“Thin Line Between Heaven and Here.”
“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” –Crash Davis
LeBron James is such a bum, huh? He keeps getting the ball in key late-game situations and he keeps failing. I think he might not have “it” in him. His blood’s just not cold enough. In the NBA, you’ve got to have that ice blood. You’ve got to be that ice-blooded killer in the clutch, and LeBron’s just not that player. At least that’s what the guys on TV keep saying. I mean, what are the Heat in last-second shots, 1-19? They’ve been terrible against the top five teams in the League, so LeBron must not be clutch. He must not have “it.” It’s weird, though, because I swear I remember him being the only good player on a Cavs team that went to the Finals in 2007. I kind of feel like he hit some big shots, game winners even, in the 2009 Playoffs, too. That was what, two years ago? LeBron couldn’t have lost “it” already, could he? The line can’t be that thin, can it?
Oh, but it is. In the talking-and-thinking-about-sports world, the line between hero and goat, between clutch and not is razor thin. Just a few years ago, LeBron carried the Cavs on his back and we all said as much. Now he’s a loser with no heart who can’t lead the Heat let alone carry them. This same phenomenon has hit the Zags, particularly Steven Gray, this season. As recently as November, expectations for both player and team were sky high. Gonzaga returned every key contributor save for Matt Bouldin, and Gray was supposed to lead them to great heights. (A number of analysts picked the Zags in their preseason Final Fours and a few went so far as to have them winning the title.) After all, he entered the season a remarkably well-rounded and proven player, and as the only senior on the team, he was all but predestined to be the team’s leader and its star. In November I wrote about how unfair this was. To summarize, I think Gray is a complementary player. No matter what other Zag players did before him, Gray had been nothing more than a really good number two or three option throughout his career, and to expect anything different from him was unrealistic and would set him up to fail. The overarching narrative at the start of the season, though, had Gray penciled in as the star and team leader and the team would be great because of him. We saw just how tenuous this line of thinking is by the fourth game of the season. The Zags were handled by San Diego State and then demolished by Kansas State, Illinois, and Washington State, and suddenly, not only was Steven Gray obviously not the team leader bu his complete lack of leadership was the cause of all GU’s problems. Indeed, the line between hero and goat was only as wide as that first rough patch.
This is precisely the problem with using such intangibles as leadership to view, discuss, and ultimately rate players. There’s no middle ground: a player either is a leader or he isn’t. He can’t be kind of a leader or a leader sometimes. He either is one or he isn’t, and in the case of Steven Gray, he first was one and now he’s not. Never mind that the half-court offense has been sluggish at best or that the perimeter defense is predictably porous or that it took Mark Few most of the season to find a workable player rotation. Gonzaga’s poor play forever took away Steven Gray’s title of team leader and thus forever changed his legacy in the eyes of Zag fans. That the line is so thin just isn’t fair, but to further the argument, consider the following hypotheticals. What if Mickey McConnell hadn’t hit that off-balance leaning three in the Kennel and Saint Mary’s hadn’t won that game? What if the Zags hadn’t laid an egg at Santa Clara or that crazy elbow-leads-to-a-technical rule hadn’t cost them a chance to win the game at San Francisco? Without those three losses, GU would have been in the driver’s seat in the WCC and there would have been non of the collective hand-wringing that further reinforced Zag fans’ opinions that Steven Gray had a bust of a senior season. Gonzaga would have finished the conference season undefeated, something only three teams have done under Mark Few, and thus gone down as one of the great Zag teams ever. We would be celebrating that Steven Gray led the team in points per game, assists per game, and three pointers made (which he did) and was named first team all-district (which he was) and the fact that he was a great team leader and all-time great Zag instead of wishing he played better. (In a recent conversation with some friends, one of them wondered aloud how good Gonzaga would be if “Gray was still on the team.” This friend of mine is, I fear, not alone in thinking so.)
It’s that wishing (might better be described as longing) that makes Gray’s individual legacy so unfortunate. Nobody can appreciate his value on the court because they’re too busy wishing he was more valuable. And if we aren’t careful, the same fate will befall future Zag players on future Zag teams. Ask yourself, who’s going to be next year’s go-to player, its “leader,” its 2010-2011 preseason version of Steven Gray? There are of course plenty of candidates, but are any of them viable? Will Rob Sacre learn a few post moves and suddenly be explosively quick enough to consistently score the ball down low? Will Elias Harris be given enough space by the offense to attack the rim? Will Marquise Carter make the jump from JuCo star to Division I star or Gary Bell, Jr. from high school senior to freshman superman? If your answer to any of these is yes, just remember that there’s a whole lot of unprovens in each scenario. Each one asks a player who’s never been the playmaker for a Gonzaga team to be one next year. Each one pins the hopes of an entire season on the performance of one player. Each one asks the same thing of other players as was asked of Steven Gray this season: to be something we wanted them to be rather than something they are. This of course sets these guys up to fail as soon as a few games go the other way. Then again, maybe those games will go the right way and then we’ll be talking about a great Zag leader on a great Zag team. The line between the two is pretty thin, after all.