This message goes out as an open letter to young ultra-talented athletes everywhere: to Andrew Luck (QB Colts), RG3 (QB Redskins), Andy Dalton (QB/Bengals), Anthony Davis (power forward/Hornets), Bryce Harper (outfielder/Nationals), Matt Moore (pitcher/Tampa Rays), and especially to the quarterback of my favorite team, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers. The message is this – “Championships are won by those who learn to win ugly. The commitment to ‘win pretty’ must die.“
The latest testament to this time tested adage is none other than Lebron James of the Miami Heat. Over the years, all the talking heads in the media have made much about Lebron James. They have lauded his talent, his style, his swagger, his personality, his speed, his power, his transition game, his ability to hit threes, his ability to pass, and his ability to throw down glorious dunks. Lebron James’ game was pretty. Smooth. Gracious. Big smiles. Big endorsements. And big money. Yet, in the big moments, over and over again, Lebron James failed to deliver. As a result, those same talking heads turned on him with all kinds of harsh critiques. “Lebron was selfish,” they would say. “Lebron was scared of losing, scared of winning, tight under pressure, unsure, nervous, distrustful of his teammates, an attention hog.” I have heard it all. And it all was bunk.
There was only one thing wrong with Lebron James’ game. Lebron was too pretty.
It was almost that simple. If he couldn’t win pretty, then he didn’t seem to want to win at all. Last year, after the Miami Heat’s devastating loss to the Dallas Mavericks, all of that changed. Lebron James did some soul searching and he decided to make some changes. In the off-season, he traveled to Houston Texas and worked out with retired Rockets’ center, Hakeem Olajuwon. James was determined to learn how to play in the post. He wanted to learn how to win ugly. He was willing to get his hands dirty, and this NBA season, it showed. Lebron was 3rd in points with 27.1 per game, but that is to be expected. No surprise there. But the way he scored – that was the difference.
King James was no longer throwing up thoughtless three pointers. No. Lebron was scoring in the post. He was playing ugly. In the playoffs, Lebron got even uglier. Drawing double teams and making ugly, but effective passes. Bumping and grinding with the big boys who play around the basket. James’ 3pt percentage was horrible. He wasn’t that great at the free throw line. But, he averaged almost 10 rebounds per game. He was working – a basketball in one hand, a lunch pail in the other. The old “King James” was gone. “Blue Collar Bron” was born – falling and getting back up again, refusing to pout and refusing to quit. In game five of the finals, Blue Collar Bron wasn’t swagging around and adjusting his crown, he was limping around with cramps, barely able to walk, much less ‘swagger’. In game six of the finals, Blue Collar Bron was not passing pretty to his inner-circle pals – Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he was passing ugly, kicking the ball out to the well-traveled and gimpy Mike Miller. Blue Collar Bron was not throwing powder in the air and smiling for the cameras, he was yelling at Mario Chalmers and encouraging Shane Battier. Following Lebron’s lead, the Miami Heat discarded the self-congratulatory and much hated “Big Three”, and became the team-oriented and much admired “Scrappy Six.” And now, they are the 2012 NBA champions.
In these finals, Lebron James joined all the great winners in sports who have taught us this same great lesson – Champions win ugly. The commitment to “win pretty” must die. He joined Muhammad Ali, the ultimate win-pretty sports figure, who taught us to win ugly in his great fights with Joe Frazier and in his 1974 Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. Remember the “rope-a-dope‘? Ugly. Yet, beautiful. As mentioned earlier, the New York Knick’s center Willis Reed taught us to win ugly as he limped and gimped his way to victory in game 7 of the 1970 NBA Championship. Ugly. Yet, beautiful. Michael Jordan taught us to win ugly in game 5 of the 1995 finals when he dropped 38 points on the Jazz as he drug himself up and down the court with the flu. Ugly. Yet, beautiful. Finally, in game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers taught us to win ugly. In the ugliest, most beautifulest at-bat in Major League Baseball history, Gibson hobbled to the plate on two worthless legs and turned his broken body around on an outside pitch, practically throwing his bat at the ball, and hit the sorriest looking walk-off, game-winning homerun that anybody has ever seen. Ugly. Yet, gloriously beautiful. And now we have Lebron James’ performance in this 2012 finals. Ugly, yet beautiful.
I hope some of the other hot-shot young athletes in major sports were taking note of Lebron James’ transformation. It is a vital lesson to learn. So, Andrew Luck, take note. Sometimes it ain’t gonna be pretty. Bryce Harper, take note. Learn to take walks and play small ball. And Cam Newton, take note. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, when you’ve been knocked on your backside the whole game, take that stupid towel off of your head and go to work. Swallow your pride. Humble yourself and learn to win ugly. If you do, I promise you, it will be beautiful.