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Sweetness And Light

Don't Judge Exceptional Players By The Company They Keep

Originally published on Wed May 21, 2014 7:06 am

Ty Cobb, miserable human being that he was, is still considered the greatest American athlete of his era. But did you know the Georgia Peach never played on a championship team? Still, when the first Baseball Hall of Fame elections were held, he got the most votes –– even more than Babe Ruth.

Ted Williams was never a champion, either. Nor Barry Sanders, Elgin Baylor, Dan Marino or many of the very best team athletes.

Recently, however — and especially with basketball — the opinion has swiveled up that a great star is somehow deficient if he didn't play on a championship team, didn't lead his team to victory.

Currently, the onus is on Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, he's the league MVP. But, somehow, even at the callow age of 25, his resume appears suspect because his team hasn't won a title. We went through the same nonsense a few years ago when a noble LeBron James was carrying a whole woebegone Cleveland team on his back, but couldn't win it all.

Of course, then LeBron goes to Miami with a couple of superb teammates and wins one championship, and then another, and somehow this certifies him to be spoken of in the same breath as Michael Jordan, who, of course, won six championships –– only none of them until Scottie Pippen showed up to ride shotgun. Really, though, would Jordan have been any less the player had Pippen never put on a Bulls uniform aside him?

More than any team game, basketball celebrates the individual. The star can be downright ubiquitous in a basketball game. And he's so very visible, playing in little more than glorified underwear. However incredibly popular football might be, only a couple quarterbacks can match the celebrity of several basketball heroes.

Even more interesting: Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is being called potentially the greatest baseball player ever, but how many casual fans even know what he looks like? If Mike Trout played basketball, he'd be every bit as familiar as Hilary Clinton –– and critics would already be saying, 'Hey, why can't he lead the Angels to a championship?'

There used to be great sympathy for players like Ted Williams or Elgin Baylor or even Ty Cobb, when, however great they were, year after year, better teams beat their teams.

It's unfair that sometimes the best athletes can't lead their lesser teammates to victory. But all the romance aside, in team sports, ultimately the sum of the parts is, well, equal to the sum of the parts.

Someday — maybe even this year — Kevin Durant might be a champion. He deserves it. But we must not define personal greatness by the company it is forced to keep.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In San Antonio tonight, the Spurs face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second game of the NBA's Western Conference Finals. A lot of basketball fans are asking: Will the Thunder's Kevin Durant finally win a championship this year.

Commentator Frank Deford would rather ask a different question.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Ty Cobb, miserable human being that he was, is still considered the greatest American athlete of his era. But did you know: The Georgia Peach never played on a championship team. Still, when the first baseball Hall of Fame elections were held, he got the most votes even more than Babe Ruth.

Ted Williams was never a champion, either. Nor Barry Sanders nor Elgin Baylor nor Dan Marino nor, well - well, lots of the very best team athletes.

Recently, however, and especially with basketball, the opinion has swiveled up that a great star is somehow deficient if he didn't play on a championship team; if he didn't lead his team to victory. Currently, the onus is on Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Sure, he's the league MVP, leading scorer, but somehow, even at the callow age of 25, his resume appears suspect because his team hasn't won a title. And we went through the same nonsense a few years ago when a noble LeBron James was carrying a whole woebegone Cleveland team on his back, but couldn't win it all.

And, of course, then LeBron goes to Miami with a couple of superb teammates and wins one championship and then another, and somehow this certifies him to be spoken of in the same breath as Michael Jordan who, of course, won six championships only none of them until Scottie Pippen showed up to ride shotgun. Really now, would Jordan have been any less the player had Pippen never put on a Bulls uniform aside him?

More than any team game, basketball celebrates the individual. The star can be downright ubiquitous in a basketball game and he's so very visible, playing in little more than glorified underwear.

However, incredibly popular football might be, only a couple quarterbacks can match the celebrity of several basketball heroes. Even more interesting: Mike Trout, of the Los Angeles Angels, is being called potentially the greatest baseball player ever, but how many casual fans even know what he looks like? If Mike Trout played basketball he'd be every bit as familiar as Hilary Clinton, and critics would already be saying: Hey, why can't he lead the Angels to a championship?

There used to be great sympathy for a player, like Ted Williams or Elgin Baylor or, later, Charles Barkley or, yes, even Ty Cobb that however great they were, year after year, despite their personal supremacy better teams beat their teams.

Yes, it's unfair that the best individuals can't lead their lesser teammates to victory. But all the romance aside, in basketball and other team sports, ultimately the sum of the parts is, well, equal to the sum of the parts.

Someday, maybe even this year, Kevin Durant might be a champion. He deserves it. But we must not define personal greatness by the company that it's forced to keep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Frank Deford, considered a great commentator, even though he has not won an NBA championship.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.