In the film "The Wizard of Oz", the scarecrow elucidates great thoughts and shows astute judgment throughout the movie but feels inadequate because he hasn't got a brain. The wizard hands him a diploma recognizing his academic prowess and he immediately is filled with an internal sense of erudition and wisdom.
What is it in athletic performance that signifies iconic greatness?
America loves winners, and ultimate greatness is conferred on players who perform dramatically in winning a championship. Whether it is a high school, collegiate or professional team and whether it is a league championship, a state championship, the Super Bowl or NBA championship, it is playing a critical role in bringing a team to penultimate achievement which defines "greatness."
Consider the curious case of Miami Heat star LeBron James. Here is a man who has dominated basketball play at every level. He has won three MVP awards as the best player in the NBA. He has played in eight All-Star games. He was the first pick in the 2003 Draft and Rookie of the Year.
When he left the Cleveland Cavaliers the team dropped back into mediocrity. And, because he entered the NBA directly from high school, after nine years he is still in his prime.
But in last year's championship series he underperformed and the Heat lost to the Mavericks and the talk radio shows and sports press were filled with criticism. He was seen as lacking because he couldn't elevate his level of play and lead his team to victory.
"LeBron can't win the Big One!."
Until this year when he completely controlled the NBA Finals with a spectacular performance and the Heat won the championship. The airwaves and sports press are filled with testimonials this week, some arguing that James is not only great, but perhaps the greatest player ever.
Kevin Durant led the Western Conference in scoring for the last three years for Oklahoma City . He was NBA Rookie of the Year. He is largely responsible for the success of the younger Thunder team and is considered among the most dynamic of young NBA stars. He now carries the stigma of "can't win the big one."
There were other issues with LeBron. Fans resented his designing a free-agent winning package in Miami. There was serious criticism of his circus-like televised press conference when his home city of Cleveland (Akron) learned for the first time he was leaving and signing with Miami. Some fans felt he was arrogant and immature. But the past was washed away over the course of the final series and James is now the wunderkind of the NBA. Expect non-stop endorsements and exposure.
Alex Rodriguez was arguably the best player in baseball, but he had massive numbers of detractors until the New York Yankees won the World Series with him batting the ball around. Think of iconic NFL quarterbacks – Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning.
I was with Troy when the Dallas Cowboys won their first Super Bowl in 1992. He entered the game as a high draft pick and a good player. He left the field as "TROY AIKMAN SUPERBOWL MVP." A national star was born.
Steve Young finally emerged from the shadow of Joe Montana in 1994 when he threw six touchdowns and led the 49ers to victory. His life was never the same. He had multiple endorsement deals and new respect.
In our hypercompetitive sports environment can a player be recognized as great even if he doesn't lead a team to a championship?
At the professional level, players are assigned to their teams via a draft. The most promising players go to the teams with the worst records who are high in draft position. A player can't recruit his teammates. He can't scout and sign and develop talent. He can't control the coaching.
Does statistical dominance or selection to all-star games factor in? Dan Marino and Warren Moon threw for massive amounts of yardage and carried their teams. They both made the playoffs but never won the Big One. They are both enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Shouldn't we broaden the definition of greatness and recognize brilliant heart and performance that doesn't result in a championship?
Are we dispiriting thousands of athletes who are also winners?
The Buffalo Bills achieved the unique accomplishment of playing in four consecutive Super Bowls. They had a roster filled with stars including Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. They lost all four of the games. They were the second-best team among 32 franchises for four straight years. In the opinion of most in the sports community, they weren't seen as the second-best team and great, they were the worst team in football.
There are players throughout sports who have absolutely brilliant careers without winning a championship. There are teams that are incredible, but stuck in a conference or division with the best team in sports.
Finishing in the top third of a sport might also define greatness. When AYSO soccer players feel that they are a failure at age 10 because their team didn't win the championship, the winner-take-all mentality has gone too far.