By Isiah Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Jan 3, 2013 9:24 AM
Winning back-to-back NBA championships is the most difficult challenge a superstar will ever face. How do you stay motivated when you already have experienced the biggest highs and lows that the game has to offer? You are the best player on the best team and most nights you will not be challenged. When you have perfected your game to a championship level, the challenger is not the opponent anymore. I remember playing against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who dominated our sport for two decades. I always was fascinated by how bored he seemed to be with us, his competitors in the Association. Kareem had mastered the game to such a level that he had only one challenger: the game itself. The genius of Kareem was that he never got bored with his success.
Like Kareem in his day, LeBron James has no equal at his position (or many positions, if you want to be precise) and thus competes not just against players or teams but against the game itself. The game does not like to be conquered. If it can't break you it will break your teammates, which is one of the many reasons it is so difficult to win continually. The game will find the weakest member of the team -- the one who is tired of training and eating right, the one who is no longer thirsty and has been seduced by all the temptations that come with success -- and break him. That one teammate who is satisfied with winning just "one" is always susceptible to lethargic play which has negative consequences for the whole team. The game will attempt to break your body and stress your mind. Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Can 12 men stay committed as one again while the game tracks and hunts for that one teammate who is satisfied with winning just one?
LeBron's intense commitment to winning is evident in his desire to make the Heat a basketball dynasty on par with the history-rich Lakers or Celtics. As Kevin Garnett understood when he put on his Celtics jersey and noted the weight of its tradition, certain franchises have legendary histories whose echoes still speak loudly today. The Lakers means not just Kobe Bryant, but Kareem and Magic Johnson and before them Wilt Chamberlain and the logo, Jerry West. The Celtics similarly have three generations of legends -- Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Larry Bird -- that came before. In his explicit desire to win several championships and his consistently superior play, LeBron has made it clear that he intends to not merely continue in a ready-made path of a legendary franchise (since Miami has no such history), but to be the inaugurating player of a new dynasty. When you are making tradition rather than following it, the journey to a championship is far more difficult. The biggest star in the NBA is doing just that.
Last year in a shortened 66-game regular season, the Miami Heat had the perfect formula for winning a championship. They were built for the sprint. But this year is a marathon. The Miami Heat again find themselves swimming against the tide. They will play 82 playoff games in the regular season and it is impossible for them to sprint for 82 games in this marathon. Making matters even more difficult for them, every team they face will be running a sprint on the night that they play them. Every team, player and coach will concentrate just a little longer and run just a little faster and shoot just a little straighter when facing the Heat.
After I won my first championship, I spent some time talking with former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll in Hilton Head, S.C. He coached the Steelers to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. My question was, "How did your players stay motivated?"
"Simple" he said "they wanted to win again, because every single player and coach was still hungry." He looked me straight in my eyes as if he was sizing me up and asked, "How badly do you want to win again Isiah?" The words that came out of my mouth in the summer of '89 still resonate today. "Coach" I replied, "I don't ever want to be on the bottom again." He looked at me and smiled and said, "Then you will win."
LeBron James is profoundly committed as his own words indicate: "Commitment is a big part of what I am and what I believe. How committed are you to winning? How committed are you to being a good friend? To being trustworthy? To being successful? How committed are you to being a good father, a good teammate, a good role model? There's that moment every morning when you look in the mirror: Are you committed or are you not?"
The game is asking.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.
He's now an analyst for NBA TV and will be a regular contributor to NBA.com.
You can follow him on Twitter at @iamisiahthomas.
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