Who Needs a Championship More: Tiger Woods or LeBron James?

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At the U.S. Open and the NBA Finals, two of today's greatest athletes seek redemption.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss the two of the sports world's most controversial athletes.


Gents,

This weekend two of our era's greatest athletes are fighting for redemption. In the NBA, 27-year-old LeBron James is trying to "finally" win his first championship. On the PGA tour, 36-year-old Tiger Woods is trying to win a U.S. Open—or any major golf tournament—for the first time since the scandalous divorce that polluted his image and seemed to wreck his game. The question is who would get more from winning a championship: Tiger or LeBron? Whose redemption would be greater?

Making the case for Tiger is easy, simply because he fell so fast and far. Nobody won more at a younger age, or with such imperial swagger. In 2008, despite injuries and changing his swing more often than most people change their socks, Tiger had racked up 14 major tournament wins. He looked like an absolute lock to break Jack Nicklaus's all-time record of 18 majors. But check your Mayan calendars. It's 2012, and Woods is still stuck on 14. Suddenly, especially given the courses he'll play, and how terribly he's been playing, winning five more majors looks like a very steep climb. Funny how life goes, ain't it?

LeBron, though, is hitting his prime. And his prime is yet to hit back. James made the Finals last year. He has also played well enough in big games since leaving the Cavs to erase that sometime deserved reputation for being a choker/pouter. he doesn't need this to prove he's the game's most dynamic player. Not really.

Besides, winning the O'Brien trophy won't give James what he really wants: public approval. He didn't change overnight from hero to villain because of a few missed free throws. He changed because he was the homegrown Midwestern hero, the guy supposedly chosen to bring a title to Ohio. Instead he fled south to play in the sun with a bunch of other high-priced free agents—and he nationally televised the choice. Winning a ring won't change that perception. It will confirm it.

Nevertheless, a James championship would be the bigger public redemption. Here's why. First, duh, because he hasn't got one yet.

Secondly, because Tiger doesn't need public approval like James does. Woods doesn't play for the pleasure of the crowd. Tiger's relationship with the rest of the world—press and public—has always been guarded and distant. He accepts our praise. He tolerates our imperfections. Usually. But Woods isn't looking for the rest of the world to tell him he's the best ever like LeBron is. Tiger's trying to prove it to himself.

Anyway, Tiger's perceived failures were personal. His public image changed because of what happened off the course, and he can't change that image back by what he does on it, ever, no matter how many trophies he wins.

How about you, boys? Who do you think needs a championship more?

–Hampton

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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