At the U.S. Open and the NBA Finals, two of today's greatest athletes seek redemption.
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.
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?
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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?
Who needs a championship more? Here's a thought experiment: Imagine if LeBron had started his career by winning eight titles in his first 10 years. Then, out of the blue, he tears his ACL, admits to cheating regularly on longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson (also the mother of his children), and misses virtually all of the next two seasons due to injury. Bill Russell's record of 11 titles sits tantalizingly close, as does the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) label. But the King just can't seem to win Title No. 9.
You tell me. Would that LeBron need another title more than our LeBron needs his first?
I would say yes, and I would also say that a Tiger win at the U.S. Open would mean more for sports than a LeBron NBA title. King James is the best player of his generation, but no one in their right mind puts him in the same class as Jordan, Russell, Bird, Magic et al. If you were ranking the 10 greatest basketball players of all time, LeBron would not make the list. Don't take my word for it—just ask Jason Siegel.
Meanwhile, Tiger is attempting to scale the Everest of his sport (Nicklaus' 18 majors) and supplant the Golden Bear as golf's GOAT. Five years ago, Tiger's ascension to the top of golf history was a foregone conclusion. Now he's seeking just one major—any major—to kick-start his run again.
It's safe to say LeBron will never challenge Jordan or Russell in the "overall greatness" department. But Tiger is already locked in a struggle with the greatest champion in the history of his sport. And that means more.
Care to break the tie, Patrick?
If James and Woods have taught us anything—beyond the fact that every once in a while, sports prodigies actually exceed their hype—it's that we don't know our celebrities. No matter how frequently they tweet; no matter how clever their personal brand-building advertising campaigns are; no matter how much we believe that the essential nature of who you are as a human being is somehow reflected in your ability to drop a ball into a hole or hoop. So on the question of which man needs a championship more—deep down, all the way inside, to fill that void permeating the dark, lonely nights of their souls—I'm going to pass.
Frankly, I have no idea. Maybe James just needs a hug. Maybe Woods never liked golf and actually wants to be a Navy SEAL. Who knows?
As far as which individual can do more to redeem his image and stature with the public by winning a championship? That's a question I can get behind. Because it's all about us, the little people on the other side of the television screen, the sports fans projecting just as much fantasy as we receive. And sorry, Hampton, but I have to side with Jake. Woods has more to (re)gain. Here's why: for golf fans, it was never about Woods the devoted husband, generous tipper, or competent driveway navigator. It was always about winning, catching Nicklaus, hitting a ball better than anyone else on the planet. Woods's only real crime against his constituency is that he stopped kicking ass and started looking distressingly mortal.
Forget the tabloid sex scandals—if Woods wins the U.S. Open, all of that will be forgiven. Huge. Quickly. Bye.
But James? He's stuck. Boxed in. Can't win for losing; can't win for winning. His sports sin was worse—in staging "The Decision," he pulled back the curtain and basically told sports fans the awful truth, the one thing they never, ever want to hear: your heroes don't need you. James toyed with Cleveland's desperate admiration like a curious cat with a flopping goldfish; he bolted to Miami because he felt like it, and didn't bother to pretend otherwise. Hampton has things exactly right. Rejection stings. A championship would earn James respect. But no number of titles—not one, not two, not three, not four, not five—can mend our broken hearts.