JOHN RIORDAN: Success is raising the bar and setting the standard

It was a good weekend for two of the greatest, most divisive athletes in the world.

LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather Jr. share bewildering levels of ability in their chosen sports — basketball and boxing — but have consequently ridden the rollercoaster of public opinion during their superhuman rises to the top.

Whereas it used to be easy to dislike James until he realised there was a fine line between arrogance and self-destruction, Mayweather remains a thorn in the side of basic humanity.

Of course the boxer’s game face may not be an accurate reflection of his private persona.

He did however spend time in prison last year for beating up his ex-girlfriend which suggests that the commander-in-chief of The Money Team has a lot of good living to do before he can be totally redeemed.

(And then there was a surreal semi-private moment during one episode of the HBO 24/7 TV documentary which was intended as the ratings-boosting preamble to his September 2011 fight against Victor Ortiz. A Skype chat with US troops in Afghanistan which could have been a powerful or maybe even touching long-distance connection with the boxing fans of the Third Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division, became a badly produced episode of MTV’s Cribs as Mayweather displayed his big cars and confused trophy girlfriend — the one he didn’t allegedly hit — to those homesick men whiling away their lives in a warzone.)

Around this time, the representatives of LeBron James were reining in their client just in time to make sure his long-promised rise to all-time dominance could really crank into gear.

His first season at the Miami Heat had been a relative failure and a PR disaster. Not only did it culminate in his team’s exhilarating defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals two years ago next month, it was the sort of car crash season that most of America and a sizeable chunk of the basketballing world watched with a fair amount of glee.

But then he and his team turned their backs on bravado and let their astonishing talents do the talking. They emerged victorious from that abbreviated season a year ago and are looking more and more assured of repeating that in spite of Monday night’s Eastern Conference semi-final Game One loss to the Chicago Bulls.

But even when the admiration for his ability is essentially universal, LeBron James still manages to divide opinion.

When it was confirmed this past Sunday that he was the regular season’s Most Valuable Player, it quickly became apparent that not everyone was in agreement.

There were 121 eligible voters assigned to the MVP award: 120 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada and a cumulative single ballot of online fans.

James received 120 of those votes, one rebel denying him the chance to become the first ever player to receive unanimous support. It was a surprise rendered all the more curious by the lopsided nature of the vote and after a flurry of expectation as to who the one contrary individual might be, Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe outed himself through his column in that newspaper on Monday.

In his piece, he began by outlining his shock that he should be in such an exclusive club of nay-saying and then proceeded to argue his case for his own personal first choice: Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks. Without delving too deeply into his reasons, Washburn highlighted the intrinsic flaw which routinely bedevils the notion of a ‘most valuable player’ in the American sporting tradition.

How can a player’s value be measured if he is the leading light in the greatest team in the game? And how do you compare the contribution he makes with the value of a player who is carrying an average team on his shoulders and bringing them up a level or two? Into that latter bracket falls Anthony, according to Washburn and many others. There is no doubt that without his scoring, New York wouldn’t be hosting the Indiana Pacers in Madison Square Garden tonight. Unfortunately for the sportswriter, most of his brethren had Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant in second behind James.

This ‘Most Valuable’ award which is indigenous to American sport leaves the right amount of space for a debate which is as hypothetical and frustrating as the one fight fans have agonised over for half a decade: what if Floyd Mayweather had fought Manny Pacquiao instead of carefully selected opponents like Robert Guerrero? I’m all for different viewpoints but sometimes the answer is right there in front of us; it just takes a James dunk or a Mayweather jab to allow true greatness to shine.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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