Lionel Messi and LeBron James: The Messiah and The King
Basketball and football cannot be compared but I cannot stop noticing these two people and their uncanny similarities. Lionel Messi and LeBron James have redefined the way the game is played. The belligerent genius of these two has been labelled as the best their sport has seen. And now both of them are the most underrated players in the world.
In 2004, Frank Rijkaard made a substitution which would change the complexion of the football for years. When Barcelona visited Stamford Bridge in their neon greens for a date with Chelsea, in 2006, the commentators were wondering. “We don’t know much about this man but he is a talented kid”. Well, in a matter of 90 minutes, the commentators, the Chelsea players and the whole world would take notice.
A kid found by Barcelona scouts on their trip to the Americas. A kid who played for a small team called Newell’s Old Boys. A kid diagnosed with a growth hormone disease, was, about to turn the footballing world, right on its head.
In the match, Lionel Andres Messi, an 18-year-old danced with the ball. The physical players of Chelsea including Makelele, Del Horno, Carvalho, and John Terry all bowed down to the genius of a kid. His blistering runs through the right wing were unstoppable, the strong pushes were just shrugged off by the little shoulders. He created space amidst the big Chelsea defenders and hit the post. Stamford Bridge has etched at its heart, “BORN IS THE KING”. The Messiah, as the Spanish Media labelled him, was born that day.
Although a different sport, in a different part of the world, a different kind of legend was about to be born. In the 2003 NBA Drafts, the NBA Commissioner David Stern was on the podium. He took the mic and announced the first Draft pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James.
LeBron’s early life was spent in moving from one home to another, playing basketball as a kid at St Vincent school. His build for his age, his ease to play the game, and his consecutive Best Player wins till his senior year, NBA was about to find out the talent of LeBron James.
LeBron’s first game for the Cavaliers was at the Arco Arena against Sacramento Kings. LeBron with his first assist in NBA career made his intentions clear. A beautiful alley-oop, wonderful assists, jaw-dropping throwdowns. He had it all. Thus arrived The King.
Lionel Messi and LeBron James are the pioneers of utmost commitment. Both were child prodigies, both started playing at a young age. Both carried the hopes of their fans and the pressure of achieving success. When Leo arrived at Barcelona, Valencia and Real Madrid were in much better shape and Barca was in a gradual decline. Messi, aged 20, carried the hopes of the Camp Nou after Ronaldinho lost form. After Messi’s arrival, Barcelona stood up to their arch-rivals Real Madrid, and have had the upper hand in the El Clasicos that followed.
LeBron James arrived at the Cleveland when the team was in shambolic shape. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 1998. Upon the second season of LeBron James’ arrival, they qualified for playoffs, winning 50 games and LeBron was their top scorer.
The nicknames aren’t a formality, they are earned because they were the saviours for their nations or cities. Messi was dubbed The Messiah by Spanish Media, due to Barcelona’s grand success upon Messi’s arrival. LeBron was labelled the King due to his mesmerising performances, that earned Cavaliers a playoff spot and earned him an All NBA selection.
Making a statement: Winning on their own
In 2007, both Lionel Messi and LeBron James had their first career-defining moments, earning praises from opposition coaches and other experts.
Real Madrid paid a visit to the hostile Camp Nou during the 2006-07 season. The match that unfolded was one of the best El Clasico’s played to date. Spain standstill, the world watching, Van Nistelrooy opened the scoring with a nice finesse shot past Valdes. It was cancelled out at the other end by Messi. Oleguer brought Guti down in the box and Nistelrooy did the rest from the spot. Again it was cancelled out by Leo, off a rebound thrashed into the net. Sergio Ramos just like he does now, connected his header giving Madrid the lead again. However, one last gasp effort from the 19-year-old, in the injury time, past Casillas and the score read 3-3.
The words of Rob Palmer, “The wonderful left foot of Messi has struck again, 19 years of age, he scores a hattrick, for 10 man Barca in extra time”.
Going over to Cleveland, it was the NBA Conference Finals between Cavaliers and Pistons. LeBron James delivered a top-notch performance. His stats read 48 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. He scored a staggering 29 out of last 30 Cleveland points. His highlight of the match, the layup that won the game, 2.2 seconds from time, earned an overwhelming response. Play by play commentator Marv Albert called the performance “One of the greatest moments in playoff history”. Present Golden State coach Steve Kerr labelled it “Jordan-esque”.
The first individual accolades
The King and the Messiah were not done there. They even earned their first individual accolades together. LeBron for his starring average of 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists was adjudged the MVP for the 2008-09 season, in 2009. Later that year, Lionel Messi received his first Ballon d'Or Award for his performances with Barcelona. Messi scored 38 goals in the season, going on to win the sextuple with Barcelona. LeBron was the part of the Cleveland team that went on to win 66 matches. LeBron was the man with the highest number of minutes played for his team.
The hate of the rival fans and the critics
LeBron and Lionel, two of the greatest, have been similar to critics and rival fans. When their team loses, they have to take the blame for it. When their team wins, giving them due credit is forgotten. Many times, their success is attributed to the players around them. Messi and his staggering numbers are always attributed to genius midfield players Xavi and Iniesta. It has been 3 seasons since Xavi left. Iniesta bid adieu last season. Is there any difference in Leo, this season. He has started this season like any other and he would still go on to perform like he did, for the last ten seasons. Messi didn't have great midfielders at Argentina. How do you explain Messi's Golden Ball in the World Cup and in the Copa Americas?
LeBron also, even after single handily leading Cleveland to the NBA finals, is judged by his support cast at Miami that won him the NBA title. LeBron was surrounded by great players, no doubt, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, but so was Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady. People called Kawhi better at that stage due to LeBron’s good team-mates. Last season, LeBron was the only performer in Cleveland. He had to make plays, he had to do the ball handling, he had to score and he had to defend. How do you explain that fact?
Simply the best but arrogant dictators
Messi and LeBron despite being standouts in their teams are also accused of being arrogant and dictating. Time and again rumours have it that Messi favours some players. He shortlists the players to be brought in and the coach as well. People widely criticised Messi for benching Dybala and not including Icardi this World Cup. Things simply don't work that way, do they? Even Argentina’s new coach Lionel Scaloni benched both in the recent friendly vs Guatemala, Messi wasn’t even with the squad. If Leo had a choice, does anyone really think he would choose Valverde as the coach? Or wouldn't he want Dani Alves back? Just think about it.
LeBron is also said to favour some players to others. Reports had it that he left Cavs due to their failure in bringing in Carmelo Anthony, Kemba Walker and Paul George. If LeBron had to leave the Cavs, he could go to any team. He could have gone to Toronto last season. Maybe he could have gone to Rockets? Who would refuse King James? If LeBron had a choice, would he really let Kyrie Irving leave?
These sorts of accusations which have no proof are an utter disgrace. These are just reported to undermine the legacy of these two players.
The changing times and comparisons with rising stars
With the two players growing in age, people compare them to other young players based on their team success. Individually there are no players better than these two currently and also in their prime.
However, Kylian Mbappe at 19 is compared to Lionel Messi. Mbappe plays in the French Ligue with weaker oppositions, weaker defences and what not? He was mediocre against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich last year, which are two world-class teams. He has only been around for a year. How good was he in the World Cup? His two goals came against an average Argentina defence, beaten for pace. Would he skip past Umtiti or Varane at the same pace? How influential was he against Belgium? Messi at 19? He faced the defences of Cannavaro, Guti, Varela, Ayala, Marchena, in a much better league.
Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons are considered as good as LeBron. Seriously? Durant couldn’t beat LeBron even when he had James Harden and Russell Westbrook alongside. He left OKC for glory and joined a GSW superteam to earn rings. LeBron stayed with Cavs for 7-8 years and he guided a mediocre Cavs team to NBA finals. Durant won't be half the performer if he played with a team like Cavs. The person who walks with the weak and loses is still better than one who walks with the strong and wins. Ben Simmons is only a rookie.
To compare these youngsters, with the decade of consistency of Leo and LeBron is astonishing. Even after playing in the French league, Mbappe’s numbers are nowhere close to Leo. He can only be compared in goalscoring and in fact, he had fewer goals than Leo last season. LeBron playing in a much weaker setup and older age has better stats than Durant, who is playing for the best team, at his prime. It is a cardinal sin, comparing these legends to newcomers.
The law of marginal utility states that " The more you consume a good, the less appealing its consumption will become". Messi and LeBron have been consistent for more than a decade now. People are fed up with seeing the same genius, over and over again.
There are some things stats cannot show. Statistically, Pavard had a better season that Varane. Does that mean Pavard is better than him? No. You have to watch the game to see how they contribute to the team. LeBron and Leo are two of the most unselfish players in the world. They can make their teammates look good. Even an out of touch Luis Suarez bagged 25 league goals last season. Paulinho who has heavily criticised a player when he arrived but looked good because Messi linked up with him. LeBron looks to make a pass even though he could finish the play on many occasions.
LEO AND LEBRON: MENTORING THE HEIRS TO THEIR THRONE
LeBron guided Kyrie Irving to a high level of success and now he is one of the best point guards in NBA. During Kyrie's early days, LeBron criticised Kyrie. He wanted him to perform better and unleash his potential. Kyrie is still one of LeBron's best friends. Leo mentored Neymar and helped him adjust to Europe. He gave him penalties without worrying about his own goal scoring. He linked up with Ney, making him more and more comfortable. Neymar is among the best in the world now. People claim the opposite. Some say Cavs won the NBA title thanks to Irving, while LeBron hogged the limelight. Others say Messi looked good due to Neymar.
Christopher Nolan with his charismatic villain called joker explained the irrational comparison and uncalled criticism of these two with one single dialogue. “People do not want to accept the truth because they will have their illusions destroyed”.After all that Leo and LeBron have done, they might be the only two people who are not rated as per their achievements and performance. Two of the greatest but also the most underrated in their respective sport.
NBA didn’t award LeBron the season MVP this year. No one added more value to their team than The King. James Harden’s performances earned him the MVP award. But my opinion is different. Houston without Harden would still have made the playoffs but Cleveland without LeBron wasn’t going to win 30 games. LBJ was the undisputed MVP and also the best player. His ultimate consistency has come to haunt him as, 28 points, 8 rebounds and 8 odd assists are just a formality now for him.
FIFA didn’t consider Messi as a worthy man for the top 3 of The Best Awards, although he was the highest scorer and assist maker. Even in UCL, where he was considered weak last season, he won 6 man-of-the-match awards out of the possible 8. But the utmost consistency and outlandish genius of Messi is the only reason for his exclusion. If Griezmann boasted Messi's numbers, he would win hands down. Luka Modric is a great playmaker but Messi is as good a playmaker. Being a forward he drops deep into the midfield to create. Who was the better playmaker last season, Luka or Leo? A playmaker, executes passes, through balls, key passes, assists. Leo was a leader in all these stats, being a forward.
LeBron and Leo should not be bothered about the awards though. For all we know, we have witnessed them doing what no one could. Bruce Lee once remarked, " I don't fear the person who practises 100 kicks, I fear him who practises the same kick 100 times". Leo and LeBron have been doing the same thing for years. It is not aesthetic in some cases, but it is something else.
Fighting till the last breath
In the 2016-17 La Liga season, the last match day was the title decider. Barcelona played Eibar and Real Madrid played Malaga at the same time. Madrid was beginning to celebrate their title victory at Malaga. But without paying heed to the fact Lionel Messi in overtime took the ball off the clearance from the goalkeeper at the halfway line. He accelerated from halfway beating 6 defenders on the way to beating the keeper. He gave his all till the last whistle. It was unprecedented to try and score when it would be for nothing. Still, the great man believed in fighting till the last minute.
LeBron James and Cavs were visited by the Timberwolves last season. LeBron in the final moments off the game blocked a layup. With just over a second remaining he received the pass and faded away from Jimmy Buttler to try and win it in the last moment, although he could have easily forced overtime. He hit the high-risk shot and won. That is the confidence of LBJ. LeBron performed till the very last second.
In the same 16-17 La Liga, the league was all done and dusted. Still, in the final minute of the match, the demonic skill from Sergi Roberto and the precision pass by Alba paid dividence. Messi emerged into existence like a quark partcle and catapult the ball home. In the chill of the night in Madrid and among the cacophony of the ultras, the diminutive man took off his shirt and held it high. Messi shut the Bernabeu up in an instance of magic.
LeBron James, in 16-17 NBA season, against Washington at their home, LeBron missed an easy chance to win the game with a layup. Wizards at the other end converted with almost 3.8 seconds remaining. LeBron though just went full forward, jumped high to take the lob pass from Kevin Love, landed and with a fadeaway, he hit a 3 pointer to bring things level at the buzzer. All this in 3 seconds.
LeBron lost to Warriors in a NBA Finals Game 1, with a superhuman 51 point game. THE KING. Messi managed to drag Argentina to Russia with a solo effort against Ecuador. A stadium 2000m above sea level and rain pouring down. THE MESSIAH. Still, people want to know. Can Messi do it on a cold rainy night in stoke? Can LeBron perform against the Best?
There are no explanations for their uncanny ability to win games as well as their ultimate superiority above others. There is also no explanation for the unprecedented hate they receive. But their commitment to the sport can be explained. They love doing it. That is why they are not bothered about awards, about stat padding. All they worry of, is their team performing well. They worry about letting down their side.
Answering the biggest question about them. Are they talented? Talent is an ablity to excel in things, talent is word that you can use to describe any scaling great heights. But genius, it helps you scale heights while making it look easy. That word to me is much more astute. LeBron and Leo, they are the ultimate genius.
For me the Greatest of All Time, Leo Messi and LeBron James.
Published 14 Sep 2018, 22:40 IST