On LeBron James and “Grit”

In Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit,” she examines achievement through the lens of grit and talent and compares which of these tools is most necessary to achieving a high level of success in a variety of fields. Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, provides examples from disciplines ranging from West Point to the Olympics to the board room, that grit, the power of passion and perseverance, is more integral to success than natural-born, innate “talent.”

While the book is highly informative and a great read, her theory is nothing new. She cites Nietzsche, the famous philosopher who once opined, “with everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.” Malcolm Gladwell has written books on the need to practice your craft for 10,000 hours before becoming elite. How many little leaguers have heard the phrase “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard?”

As we know from watching sports all year round, talent and grit are attached at the hip. In the book, she relays an anecdote about Olympian Mark Spitz. One day, a decade after Spitz cleaned up at the 1972 (check) Olympics, he races members of the current U.S. Swim team. They marvel at his speed, his fluidity. “He looks like a fish,” one of them says. The young swimmers awe at him as if he swam directly from Poseidon’s throne in the ocean, ignoring the fact that Spitz was really just like them: a man who spent hours, days and years honing his craft in the pool. 

Everyone at the highest level of his or her sport is talented, that’s why they’re there. The special ones, the ones whose commercials get replayed ad infinitum and get bronze statues erected in their honor, are able to achieve a proper cross-section of talent and grit. Whether it be Michael Jordan’s maniacal competitiveness or Peyton Manning’s diligent preparation, the special ones become special because their grit matches their talent, and most times, exceeds it. 


To truly appreciate LeBron hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, you have to be cognizant of his career trajectory–the long, laborious journey from gifted prodigy to now, battle-tested champion. 

From the time LeBron James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, no athlete has been under more scrutiny at every turn. No athlete has been both adored and reviled with equal fervor. And that’s probably because no one has been deemed so “talented” at such a young age, so preordained for greatness.

Some things cannot be taught or improved upon. James is blessed with an Adonis physique, ideal height for his skill set and tremendous foot speed. He can jump out of the gym. No player in the world can make the combination of game-altering plays — the chase-down block, intercepting a close-range chest pass, thunderous dunks — he makes on an almost routine basis. Because of this, we had to endure the same old criticisms when he fell short of a championship, “he’s so talented, he’s supposed to do that”; “he’s bigger and stronger than everyone else,” or my personal favorite, “why can’t he do that every night?” And when he did eventually break through, the criticisms were equally lame. “It’s about time,” or “he should have so many more rings.” 

After Sunday’s completion of the Cavaliers’ history-making 3-1 comeback victory in the NBA Finals, a series that saw LeBron average 35/8/13, while leading all players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, the King has exorcised whatever demons remained. His prophecy has been fulfilled, his dream realized. 
In the years since he left Cleveland in 2010, he put in his 10,000 hours learning not how to be a better basketball player, but learning how to win. He was already the best player in the world by all accounts. He carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once during his first stint with the team, leading a ragtag group to an eventual sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. He was on the precipice. No one is saying that LeBron couldn’t have won a title in Cleveland before his departure — some think he should have in the subsequent years and he was certainly capable — but after traversing through different obstacles over the past few years, you can see how better equipped he was for the mission the second time around. 
LeBron and the Cavaliers needed the last five tumultuous years to happen, both from a team-building standpoint and for LeBron personally. Thanks to LeBron’s initial departure, the bottom-dwelling Cavs were rewarded with three lottery picks in four years. The first one was Kyrie Irving, a dynamic player who has become the Robin to James’ Batman and the man who knocked down what would be the series-winning three right in the eye of the two-time MVP. The last one was Andrew Wiggins, who ended up being the centerpiece in a trade that would net the Cavaliers Kevin Love shortly after James’ return. While Love has been sporadic, and has sometimes drawn the ire of James and fans alike, he played exceptional when it counted most, in Game 7, hauling down 14 rebounds and forcing Steph Curry into a bad shot in the game’s waning moments. Those years of terrible basketball in Cleveland were necessary to build a winner. If the Cavs were middle of the road during those years, they probably wouldn’t have had the assets to lure James back in the first place. 

LeBron needed to go to Miami. He needed to become vilified for the first time in his career. He needed to learn how to build a winning organization under Pat Riley, to team with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and see what sacrifices were necessary for winning, to learn how to be a better leader. In addition, he’s become an obsessive student of the game. LeBron is famous for having a nearly photographic memory of past game sequences. He’s a historian, able to rattle off names of role players from championship teams past. He implores teammates to work out with him in the offseason and push themselves to another level physically the same way he always has. His dedication, his preparation, his “grit” as Dr. Duckworth puts it, has finally exceeded his talent. 

Most importantly, he needed to lose in 2011 to Dallas and again in 2014 to San Antonio. He needed to lose his two most talented teammates last year in the playoffs and despite his Herculean efforts, he needed to lose last year’s Finals. He needed to be down 3-1, staring down a deficit no team has ever recovered from, against the team with the best record in NBA history on their court. He needed to do the impossible. 

His teammates commented this past week that LeBron was supremely calm in the final days of the Finals despite the enormous task in front of him. The odds, the stakes, none of it mattered. He prepared himself for years specifically for that moment.
He needed to do all those things to make history, to cement a legend, and to rid the city of Cleveland from a 52-year championship drought. And he did just that. 


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