The 2010 Sportsman of the Year Debate… Kobe by Default

December 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless, and Optimist Prime.

Well, 2010 was special year for sports fans!

Several very long-standing championship droughts ended, as the New Orleans Saints (43 year drought), Chicago Blackhawks (49 year drought), and the San Francisco Giants (56 year drought) each won championships in their respective leagues.

For those of us with a deep sense of national pride in our sports teams, the Men’s U.S. Hockey and Soccer teams treated us all to some of the most exciting and dramatic athletic performances of the year in the Winter Olympics and World Cup, respectively.

Speaking of soccer, 2010 will always be a special sports year to me as my alma mater, The University of Akron, won their first ever National Championship by claiming the College Cup in very exciting fashion over the Louisville Cardinals.

The year also had its share of goats.

LeBron James’ “Decision” proved to be a PR nightmare, Rex Ryan apparently has a foot “thing,” and we learned about everything from travel destinations to bathroom habits thanks to the incessant media bombardment of “Tiger Watch” and “Favre Watch.”

Like I said, 2010 was a special year.

But even with those spectacular performances and storylines, the task of naming a Sportsman of the Year is tricky. You see, despite the exciting performances that we were all treated to as fans, no one really separated themselves from the pack in terms of individual performances.

Sure, there are some obvious default options to look to. Drew Brees certainly became the face of the NFL in 2010 after leading the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl championship. Here’s the problem – I credit Sean Payton, not Drew Brees, with winning that game. While Brees had a remarkable season leading up to that Super Bowl, it is important to note that performance came in 2009, not 2010. So far this year Brees has played well, but Tom Brady and Michael Vick (along with several others) have been far more impressive.

Being quarterback of the championship NFL team is not enough on its own to earn the “Sportsman of the Year” crown.

Moving on to baseball, several pitchers tried to make cases for themselves. In the post-season, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Tim Lincecum all pitched to historic levels. Halladay’s post-season no-hitter was the greatest individual performance, but Lee’s and Lincecum’s pitching had far more significant value for their teams.

All three pitched exceptionally well, but once again none separated themselves enough from the others to claim the title.

In golf, Phil Mickelson’s emotional victory at the Masters was the perfect start to the 2010 season, but Lefty proved unable to do anything more as the season played out. After winning his third Green Jacket, Mickelson could do no better than taking one more second place finish, and only six top-ten finishes on the year.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Jimmie Johnson’s accomplishments in NASCAR this year, having won his FIFTH consecutive Sprint Cup Championship. He has become nothing less than a one-man dynasty, and is right now the single most dominant person in sports. The only reason I am hesitant in recognizing Johnson any further is that I am forced to now question the quality of his competition. With all due respect to his accomplishments, are his championships the result of Johnson being that good, or is it that the rest of the field is that bad?

By default, we are forced to look to the NBA to find our Sportsman of the year.

In the NBA, names like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony dominated headlines. Free agency in 2010 was undeniably the biggest sports story of the year, overshadowing even the NBA Finals. But it is Kobe Bryant who should be recognized as the Sportsman of 2010.

This year, Bryant quietly led the Los Angeles Lakers to a second consecutive NBA Championship. I never thought I would use the words “Kobe Bryant” and “quietly” in the same sentence, but in a year where it seemed that LeBron James was the ONLY person being talked about in the NBA, Bryant proved definitively that his Lakers, not LeBron’s Cavaliers (or now the Miami Heat) were the absolute best in the game. He led the Lakers to a Western Conference-leading 57 wins, and unofficially resolved the “Kobe versus LeBron” debate. This year brought Bryant the fifth title in his career, and the 17th in the history of the Lakers’ franchise.

Bryant’s stability and leadership (I really can’t believe I am writing this…) carried the Lakers into the post-season and through the Finals. When all the world was enamored with the courtship of LeBron James, Bryant busied himself with winning a championship.

Through nothing but his phenomenal talent, Kobe Bryant continues to keep the Lakers as the team to beat in the NBA. No matter how great the Miami super-team may hope to be, they are still playing in Kobe’s league.

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The 2010 Sportsman of the Year Debate… The Once and Future King

December 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan, and Optimist Prime.

In 2010 LeBron James not only redefined himself, but perhaps all of professional sports as well. Though he has been thoroughly scrutinized and lambasted for the way he set about this redefinition, it may just be the price one has to pay for experiencing growing pains as one of the most public sports figures in the world.

Critics, fans, and whole cities came to despise LeBron James in the wake of The Decision, but I believe his announcement on national T.V. was ultimately more good than bad, more help than harm, and more hope than heartbreak.

Everyone thought they knew LeBron James best. Cleveland, New York, and Chicago all thought they understood the man and launched campaigns to appeal to what they thought motivated him. In Cleveland, they appealed to his heart, making passionate pleas to his sense of loyalty. Chicago played to his competitive nature adding players – like Carlos Boozer – that most analysts thought would put James in a position to win, given his particular style of play. New York appealed to King James’ ego offering him the treasury and throne in what may very well be the capital of the sports world. But in the end LeBron shocked them all and did what few saw coming before the day The Decision, announcing he would take less money and share the limelight in order to assemble quite possibly the most the most dominant super team the world has ever seen.

LeBron did the what we all believed was unthinkable. As one of if not the most sought after free agents in sports history he chose team victories over individual accolades, he chose championships over salary and sponsorships, and he put the urge to win above self. While this made him a heel in Chicago, a fool in New York, and public enemy number one in Cleveland, it also made him the Sportsman of the Year in my book.

Profound Consequences

I am certain that those loyal to teams spurned by James will be slow to see what he did as a positive (it might take Sports Geek and Bleacher Fan 50 years or so to come around), but that is exactly what it was – a good thing for both professional sports and athletes. LeBron proved it was possible for a player to put competitiveness and team success above self and still make it a profitable proposition.

While it is a crushing blow for sports mega-markets like New York, it opens up a world of possibilities for other franchises throughout the league. Maybe it is a sign that a fat stack of cash doesn’t guarantee players like it used to, and then again maybe its not. But it definitely provides a glimmer of hope for the rest of the league. Likewise, I am certain that franchises like Cleveland will view this as the nail in the coffin on the long term competitiveness of small markets without squads of superstars to attract more, but that is not necessarily the case either. This decision was also about who LeBron wanted to play alongside with as much as it was about the competitiveness.

Before the off-season arrived, James had been making public musings about free agents basically colluding for the betterment of a particular franchise. He suggested that if players like Bosh and James decide together where they thought they could make the biggest impact they could change the NBA’s landscape in a big way, and that’s exactly what they did. While maybe not completely within the rules, it does evolve the empowerment of the modern free agent.

Since James’ epic decision there has already been evidence of trickle down effects in other sports. Major League Baseball recently watched the hot stove pursuit of ace pitcher Cliff Lee take a James-ian turn as he turned down more lucrative contracts with New York and Texas in order to sign with a club he simply wanted to play for more. Just as was the case with King James, Lee’s addition to superstar players like Roy Halladay, Cole Hammels, and Roy Oswalt makes for one of the most dominant pitching staffs in team history, possibly MLB history. This trend could very well spread to the NFL this off-season and reshape the competitive landscape there as well. The fallout from James’ choice is as immense in its magnitude as it is controversial.

King Sized Perks

LeBron made his off-season choice known in a grandiose TV special that exceeded even the wildest of expectations in terms of anticipated hype. While “The Decision” may not have lived up to the anticipation in terms of climactic drama, it no doubt captured the attention of the nation. ESPN’s one hour special on the LeBron’ signing was the highest rated program on television the night it aired, and clearly caught the attention of more than just serious NBA fans. What’s more is a large portion of the profits from the special were donated to the Boys and Girls Club. Critics point to the fact that he could have done more, but in reality he could have done nothing at all. When was the last time you remember an athlete using their free agent leverage for charity? Having trouble? That’s my point exactly. Like a noble monarch, King James let his benefits trickle down to the people and that is a gesture seen far too seldom in sports today.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the NBA…or at least I wasn’t before this season, but all the craze of this post-season’s free agency carried over to the regular season and now I’m hooked. I’ve purchased six tickets to NBA games this season (one of which is a Miami Heat game), which is 600% more than I have purchased in the last decade. While my personal habits do not make for a scientifically significant study, I do believe there is something to be said for LeBron making the NBA more popular during the off-season.

I realized I may not have made a believer out of anyone, but I feel that LeBron James deserves more credit than he has received. He was the biggest story in all of sports this year and the positive impact of that legacy earns him my vote for Sportsman of The Year.

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