Sunday 11 December 2016

Odd couple setting the benchmark

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 26/06/2016 | 17:00

LeBron James. Photo: NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James. Photo: NBAE/Getty Images

European eyes were understandably on France, but the two greatest sporting moments of last week in terms of sheer quality took place on the other side of the world. They were flashes of genius which seemed to encapsulate everything that is great about the performers who executed them. Which is quite something given that we're talking about probably the two finest sportsmen in the world today.

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In America last week we had the Lionel and LeBron Show.

On Monday night in the 32nd minute of Argentina's Copa America semi-final match against the USA in the NRG Stadium, Houston, Lionel Messi stepped up to a free-kick 25 yards out. US keeper Brad Guzan positioned his wall to cover the left-hand side of the goal and took the right hand himself. Messi also opted for the right-hand side with a shot of such vicious pace and curve the keeper had no chance. The more you watch it, the more breathtaking the parabola of the ball is. Not for the first time Messi resembles a magician working tricks with the laws of geometry and gravity.

The previous night in game seven of the NBA finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at the Oracle Arena, Oakland, the scores were tied with less than two minutes left when the Warriors broke away. And as Andre Iguodala appeared set to score an easy lay-up, LeBron James came out of nowhere, soared over the basket and blocked the ball against the glass. It was the defining play of the game as the Cavaliers edged the game 92-89 to become the first team in history to come from 3-1 down to win the finals. The more you watch this one, the more James' arrival to deny Iguodala is something for which the word miracle doesn't seem an exaggeration.

Have James and Messi any real rivals in the best in the world stakes? Usain Bolt or Novak Djokovic perhaps. But in team sports they reign supreme. Their achievements are of a different order to those of even their greatest peers. There is something distinctive and unlikely about the way they play.

There are some striking similarities between the two men. For starters both had to overcome significant disadvantage as kids. With Messi it was physical. At the age of 10 he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. His coach of the time describes Messi as looking like a 'dwarf' and being 'stunted.' Drugs required to treat the condition cost $1,000 a month and with his family unable and his local club Newells Old Boys, for whom he played schoolboy football, unwilling to cover the costs, Messi's hopes of stardom would have been scuppered had Barcelona not stepped in to fund the treatment and bring him to Spain aged 13.

With LeBron the barriers were social and economic. He was born in the decaying industrial city of Akron, Ohio to a 16-year-old single mother, never knew his father and spent time in foster care. In fourth grade alone he missed 100 days of school as the family moved several times and his mother's partner did time in jail. It's the kind of background which has doomed plenty of African-American kids to incarceration or death on the gun-infested streets. James' saviour was a local football coach named Frank Walker who spotted the potential in the nine-year-old kid, brought him to live with his family and set him on the straight and narrow.

The odds both Messi and James had to overcome before they even really got started were so high it's possible their famous drive, work rate and competitive spirit derives from the knowledge of how different things could have been.

Certainly the formidable strength of character required to overcome those odds seems present in the playing demeanour of both men. In sports notorious for the prima donna attitude of many players, both are strikingly calm and collected. Messi eschews the diving and acting which disfigure so many of the big games in which he plays. In the super-heated atmosphere of the NBA play-offs, James is an unflappable presence. The great Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers has related with some bemusement that, "I say everything to LeBron. He says nothing back. He just laughs."

Both players are often seen as heirs to men who ruled the roost in the '80s. Messi's scything runs at the heart of opposition defences inevitably call fellow Argentinian Diego Maradona to mind, while Michael Jordan is the name always invoked in connection with James. Both were earmarked for greatness from their early days in the pro game. Messi finished third in the balloting for world player of the year at just 19 and won the award for the first time two years later. James was second in the balloting for the MVP award in just his third season in the league.

Both have remained at the summit of the game for almost a decade. Messi's first World Player of the Year award came in 2009, the same year James won his first MVP award. Messi has added four Ballon D'Ors and James three MVP crowns but in reality both have been the de facto number one. Cristiano Ronaldo or Steph Curry might have had better seasons in that time but there's been little doubt about who is really on top of the heap. Messi and James set the standard everyone else is judged by.

There has been plenty of success - four Champions Leagues for Messi, three NBA titles for James - but there have also been setbacks to remind us that even the greatest don't get things all their own way. Messi's poor display in the 2014 World Cup final once more brought suggestions that he doesn't perform at his best for Argentina, while last-hurdle defeats in 2014 and 2015 led to talk of a LeBron 'finals jinx'.

That's why last week's glorious moments are hugely important in the context of both players' careers. Over the past two seasons James has seen his thunder stolen to a certain extent by Curry and the Warriors, who this year set an NBA regular season record for victories. There was talk that the smaller, lighter Curry, the finest outside shooter in history, pointed the way towards a new model of NBA star. James' mild suggestion that the best player of the season and the most valuable player to his team are not necessarily the same thing was treated as sour grapes. When the Warriors roared to a 3-1 finals lead, the torch seemed to have been passed.

Instead, James waxed while Curry waned. Cleveland's main man scored a series high 41 points in game five and shot the same again in game six. By the end of the series he had achieved the barely credible feat of topping every major statistical category, leading the way in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. When James put down the final shot of the series, a free throw, there could have been no more fitting denouement.

The free-kick Messi hit the following night was meaningful because it made him Argentina's all-time record goalscorer. In this tournament he has undeniably done for his country what he has so often done for his club. Tonight in the MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, he will hope to inspire Argentina to victory in the final over Chile. It would be enormously significant for the Argentinians who, amazingly, haven't won the Copa America since 1993. Messi is in the same position as James was last week, finding that even the most brilliant career doesn't exempt you from still having something to prove.

Lionel and LeBron. They sound like the stars of some old buddy cop show which would make great play of the incongruous note they struck standing beside each other, the 6ft 8ins, 250lb African-American and the 5ft 7ins, 150lb white guy.

Yet they belong together. Because on one level perhaps no-one understands what it's like to be LeBron James better than Lionel Messi. And vice versa. They know what it's like to be the very best, the demands that it brings, the expectations placed upon you but above all the joy of knowing that most of the time you can make the ball do what you want out there. Perhaps they also share the memory of a childhood moment when they feared it wasn't going to happen for them.

It was once said of Jack Nicholson, "When he's in the mood he's the best and when he's not in the mood he knows he'd be the best if he was in the mood."

So it goes with Lionel and LeBron. Except that these guys are always in the mood.

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