In the month since the Miami Heat won the NBA Championship, thus taking the 800-pound anvil off of LeBron James’ shoulders, it has been fascinating to listen to the talk about “who’s next?” Who is the one athlete that now has the most pressure (and expectations) placed upon him to win a championship?
An intriguing question but also one that really is patently unfair. The NBA has made a history of turning players into one-word monikers, and making them marketing machines. And yes, the nature of basketball is that one great player CAN make all the difference, as opposed to other sports like football, which is so greatly coordinated and involves so many more players, or baseball, which relies on so many individuals doing THEIR job, or hockey where the best player may be on the ice only for a third of the game.
Amazingly enough (at least to me) the player who many put at the top of the list now is Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. And yet how could Romo, despite a superior season in 2011, earn that distinction when his teammates (and often times the coaches) around him simply weren’t good enough? In fact, this has been the case since the Cowboys last Super Bowl triumph in 1995. Just two playoff wins and only three 10-win seasons since then should show, without any question, that there is more going on here than lack of quality QB play. Shouldn’t a QB like Philip Rivers in San Diego be feeling even more pressure because his team has actually made it to the AFC title game and fallen short? And shouldn’t a great middle linebacker like Brian Urlacher be held to the same high standard? His team made it to the Super Bowl and lost. Really, in the NFL doesn’t this all really come down to the team that feels the most pressure to be the next champion? And if you choose to frame it in those terms, then the Cowboys, with their history and their following, absolutely have the pressure on them. Romo is just a part of that.
In the NBA the weight probably now falls on Dwight Howard’s rather large shoulders, because the history of the NBA says, at some point, that every significant center of his era will win a title. Mikan, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Olajuwon, Robinson and Duncan all fall into that category, but as we have seen throughout the years in the NBA, and most certainly these last two years with the Mavericks and Heat, no matter how great your individual talent might be a team doesn’t win a title without its role players producing. There’s no doubt that Howard can work even harder to diversify his game, and, most importantly, improve his wretched free throw shooting, but regardless of what happens going forward he’s going to need help from some friends.
I’m not really sure that pressure exists on anyone in baseball at the moment, especially since Albert Pujols is off the hook with the Cardinals World Series surprising run last year, claiming his 2nd ring. Perhaps Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder assumes the mantle, but have they really haven’t been on the big stage long enough to warrant that yet. And as much as we all love Michael Young around DFW, is he really any different than, let’s say, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell of the Astros were? While those guys made it to the World Series in 2005, I don’t remember anyone saying its “championship or bust” for their careers, and I don’t think they’re doing it for Young either.
Bottom line is we love to personalize things. And in sports it’s easier to try to do that through an individual player rather than a team. But really, when you have franchises like the Cubs who haven’t won a title in 104 years (and haven’t even been to the world Series since 1945), or the Montreal Canadiens who’ve won 24 Stanley Cups (but none since 1993 and have only reached the Conference Finals once in that time), or even Notre Dame Football which hasn’t won a title since 1988 (and hasn’t truly been relevant since 1993), shouldn’t the context of “who’s next” be addressed from a team standpoint?