Arrogance in the eye of the beholder

Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss, Jr. stepped away from the camera to pen a fantastic series of anecdotes about those he has photographed, from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to John McEnroe and Paulina Porizkova. It's very respectful, heartfelt and amusing.

I learned about it through Deadspin, which highlighted the one moment Iooss really rolled his eyes at an athletes' behavior. And with good reason: It's about LeBron James, and it speaks powerfully to the idea that James is one arrogant son-of-a-gun. Iooss writes:

I've seen a lot of entourages, but none like his. In July 2010 I got an assignment from Nike to shoot LeBron right after his TV special announcing his move to the Heat. We rented the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where the Lakers and the Clippers used to play, and there were 53 people on my crew -- including hair and makeup artists, production people, a stylist. I had $10,000 in Hollywood lighting. It was huge. When LeBron arrived, it was as if Nelson Mandela had come in. Six or seven blacked-out Escalades pulled up, a convoy. LeBron had bodyguards and his masseuse. His deejay was already there, blasting. This for a photo shoot that was going to last an hour, tops.

This is how crazy it was: I wasn't even allowed to talk directly to LeBron. There was a liaison, someone from Amar'e Stoudemire's family. I would say to him, "O.K., have LeBron drive right," and then he'd turn to LeBron and say, "LeBron, go right."

Holy smokes. I literally cannot imagine what happens in a person's brain to make them unwilling to be spoken to by a photographer. Wow. That's arrogance on steroids. But maybe also incomparable fragility. (Other than getting your feelings hurt, what fear could drive this?)

No matter my thoughts, I am aware that most people will read that story and conclude:

  • This is unbelievably arrogant.

  • This is a new trend, these athletes who think so highly of themselves.

I'll co-sign the first point, but the second one not so much.

My first argument is imaginary, and therefore you may want to discount it some. But imagine with me that you are Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan reading this story. Those are stars most fans are more comfortable lauding. Those are stars not seen as having heads too big.

Do you think their main reaction would be how arrogant?

Or do you think their innermost thought would more likely be: Please, I'm better than that guy.

I'd bet big money on the latter. And I don't even know that I'm bothered by that. All four of those players -- James, Jordan, Bird and Johnson -- are just about the best ever at something maybe a billion or so people try hard to do well. It might not be possible to be anything but arrogant, having mowed down so very many doubters and opponents along the way.

My second argument is real, which makes it even stronger, and it's basically: The best players' most egregious arrogance was once played down -- now it's featured.

A great example of this comes in a great anecdote from Harvey Araton's new Knicks book "When the Garden was Eden" where we learn about Celtics' legend Bob Cousy hurting his team with one of the most selfish acts in sports history.

The 1969-1970 Knicks had won 17 in a row, tying a league-wide record set by Bill Russell's mighty Celtics. That 18th game, on November 28, was being played against Cincinnati Royals, whose coach was none other than Celtic legend, and contributor to the threatened record, Bob Cousy.

Cousy had retired as a player in 1963, more than six years earlier. He had turned 41 the preceding August. But did he nevertheless declare himself an active player for this hugely important game?

He did.

In so doing, did he express to the players he was charged with leading that he thought his creaky old-guy game was better than theirs?

He did.

Did his players build a lead in this game?

They did.

Did Cousy check himself into a game for the first time in the better part of a decade in the final two minutes with the Royals up three?

He did.

Did he provide both of the key turnovers that led to the Knicks' shocking come-from-behind win?

He did.

Araton writes that the entire episode was a sore subject for Cousy's star player, Oscar Robertson:

When play resumed, Cousy selected himself to inbound, hemmed in along the sideline near midcourt. "He put himself in because he didn't trust anyone else, like he was trying to make a point: 'I'll show you how it's done,'" Robertson said. "And then he was the one who turned the ball over -- not once but twice in, like, ten seconds."

The miracle began in Cousy's eyes. On the inbounds play, the Knicks extended their defense to midcourt to challenge the pass -- except for DeBusschere, who deliberately held back a step and half from his man, Van Arsdale, while counting down from five. He knew Cousy had left himself without any remaining time-outs and would have to find someone open. With an instinctive feel for how much space he needed between himself and Van Arsdale, DeBusschere anticipated the release and angled his way between passer and receiver. The ball came to him like a lovesick puppy; he bounded downcourt and dropped in a layup.

Araton says the media handled Cousy's ploy delicately -- crediting the Knicks' brilliance far more than Cousy's foolishness.

Which still does not sit well with Robertson. Again, Araton:

Robertson, conversely, wondered whether Cousy was just selfish. Was he too eager to protect the Celtics' share of the record that he had helped set? Did he have [legendary Celtics coach Red] Auerbach -- the mentor he always affectionately addressed by his given name, Arnold -- in mind? It still annoyed Oscar that nobody back then had dared question the tactic, at least not that he recalled. "No alarm, no criticism in the media about how a guy at that age could do that," he said.

Bob Cousy is a Hall-of-Famer and a six-time champion, even though he weighed just 175 pounds. He has earned essentially infinite praise. The point of all this is not to muddy Cousy's stellar reputation.

The point of all this is to acknowledge that under the microscope, everybody is flawed enough, human enough, and if they're superstar athletes, almost certainly arrogant enough, to anger and disappoint from time to time.

Whether or not that dominates our perception of them ... that's up to us.