dallas Mavericks.
James is criticised for the Championships he won because he could only do it with the help of stars such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Paradoxically he is also castigated for the times he lost, his personal performance scrutinised whilst the failings of his teammates are glossed over. The fact that he has lost on 4 of his 6 visits to the finals (likely to become 5 of 7 over the next week) will always provide ammunition for those who want to question LeBron’s place amongst the game’s greatest.
Murray’s legacy will most likely be saved by the fact he became the first British male tennis player to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Ending almost a century of disappointment for those consuming strawberries and cream in SW19. LeBron has a similar chance to erase the shadow of finals failure by bringing a championship back to Cleveland for the first time in over 50 years. There is a sense that he is running out of time though.
It is far too simplistic to try and rank players based solely on their titles. This does not take in to account the multitude of factors that go in to every loss and defeat. The loss at the end of the season or tournament erasing the achievements that preceded it, reducing them simply to another opportunity missed. I sincerely hope that both Murray and James will be remembered as the true greats that they are without the snide asides, “oh but he only won this many” or “he didn’t win as many as him”. Unfortunately it is far to tempting to poke holes in a players legacy and there will always be those willing to do it. Likewise there will always be willing consumers of this narrative. Sports fans, especially basketball fans, are a partizan bunch with their favourite players who they will defend to the hilt. As a result of this all players legacies are questioned to satisfy the hordes of LeBron haters, or Kobe haters or even Iverson haters. From their achievements on court to their lives off it we are a society that likes to drag superstars down in to the mud for whatever reason we can find. Think if the abuse Andy Murray used to suffer for having his mum in the crowd for every game. Perhaps it is time we lookout how we treat or sports stars and tried to celebrate the positives rather than holding their failures against them.
As Reese Bobby reminds us in Talladega Nights there are lot’s of places in between first and last.