Since the beginning of professional sports there has been special admiration given to those who have won championships, and even more so for those who have won multiple. It has long been debated what makes a champion, what the special x factor is that helps an athlete reach the height of their sport. One undeniable similarity that the great champions share is anger, a hate for someone or something that drives them to heights that based off of their athletic ability alone they would not ascend to.
During the beginning stages of an athlete’s career they are faced with great obstacles, they must prove themselves to new teammates and new foes once reaching the professional level in order to gain the respect that they feel they deserve. However, many of the greatest champions have gone their entire careers without earning the respect that they feel they deserve. From Mohammed Ali to LeBron James and for all of the athletes that came during the interim the competitors held in the highest regard are ones that overcame adversities to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
In 1954 a 12-year old Cassius Clay was at the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky when his bicycle was stolen. Enraged Clay told a police officer at the Auditorium that he was going to “whup” the person who stole his bike. The officer than set Clay onto a path that would come to define his life by telling him that he’d “better learn to box.” Clay entered the ring weeks later with the same enraged attitude that he had felt at the Auditorium. Clay dominated in his first fight, gaining the win and began to build his reputation as a fierce competitor and a rising boxer. Within six years Clay had become the best boxer in the world, and had a gold medal from the 1960 Olympics in Rome to prove it. However, when the city of Louisville held a parade for the American hero he was refused service at one of the cities restaurants, being that in 1960 Louisville was still segregated. Clay, with the competitive fire that was ignited at the Auditorium, now refueled by the harsh realizations of how America was still unjust, entered into the professional realm of boxing. Soon elevating himself into a household name Clay also joined the Nation of Islam, changing his name first to Cassius X and later to Mohammad Ali. With the national media descending upon him, Ali defended himself against the harsh criticism of his beliefs and continued to excel inside the ring. To add to the anger that Ali felt toward the country he was drafted into the Army in order to fight in the Vietnam War; and when he refused to serve on grounds of religious beliefs he was forced out of boxing for two and a half years. He returned to lose his first two fights before defeating the likes of Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, eventually retiring after a loss to Frazier, with a career record of 56 wins and 5 losses, along with the reputation of the greatest boxer of all time. Throughout his career Ali fought with the fury that he felt that day as a twelve year old at the Auditorium in Louisville, the day of his parade when he was denied service at the restaurant, and the anger that came as a result of his exile from the sport during the prime of his career. Because Ali was driven by anger his entire career, he possessed the needed motivation and inspiration that allowed him to ascend into the pantheon of greats, not only for boxing but also for the entire sporting world.
Another athlete that is considered the greatest to ever play his sport is Michael Jordan. Jordan faced different challenges than Ali, but was motivated by them in a very similar way. During his sophomore year at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina Jordan was passed over for the final spot on the varsity basketball team when the roster was filled with another sophomore who stood at 6’8”. Jordan embarked on a mission to prove that the varsity coach had made a mistake in passing over him, having a remarkable season on the junior varsity team and finding himself the recipient of a full athletic scholarship to play for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina accepting after he had not received a scholarship from his top choice, UCLA. Although he started as a freshman and won a national championship at UNC, Jordan was restricted under Dean Smith’s offense, he was not allowed to shoot as much as he wanted and was limited to a 17.7 points per game average, more-so by his coach and teammates than by opponents. Upon entering the NBA as the third overall pick by the Chicago Bulls Jordan felt that he was still unproven, was still motivated by the fact that he had been cut as a sophomore and limited as a college star. Despite establishing himself as a dominant player in the league, the Bulls did not make the NBA Finals in his first six years the championship was captured three times by the Los Angeles Lakers and twice by the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons were perhaps the biggest obstacle that Jordan had to overcome in the pros. Chuck Daily, the head coach of the Pistons who would later coach Jordan during the 1992 Olympics, devised the “Jordan Rules” a defensive philosophy that aimed to knock Jordan to the floor every time he entered the lane to try and dunk the basketball, essentially forcing him into a below average jump shooter. It was not until the 1990-1991 season that Jordan would overcome the mountain that was the Pistons to achieve his ultimate goal of winning a championship. Jordan’s unquenchable desire to prove himself, resulting from his high school coach passing over him as a sophomore, from Dean Smith restricting him during his college career, and from the torment that he faced at the hands of Chuck Daily and the Pistons forced Jordan, like Ali, to elevate himself to a place where he was the best at his sport and, after winning a total of six championships, was able to take his place as greatest to ever play his sport.
Like so many children living in inner city poverty, Mike Tyson grew up without a father. However, Tyson was the also the victim of constant abuse, most commonly at the hands of older kids on the streets of the neighborhood that he lived in. As Tyson grew into an adolescent he became increasingly angry, ending up at a reform school in upstate New York, where a counselor taught him the basics of boxing. Boxing became an outlet for Tyson, as he grew to learn the sport and quickly gained a reputation as an “angry” fighter. By the age of 19, the street kid from the Brookline was the youngest heavyweight champion the sport had ever seen. Tyson, like Ali before him, would soon be forced out of the sport due to legal troubles. From April of 1992 to March of 1995 Tyson was incarcerated after being convicted of rape, during his incarceration, again following in the footsteps of Ali, Tyson converted to Islam. Coming out of prison Tyson won his first two fights in 1995 by early knockouts, channeling the rage that came from the streets of Brookline, and was renewed by three years in a prison cell. The “Knockout Kid” never regained the heavyweight belt however, losing to both Evander Holyfield in 1996 and to Lennox Lewis in 2002, leading to his retirement from boxing in 2005. Tyson’s career record was 50 Wins, 6 Losses, 44 Knockouts, 2 No-contests, a statement as to how his anger was productive and how Tyson channeled his anger to reach the height of his sport, retiring with as one of the greatest boxers of all time.
An athlete that did not begin his career with an embedded rage that created the likes of Ali, Jordan, and Tyson is LeBron James. Like Tyson, James did not grow up with a father; however, unlike Tyson, James had multiple people besides his mother that took care of him and protected him as he grew and transformed into a star athlete. Upon entering Saint Vincent- Saint Mary High School in Akron, Ohio James and his three closest friends were dubbed the Fab Four, a reference to the Fab Five that starred at Michigan almost a decade before. As a Junior in high school, after winning back to back Ohio state championships his Freshman and Sophomore year, James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the “Chosen One” with a caption stating that he would have been a pick in the NBA draft lottery if he had entered the draft after his Junior year. Then, after winning a national championship in his senior year and being drafted first overall by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, James was put onto a pedestal, given the freedom to, in his 3122 minutes, shoot the ball 1492 times. In 2007, at the age of 22, James scored 25 straight points for the Cavaliers to defeat the Detroit Pistons in Detroit, a performance that was dubbed “Jordan like” eventually winning the series and advancing to the NBA Finals. Although swept by the San Antonio Spurs, James was regarded as a rising star in the NBA; the future face of the league, and therefore his sub par team took the majority of the blame for the series loss. James would spend three more leagues in Cleveland, never reaching the NBA finals again. On July 8,2010 the NBA changed, and so did the course of James’s career when James held a live television special to announce that he was leaving Cleveland in order to join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” was reiterated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in the media as James’s jersey was burned time and time again on television by angry Cleveland fans. This was the first time in James’s career that he was scrutinized by the media for a prolonged period of time, angry about the negative publicity James led the Heat to the finals, losing this time the Dallas Mavericks. During the summer that followed almost every sports journalist criticized James for not winning the series, as he came up short in big moments time and time again in the series. Coinciding with the criticism was the NBA lockout, allowing more time for the likes of Skip Bayless and others to reiterate that James did not have the “clutch gene” needed to elevate his team to championship heights. However, it was not the “clutch gene” that James had lacked for the first eight years of his career, it was the needed motivation that was never given to him that he now had. With the anger building with every article published and every talk show segment that criticized him, James embarked on a mission to not only bring the city of Miami a championship, but to be the main reason for the Heat winning the championship. By winning back-to-back Finals Most Valuable Player awards in 2012 and 2013 James answered all critics, firing back on the court and using their words to propel himself and his team to the podium two consecutive years. With the anger and the drive that has been instilled in James in the last three years, he will continue to win championships and, after his retirement, be considered along with Jordan to be among the greatest players of all time.
The common ground that all of the great champions have is that they have gone through adversities, challenges, and times of persecution during their ascent as athletes. Because James did not initially have the anger that the likes of Ali, Tyson, and Jordan had he was incapable of leading his team to the highest point, that being a championship win. After experiencing the maltreatment that he was forced to endure James was able to motivate himself, as the others were capable of because their hardships started before their careers. Many analysts view champions as having the “clutch gene,” however it is the anger and the hatred that the great athletes are capable of channeling into their performance that allows them to be “clutch.”