During the NBA on TNT show after the Rockets-Lakers joke of a game, Kenny Smith touched on an interesting idea that I’ve debated with friends for years, the essential nature of great athletes. The great asshole postulate.
Great offensive players, Kenny said, should be like wide receivers in the NFL who always think they’re open and demand the ball. Dwight Howard needs to force his way into position and demand the rock. Essentially, Dwight needs to be more assertive. He needs to assert himself to the point of coming off like a jerk. The best players, in Kenny’s opinion, have always done that.
I see a Dez Bryant and I understand what Kenny is trying to say. He’s an incredible player, probably an asshole. But then I see a Calvin Johnson, true greatness, and I’m not so sure if one needs to be an asshole.
Both Kenny and Charles Barkley think that Dwight Howard should be toughened up somehow. He’s too soft. This idea was also extended to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers, both of whom Barkley likes as people, and even as players, but considers soft. I couldn’t help thinking of the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito.
How does one make a player tough? Especially one that has come this far without fitting Kenny and Charles’ particular standard of toughness?
Or is being an asshole something that can’t be taught? This led to an extensive discussion on Facebook with friends and colleagues. First, is Megatron the exception to the asshole rule? Universally accepted as great, and universally loved among fans and peers.
Here was a list we compiled of athletes, going no further back than the 80’s and playing only in team sports, that we deemed universally great, universally loved (in no particular order):
- Calvin Johnson
- Joe Montana
- Walter Payton
- Jerry Rice
- Adrian Peterson
- Mariano Rivera
- Kevin Durant
- Magic Johnson
- Drew Brees
- Wayne Gretzky
Ostensibly, these men were not assholes. That’s not a comprehensive list, but is it enough to prove that greatness from a “nice guy” is not the exception to the rule?
If it is the exception to the rule, and if Kenny is right, can a player learn to be an asshole? I can only think of one instance of the top of my head in which a superstar made an approximate transition: Lebron James.
After losing their first championship bid with Miami, a season in which he never seemed to clearly define his place on the totem pole for the Heat, something changed along the way. Like Howard, Lebron was once considered too friendly at times, wanting too much to be universally loved.
The whole “Decision” fiasco gave people a reason to hate him and even though he tried all during that first season in Miami to bring fans back, they weren’t having it. Nothing he did seemed to change the haters. So, there was no point, in a way the hate toughened his skin, brought him focus. It made him realize he doesn’t have to be liked. He just has to do Lebron, because either way, haters gon’ hate.
And maybe this is all coincidence, but in his second hear with the heat, Lebron began to assert himself. Demanded the ball. The Miami Heat became his team, and they have won two championships since then.
So, it worked for Lebron, but the question remains? Does an athlete need to be an asshole to be great?
In my ongoing Facebook thread, Lamar Smith, a buddy of mine who should probably replace half the analysts on TV and would be twice as entertaining, said this:
You might not have to be an asshole but you NEED to have passion. Lots of talented players but very few have passion and know HOW to channel that passion into continued, sustained success. Maybe that passion looks like “an asshole” or maybe it doesn’t. Hakeem was a good guy. But, do you remember how unforgiving he was when David Robinson won MVP? How he simply made it his duty to conquer and destroy Dave Robinson because he felt, simply, disrespected? Passion, fam.
So “passion” Kenny, maybe “passion” was the word you were looking for. Or is that just a euphemism, too? Fire, heart, desire, all this. What does it come down to? Will power I suppose. Does Dwight Howard have it? Can he get it? Would it help him make free throws? — R.H.