I was watching Roger Federer, the all-time winningest male tennis player, receive this trophy for a record sixth time in a row. It was not a Masters tournament or a tune-up tourney but an award won off the court – one for sportsmanship. Each year, the players who form the pro tennis tour vote to determine the Sportsman of the Year aka the Nicest Guy aka the Best Clubhouse Bugger. And Federer remarkably collected this award as consistently as he did Grand Slam titles. He won it six times in a row from 2004-2010 until interrupted by his fellow Hall-of-Fame Nice Guy Rafael Nadal. (Federer has however since snatched back and put a stranglehold on the coveted Chill Dude award.) Fed has managed the miracle of not only beating all opponents into the ground (except Nadal) – he has managed to trounce all comers and leave them wanting his company. He’s the guy who wins every Poker game – while telling all the best jokes too. Ever loquacious and garrulous, Fed forever remains the picture of the country club tennis player, both in demeanor and appearance: lips curled up in a smile, mildly tousled hair, white trousers and cream cardigans. He walks onto Centre Court at Wimbledon appearing to have just walked off of the set of Chariots of Fire. And he sounded every bit the part of the suave pro when he collected his award and said:
“Well, it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”
And I thought that was amazing. I had never heard the phrase and his delivery was as flawless as his backhand. It was politician level stuff. He could have been Bill Clinton’s son.
As I mulled over his remark, I became more impressed. I began to realize that Federer and Nadal represented a Rise Of The Nice. Most top athletes of the past twenty years had been known for their curmudgeonly to hostile behavior. The Michael Jordans, Pete Samprases, Mike Tysons, Kobe Bryants and Zinedine Zidanes were celebrated for being so single-minded in their focus that they could be mean and surly to those around them because that was their right as per their greatness. Their talents were so vast that they left no room for mild manners and their focus so laserlike, it left no room for considerations.
Nadal and Federer came along in the mid-2000s and managed to quickly create and endure a historic rivalry- while remaining genuinely friendly. This was unique because tennis is such an intense and solitary endeavour (each loss results in elimination from tournament and a trip to the airport) but these two men not only act as gentlemen, they actually like each other… I was fascinated by this question: Does a professional athlete compete exactly as hard against someone he likes as he does against someone he despises? Does he execute as exactingly against a practice partner as he does against a total stranger? Or is it vice-versa? Is it simply a different result for different people? Rafa and Roger both seemed to be succeeding historically well and doing so while remaining true to the code: The Dude Abides.
It reminded me of 90’s NBA Basketball when my favorite coach of all time, Jeff Van Gundy of the New York Knicks admonished Knicks forward Charles Oakley for being friends with the sort of dickish Bulls guard Michael Jordan. Now here was a guy who nobody ever called nice. MJ was a trash talking, opponent taunting, teammate-Steve Kerr-fighting, Bull-headed assassin. And he was loved for it. Van Gundy argued that it was Oakley’s job to stop Jordan at any cost and that drinking and dining with him could only weaken his resolve to slay the mighty Jordan. Conversely, Jordan would have gone all Knights Tale and challenged Oak to an impromptu life-or-death joust if it insured him home court in the Finals. This is a guy whose entire Hall-Of-Fame Induction Speech was a middle finger to all those who ever doubted him. Michael Jordan was better than all his peers, but Michael Jordan is also more bitter than his peers. Is that ratio telling? Does that mean that bitterness equals competitiveness and ultimately success? So does that in turn mean it’s better to be LeBron James than Mike? LeBron at least appears to have the ability to go home and enjoy a movie after work.
Kobe Bryant is also a maniacally competitive athlete. He is so averse to niceness that he went so far as to nickname himself Black Mamba. Bryant recognized his best qualities in the highly venomous serpent – cold-blooded, very deadly and capable of killing easily and quickly. Kung Fu Panda, he is not. The basic question about niceness in sports came up again in a fantastic article I read about Kobe and his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. Joe is a former NBA player, but a journeyman and one of those hoops lifers who eventually weaved his way across the world, zigging through Europe and zagging through Asia. In the article, Joe’s peers unanimously assert that he could have been better than he was, that his talent exceeded his accomplishments. Kobe himself says that he got his will power and work ethic not from his NBA-playing father but from his mother, even adding that she used to elbow him in highly competitive one-on-one games when he was a young teen. The writer details Joe’s life today as Coach of a fledgling team in Thailand and contrasts his seemingly nomadic and adventurous life of travels with the singular tunnel vision exhibited by his son since he was a young child who would practice his jumper for three hours each night. The story of the pair leaves one wondering if that is the choice: to be a well-balanced well-traveled and satisfied man or to be a continually unsatisfied man thus always pushing yourself to another level of productivity… Is there a right choice? Is one really more wrong than the other?
In terms of pro basketball, selfishness is almost requisite of champions. I saw Kobe say that he couldn’t care less about being remembered as a good teammate. He claimed that he wanted to be remembered “for getting the most juice out of this lemon.” By any means. And that’s why the most refreshing thing about LeBron James is that he is unselfish both on court and even more impressively, off. Probably the most non-aggressive Alpha Male in the NBA since Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron scales new highs each year but he’s never a jerk about it. I watch him and wonder when he’s going to just let loose a Jordanesque stream of insults to all his detractors. Where’s his infamous grab-the-mic-in-the-club moment when he asks EVERYONE how his bleep tastes? For him to take the level of abuse he gets (and he’s definitely done some dumb things) and not retaliate after slaying every Dragon, rescuing every damsel, pulling the sword out of the damn stone- he’s in Gandhian territory. He could be double-swording heads off like Gladiator right now but LeBron seems to be a happy person, one who can go home and relax after a game. Young Kevin Durant may be the one guy more chill than LeBron. Durant is so nice that his current Nike ad campaign reads KD IS NOT NICE, a reverse psychology tactic to insure us of a nasty streak within the charming Iceberg Slim. These two are considered the two best basketball players on Earth. They both play the same position and are competing for the same prize for the next ten years. But they are cool with each other. And I like that.
So what is the exact correlation between niceness and success? What is the formula? How does one impact the other? Certainly, those who are more successful are often pardoned for a lack of niceties that would be inexcusable going in the other direction. And being less nice could be as extreme as aggressive physical behavior to as easy as passive aggressive remarks. Of course it’s all subjective, the entire universe altogether probably has a million different ideas and notions about what success is worth. A successful businessman recommended to me once “A lot can be learned from Attila the Hun. His strategies were brilliant, minus the killing of course.”
One of my favorite books in ages, David Remnick’s King Of The World details the rise of Muhammad Ali, particularly his teenage years before winning his first Heavyweight championship. Ali is selfish, cocky and arrogant even before success. He crudely insults his opponents and the press celebrates him for it. Ali’s most popular refrain was of course “I am the Greatest!” and the adult Ali asserts that he had to say that as a youth to believe in himself and ultimately to make himself. Ali, Jordan and Bryant represent the model of athlete whose attitude is one of pure cocksure swagger, individuals who aggressively talked a big game and then played an even bigger one. Nadal, Federer and James represent a seemingly more well-balanced attitude, one more harmonious and joy-seeking which still allows them to maximize their abilities. Part of me wonders if this is a trend illustrating that today’s athletes, similar to today’s youth in general, are maturing faster and thus realizing at a younger age that they can just as easily achieve their greatest goals without being at each other’s throats. As a result, things are less personal these days and hence, more professional. It’s nice to be important but it’s also nice to be nice.
This is a link to the story I referred to above about Kobe Bryant and his parents. It’s called “Where Does Greatness Come From?” by Chris Ballard of SI. I thought it was excellent.