The Curious Case of Steven Gray, Part Two
Note: There will be no column next week in celebration of Thanksgiving. Look for a new column Friday, December 3.
I need to know what “leadership” is and what it is not. I need to know why a team needs leadership and when. And, I need to know if conventionally-held ideas of leadership are valid. Is a leader the guy who wins the most championships? (Trent Dilfer, one Super Bowl. Dan Marino, zero Super Bowls.) Is he the guy who just wins the most games? (Brett Favre, 181 wins. Joe Montana, 117 wins.) Or the one who, like Brian Dawkins, gives the best pregame speeches? (Denver Broncos’ record with Brian Dawkins: 11-14) Everyone says Michael Jordan was a great leader because he was intense and worked the hardest and willed his team to victory; maybe he’s the perfect example of leadership. (Michael Jordan to Kwame Brown during a 2003 practice: “Stop crying, you flaming f—-t!”)
The thing is, we have no idea what leadership is exactly. It is, by definition (“the capacity to lead”), subjective so any number of people will have any number of their own ideas of leadership, but that doesn’t stop us from using it to rate (and ultimately overrate and underrate) athletes. Derek Jeter’s a great leader! (Doesn’t hurt that he’s got $150 million dollars worth of talent surrounding him.) Ray Lewis is a great leader! (Yeah, for a guy who had his friends take a murder rap for him.) Player X Who Will Come to My Team in Y Years is a great leader! We decide that our team needs a leader and then look at the roster for interesting candidates while deciding, in a blink, which players have what we deem “leadership potential.” Such potential is easier found in super heroes and terrible generals, but that doesn’t stop us from giving out merit badges in advance to our favorite leader-looking players as well. Of course, a leader needs to win, or at least lose with dignity, and if he does neither, we take away the merit badge we just gave him and instead shake our heads and wonder what might have been. In every case, what might have been are championships, or at least Sweet Sixteens, because after all, just one good leader (as we define the term) takes the place of a solidly executed game plan or rebounding.
In case you haven’t given out your leadership merit badges for this season yet, a quick look at the Gonzaga roster will tell you that Steven Gray is the team’s only senior. This makes him, by default, The Leader. Perhaps it’s natural to figure seniors as leaders (except for Will Foster, whom Mark Few hated); they’ve been there the longest and they’ve been through the most tough situations so they’d be the ones to lead a team out of trouble. This was essentially the argument of a preseason preview article (appropriately titled, “Is Steven Gray ready to lead?”) on the GU blog, The Slipper Still Fits. The article argues that Gray needs to be the team leader in order for the Zags to “maximize their huge potential.” This implies of course that if GU lives up to its “potential” (the definition of which is also extremely subjective), it did so because Steven Gray emerged as the team leader. Not because Mark Few coached a decent tournament game or six. Not because Robert Sacre added a new post move to his repertoire of one. Not because Elias Harris proved he is one of the (insert adjective) players in the country. No. Gonzaga lived up to its potential because Steven Gray became a leader. And if it doesn’t reach that elusive potential, again, it’s all on Gray. Seems about right. I mean, there’s an elf who has convinced people he’s a good Major League Baseball player because he’s “gritty”; why not pin the fortunes of an entire team of highly-recruited, highly-talented basketball players on the “leadership” of one guy whose dedication was publically called into question by his head coach just last season? Ready to lead? You can’t even tell me what “to lead” means (outside of admitting that “everyone has their own definition of what a leader should look like”), but you’re willing to argue that the whole season rides on whether or not Steven Gray is ready to do it?
Here we are, though, three games into the season and the discussion has shifted from “Is Steven Gray ready to lead?” to “He’s got it!” Got what? And, whatever it is, how did that he show he “got” it after only three games? If we’re going to make final decisions based on only three games, here’s what I’ve seen so far: the same team as last year. They’re all too willing to let one player take over, they struggle to rebound (somehow), they don’t know who to play at small forward, and in general, they look alarmingly unprepared for their opponents. And since Gray currently averages 26 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game, I have to wonder at what point his mysterious leadership qualities kick in to make this year’s team different from last year’s. We could imbue Steven Gray with the leadership qualities of everyone from Maximus to Captain America and things won’t be any different from last year, at least not until the other twelve guys on the roster step up as well. But the way it’s set up now, whether or not those guys step up is dependent on Steven Gray. If they do step up, he’ll go down as a Great Zag Leader, and if not, well, you know.
My suggestion to you, Joe Zag Fan, is to stop the insanity. You’ve spent the entire recorded history of Gonzaga basketball (read: the last ten years) using Zag Material and all its subjective intangibles (Heart! Guts! Want-to!) to pick your favorite players while leaving the ones you don’t think measure up behind. In the process, some good players get overrated (David Pendergraft) and some great ones get underrated (Jeremy Pargo). Steven Gray is perhaps the most talented all-around player Gonzaga’s ever had. He’s got an NBA body with (perhaps borderline) NBA quickness and strength. He can shoot. He can defend. He can rebound. Plus, he does all kinds of cool things off the basketball court that should have you petitioning the university to build a statue of him on campus. But if you keep judging him by whether or not he’s a “leader,” you’ll never fully appreciate him, no matter what he does.