MJ vs LeBron: Why you should emulate LeBron’s team-oriented approach

Team sports like basketball are a great analogy for life. LeBron’s understood that from Day One.

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Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

You may have seen a take or two (or a billion) on the MJ vs. LeBron debate. I have one, but I don’t care as much about was a better basketball player. I’m more interested in their approaches to winning and what they mean as we try to find success in our own lives.

As a basketball commentator for TNT, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal often underlines the importance of the “others” on a basketball team. From the perspective of a superstar like Shaq, the term “others” refers to his teammates, who usually didn’t get the same shine as Diesel.

Most of the world’s best basketball players understand that to win, you need to involve your teammates. In Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball, Simmons describes an insight that he calls The Secret to basketball: the most sustainably high-performing basketball teams win by playing unselfishly, empowering each other, and sacrificing personal statistics for the greater good.

LeBron James: the epitome of team-centric success

From a very young age, LeBron found any way he could to support his teammates. While playing as an 8-year-old for the Summit Lake Hornets in Akron, Ohio, LeBron James had a teammate who was so small and fragile that he couldn’t catch passes from his teammates without falling down.

As the season wound down, young LeBron made an effort to help his smaller teammate score. LeBron rolled him the ball, and the kid got a bucket. The team would eventually win the league.

From a very young age, LeBron found any way he could to support his teammates. He never had to be goaded into involving the “others.”

When faced with high pressure clutch situations at the end of games, LeBron tries to make the right basketball play. He doesn’t care if that requires him to shoot or pass to an open teammate. But his critics sure have cared, and they still hold LeBron’s deferential nature against him. Perhaps when the naysayers claim that LeBron can’t handle the pressure, they miss the defining play of LeBron’s career and arguably the most valuable play in NBA history: The Block.

On the court, LeBron is one of the best passers basketball has ever seen. Both his ability and his willingness to set his teammates up for success are legendary. Before the current NBA season stopped due to COVID-19, 35-year-old LeBron was averaging a league-leading 11 assists per game. I enjoy watching LeBron passing highlights as much as I enjoy watching his thunderous dunks or his championship-clinching defense.

Off the court, LeBron brilliantly sets up other people for success as well. He opened up a school in his hometown (and recently promised the school’s students free tuition to the University of Akron) to give at-risk children like him a better foundation for success. Even in his lowest moment as a public figure (The Decision), he raised millions of dollars for the Boys and Girls Club of America. He speaks up when he sees social injustice, keenly aware of the power of both his words and his actions. LeBron has mastered the art of leveraging his platform for good.

MJ: the epitome of me over we

I wrote about MJ last week, detailing why I don’t see him as an exemplary role model. His reluctance to involve the “others”, both on and off the court, underlines my view.

MJ had to be goaded into involving the “others.” He famously once said “there’s no ‘i’ in team but there’s an ‘i’ in win.” Not until Phil Jackson became head coach did Michael play more of a team game. It did not come naturally.

This dynamic perhaps never manifested itself as vividly as it did at the end of Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls (and MJ) were on the verge of winning their first title. But Jackson noticed that his star player was reverting to his old habit of “trying to win games by himself.” In so doing, he was leaving teammates open. Here’s how Jackson describes what happened next:

So I called a timeout and gathered the team together. “Who’s open MJ?” I asked looking directly into Michaels’ eyes. He didn’t answer. So I asked again, “Who’s open?” “(John) Paxson,” he replied. “Okay so get him the damn ball.”

John Paxson was the second best shooter on the Bulls, a man MJ often trusted to make big shots in clutch situations. After the timeout, MJ found Paxson, who hit four straight shots. Paxson punctuated that sequence by hitting the clinching shot to seal the championship for the Bulls.

Statistically, MJ peaked between 1988 and 1991. During that stretch, he averaged an eye-popping 33.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game. He had developed a reputation for taking over the game in clutch situations, from the game-winning shot he hit as a college freshman to clinch the 1982 national championship for his UNC Tar Heels to The Shot, when he sent the Cleveland Cavaliers home in the First Round of the 1989 playoffs.

But despite his individual greatness and the great teammates MJ had during that time frame, the Bulls repeatedly fell just short in the playoffs.

Only when MJ embraced Phil Jackson’s team-oriented philosophy did the Bulls start winning titles. MJ and the Bulls wound up on top six times under Jackson.

MJ’s individualist mentality extended into his life beyond basketball as well. MJ rarely leveraged his massive fame to help others, instead focusing on his bottom line as a businessman and as an athlete. That mentality manifested itself most clearly in his infamous quip when asked to endorse a Democratic candidate for Senate in his home state of North Carolina (who was running against a blatant racist): “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

In the recently aired documentary ‘The Last Dance’, MJ defended his mindset as a player. “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”

MJ chose to stick to sports. LeBron, following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jim Brown, recognizes that no athlete, especially one with the platform and standing he possesses, has the luxury to isolate himself from the world around him. LeBron understands that he plays on a basketball team but belongs on a bigger team: all of humanity.

Sustainable success

Critics deride LeBron for his 3–6 record in the Finals. But beneath that simplistic statistic lies perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment of his Hall of Fame career: he made eight straight Finals appearances, with two different teams.

The LeBron approach to basketball is very sustainable. LeBron used his approach to lead two different franchises to the Finals four years in a row each…without a break! Wherever he goes, LeBron has established a standard of excellence based on playing unselfish basketball. He assumes the onus of leadership on his broad shoulders and knows that the best leaders inspire those around them and put them in the best position possible to succeed.

In contrast, the MJ approach to basketball is not sustainable. Ever wondered why the most manically competitive athlete of all time retired at age 30 after winning three titles in a row, and then doing that again at age 35? Both stories are a bit complicated, but here’s the bottom line: He was burned out. He had put too much pressure on himself (and by extension his teammates). He couldn’t continue playing the selfish bad cop as he ruthlessly lorded over his teammates, acting more like a tyrant than a leader. He failed to level the playing field with the “others” on his team.

Empower the “others” in your life

All of us have a lot of “others” in our lives. We can unlock a higher level of greatness if we choose to empower them and involve them in our journeys.

Team sports like basketball are a great analogy for life. We all have a team to help us be our best selves. We need to collaborate with our teammates, cheer them up when they’re down, inspire them, learn from them, and enjoy their company.

We can do more when we lift up the “others” in our lives. In turn, they help us when we need it. Both MJ and LeBron needed help to win championships.

To be human is to be on a big team. The best part of being human is that we’re all on a team. Cooperation is the defining characteristic of Homo sapiens.

In the words of Helen Keller: “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

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