Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Duper Level

Last week I found myself at Shaw's Crab House in Chicago, drinking beer and talking sports with a couple of work friends, JK and Brando. JK is Chicago born and bred and Brando is an Ohio boy now in the Windy City. And we got on the subject of Lebron James' future.

I suggested that Lebron James will be tempted by the Big Apple and make his way to the New York Knicks. They dismissed this as typical New York arrogance, and clearly believed that Madison Square Garden harbored snakes as evil as any in the Garden of Eden.

Like all good sports arguments this one got me thinking, and I thought I would helpfully share my thinking with Knicks management as they prepare to make their case to Lebron. They all fall under the broad argument of achieving what we'll call the Duper Level. In other words, there is no doubt Lebron is already a superstar, but if he wants to be a Super Duper Star, he's got to come to New York. Here are a few ways of thinking about The Duper Level.

The Lucille Test
One way to look at whether or not an athlete has achieved the Duper Level is the Lucille Test. Lucille is my Mom, and she is aware of sports but not what you'd call a passionate fan. And I just had the following conversation with her:

Me: Do you know who Lebron James is?
Mom: Who?
Me: Lebron James.
Mom: Legron?
Me: Lebron. With a B.
Mom: Lebon James...wait, I know that name. He's some kind of sports player. I know this because I just read it somewhere. He plays sports.
Me: Do you know what sport?
Mom: (pause). Football?

Now, my Mom knows Tiger Woods (and not because of recent scandals). She knows Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant and Brett Favre, and back in the 90's she knew Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. But if Lebron James walked into her kitchen right now and said "Hi, I'm Lebron James and I play for the Cleveland Cavaliers", she'd have no idea what the hell he was talking about.

There are Lucilles all over this great land of ours and across the globe and part of achieving the Duper Level means having the Lucilles know who you are. Play in New York, and I assure you, you'll pass the Lucille Test.

Stern's Nightmare
There's a pretty good chance we'll see a rematch of Kobe vs. Lebron in the NBA Finals. But it's not unlikely we'll see Denver-Cleveland, or even worse, Utah-Cleveland. David Stern's nightmare is wasting the greatness of Lebron James on a Utah-Cleveland series. That thing might get Stanley Cup ratings.

But Lebron in New York? A Knicks-Whomever Finals? This could return the NBA to its glory days. And what is good for the NBA is good for Lebron - yet another step on the way to the Duper Level.

The Jeter Parallel
Another way of thinking about this is to remember my old friend Derek Jeter. Now Derek Jeter is a fine ball player, but he's no Mickey Mantle. He has won no MVPs, no batting titles, no home run titles. And yet, he is a Super Duper Star while clearly superior players like Albert Pujols couldn't pass the Lucille Test if you spotted her the Albert and the Pujo.

And why has he achieved the Duper Level? Because 15 years ago a Yankee team that did everything well went on a 5-year run, and he was arguably the best player on that team. Amazing what winning titles in New York will do for you.

What is Lebron Thinking?
Of course none of this matters if Lebron wants to stay in Cleveland. He's a hometown boy, can make a higher salary in Cleveland than anywhere else, and already has national endorsement deals. One could forgive him for thinking he is quite Duper enough already, thank you very much, regardless of what Lucille thinks.

And of course you don't have to play in New York to go Duper. Peyton Manning plays in the tiny little town of Indianapolis, population 784,118, where until recently the NFL was the fourth most popular sport behind college hoops, auto racing, and cow-tipping. Brooklyn has neighborhoods bigger than that. At rush hour, the 7 train holds more people than that. And yet Peyton is as Duper as you get.

But the NBA has lost some of its power to create stars. Random fun fact: the two worst-selling newstand issues that Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine had in 2009 were ones featuring Dwight Howard on the cover. The NBA does not have the star-making power it once had.

That said, I think the results of this year's playoffs could impact his decision. If, for example, the Cavs choke in the postseason, he may feel he needs to stay and win a title for Ohio. And good for him if he does.

But if he wins a ring for Cleveland, and does so over Utah in a 6-game series that gets lower ratings than Conan O'Brien, he just might want to hear what those folks in the Garden have to say.

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