On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, the visiting Washington Wizards defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-85 behind Wizards’ guard, John Wall’s, game-high 35 points, on a night DC also won on rebounds, assists, and blocks, and had 50% fewer turnovers than Lebron James’ team.
On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, James’ Cavaliers came to Verizon Center, in Washington DC, to make amends. In the early minutes of the first quarter of that game, James was fouled on three successive possessions, one of the Wizards’ and two of the Cavaliers’. James was a bit shook up as the called infractions incurred substantial physical contact, with, believe it, James getting the worst of it.
But as he turned away from his third assailant, the best basketball player in the world shook his head twice. First side to side, as if to dissuade himself from retaliating and then up and down as if reaching a second decision. That conclusion was punctuated by an “Ok,” said just loud enough to be heard clearly by those of us nine rows out. That, it turns out, was all she wrote.
The Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 121-115 in a contest that saw DC’s last nine points scored in the game’s final ninety seconds. The game, in which Washington’s physical exuberance propelled them to a first quarter lead, was won in a span of about six minutes, or more precisely six Cleveland possessions, in the third quarter. They came when the Wizards were ahead by six points. They came when James explicitly asked for the ball each time Cleveland came down the court.
Cleveland scored on five consecutive possessions which included a pin-point assist and four parking-lot three-pointers, all from James. In that span, DC was held to three field goals. When it was accomplished, the dominant performance that would lead to the win, James needed to punctuate it, just in case anyone missed the point. So, James “exposed” his defender to complete a thunderous dunk in which he was nearly brought down by a foul that was not awarded. No matter. Cleveland had pulled ahead and never trailed again. Follow me, guys, this is the way home, James clearly showed, without having to say much. He led his team by the inspiration of his performance, but also by how he included his teammates in the effort.
Kyrie Irving—still vying with DC’s Wall for a potential second starting guard position for the Eastern Conference in February’s All Star game—was on fire, and James knew the spotlight would not be brighter or more timely for potential voters of his teammate. So number 23 became enabler, sharing three of his team-high four assists with Irving who scored 32 points to James’ dual game highs of 10 rebounds and 34 points. The best basketball player in the world came off the bench, and out to midcourt, on one of his team’s called timeouts, following a pretty Irving score, to be seen bumping chests in celebration with his all-star choice. James, being the best player and best teammate in basketball.
Across the pond, in Spain, something must be said about how Lionel Messi, the best soccer player on the planet, dominates his sport and inspires his FC Barcelona teammates. What is it that makes them want him to succeed so much on a team laden with talent? Talented players tend to want their own stardom and often earn it at the expense of other roster choices. Recall that it was that other collection of Barcelona talent—Neymar, Luis Suarez, Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic—who demolished Real Madrid 4-0 at the Bernabeu, two months ago, with a recouping Messi as but a visitor.
So now that Messi is clearly healthy and cruising, a mere gear shift from his top level, it is fun to watch how quickly Barca has returned to him as the automatic free-kick taker, even on shots for which Neymar’s is the better profile, or the automatic penalty kicker when others on the squad do the same honors for their national teams—Neymar for Brazil, Iniesta for Spain, Suarez for Uruguay—or to witness world class strikers like Suarez and Neymar always looking to pass to La Pulga in the box. Why is this so?
Clues to the answer can be garnered simply in the form of Messi’s performances over the past few weeks.
When one sees Messi singlehandedly take on Espanyol in a Barcelona Derby, as if to say, thanks for the support guys, I’m back, let me return the favor and give you a break, one realizes that no other player in the world can do that, and that all at Barca know and appreciate it.
When one notices that in his four appearances in 2016 Messi has assisted on three goals and scored five, on a team that scored 10 goals while earning three wins and a draw, one realizes just how disproportionate his contribution can be.
But it is also the manner of the contribution—the understated way in which he celebrates his goals and the quickness with which he credits his teammates for their contributions to his scores, for instance. Or the superb nature of his goals which makes one and all realize how privileged we are to see him play. It is also the childlike manner of his joy when completing a play he knows was uncommon, not to say otherworldly. That joy is infectious.
Who can resist a smile at the playground abandon of his runs, his uncanny first touch whether in receiving or making a pass, or trapping a ball, or setting up a run or shot, or his uncanny ability to get open when others are keeping tabs on him?
Messi embodies what every coach wants in a player, what every kid aspires to in a player, what every teammate hopes for, what every opponent dreads, and what every fan most enjoys, a man who can play the sport with such passionate dedication, with such artistry, grace, and elegance, and, simultaneously, with such ruthless efficiency and effectiveness, as to make one feel one is witnessing the most complete exponent of the most beautiful athletic team endeavor yet devised.