Bryant Gumbel on LeBron’s ‘stench’

LeBron James talks to the media after The Miami Heat signed free agents LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade to 6 year contracts at the American Airlines Arena in Miami on July 9, 2010. UPI/Michael Bush Photo via Newscom

Waiting For Next Year has a transcript of Bryant Gumbel’s end-of-show editorial on HBO’s Real Sports:

Finally tonight, a few words about championship rings. Just when did they become the all-important barometer of who does or doesn’t count in sports? When did they supersede personal excellence or exemplary character as a standard of greatness?

I got to thinking about that the other night after the self-anointed chosen one, LeBron James, embarrassed himself as he tried to make his decision to seek rings in Miami sound like a search for the Holy Grail. It’s when he essentially admitted to placing a higher priority on winning than anything else.

LeBron’s decision is typical of our immediate gratification era, but it flies in the face of history. Even though he never won a title, Dan Marino is still the biggest hero in Florida. And in Boston, all those Celtics championships are dimmed by the unforgettable brilliance of Ted Williams, who never won anything. In Chicago, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus have legendary status despite playing on losing teams. And even in the NBA, where guys seem obsessed with being viewed as ‘the man’, real men like Barkley, Ewing and Baylor are ringless, but revered.

Despite such evidence to the contrary, LeBron James seems to think he needs a ring to change his life and secure his legacy. Maybe he’ll get one, maybe he won’t, but it’s probable that no amount of rings will ever remove the stench he wallowed in last week. LeBron may yet find that in the court of public opinion, just as putting on a tux can’t make a guy a gentleman, winning a ring can’t make one truly a champion.

I wish when pundits spouted off about LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland that they would say implicitly whether or not they have a problem with the decision itself or with the way the decision was made. Gumbel talks about “the stench he wallowed in last week,” so I can only assume that he’s talking about the controversy around “The Decision,” which most of us think crossed the line.

At the same time, he criticizes LeBron’s desire to win. Whether or not Gumbel gets it, a superstar has to win a title to cement his legacy. While Ewing, Malone, Barkley and Baylor are considered great players, there’s always the phrase “but they didn’t win a title” that comes at the end of any discussion about their relative greatness.

Would Grant Hill trade the classiness of his career for a ring? Only he can answer that question, and he’s a special case, so he might say no. But LeBron knows that if he stayed in Cleveland and failed to win a title, then his legacy would always have that asterisk.

Five, ten, twenty years down the line, I don’t know how much we’ll remember “The Decision” versus what LeBron and the rest of the Super Friends accomplish in Miami over the next six seasons. I’m sure the city of Cleveland will remember it vividly until the end of time, but if LeBron plays Magic to Wade’s Jordan and facilitates three or four titles in the next few seasons, the storyline won’t be about “The Decision,” but about where LeBron ranks amongst the league’s all-time greats.

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