The President plays hero ball

It’s bad for the team


Basketball is a team game. Hero ball is the vain urge—common among brilliant scorers and ball hogs at every level—to pretend it’s one-on-one. When one player is hero balling, teammates wonder if they’ll get a chance to matter.

You don’t need me to explain the parallels to Donald Trump. Forget basketball games. In the White House there are lives on the line every day. And—even during a pandemic—it’s tough to find evidence that Trump has prioritized anything but looking like a boss. 

206 people attended a fundraiser last Thursday at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Many wrote six-figure checks. Here’s one supporter explaining that there was a 19-person indoor meeting, around a table, that lasted perhaps an hour. The people from the New Jersey Department of Health can’t even get the attendees’ phone numbers for contact tracing. 

The president’s job is to serve the Constitution and the American people. But in the hermetically sealed slow-rolling SUV of this presidency, everyone not named “Trump,”—the cleaners who tested positive, the Secret Service agents, the donors, the PR staff, all of us—wonder if we’ll get a chance to matter.

The Lakers are probably about to win their 18th championship, which will be the most of any team. They have two superstars, the best record in the West, and a 2-1 lead in the Finals. LeBron James and Anthony Davis work well together, three is a fantastic number of centers, Frank Vogel coaches a mean defense. It’s easy to slip into the comfortable feeling that the Lakers were always destined to win, in an unbroken chain going back to Wilt, West, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe. 

Basketball analytics were just a few years old when the Lakers won their last NBA title in 2010, with familiar players like Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol. In the years since, analytics has moved from an obscure supplement used by a few people to the main course for almost the whole league. As the league has started finding the open man, developing big men with guard skills, innovating defenses, running the Cuisinart, and shooting 3s, the Lakers descended. They had 57 wins a decade ago, a couple of seasons in the middling 40s, then four whole years without reaching the 30-win mark. (So many coaches! Jackson, Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni, Byron Scott, Luke Walton, now Frank Vogel.) In Kobe’s last year, 2015-2016, the Warriors made history winning 73, the Lakers won just 17.

All the while, LeBron James was a great Laker rival. They said he lacked a certain Alpha Dog leadership flare, killer instinct, or heroics. Early in his career, LeBron famously passed to open role player, Donyell Marshall, with the game on the line. For days, the commentary was that leaders don’t do that

We could go deep into the analytics; if the goal is to win, leaders absolutely do that. No matter what Skip Bayless or Donald Trump may tell you, passing the ball in crunch time is not a sign of weakness. Neither is wearing a mask. Looking macho all the time is a hysterical way to lead, a Boy Scout’s fever dream. And it comes with a predictable cost. When you land on the White House lawn in a choreographed scene, take off your mask, and head inside exhaling steroid-enhanced viral particles, the rest of the team wonders if they’ll get a chance to matter.

Even with all the superhuman qualities of NBA stars, the evidence is clear that not one of them is efficient in scoring in every situation, and none are great against double teams. Often the team’s best shot is from someone else. It’s good to know the situation, and let others get some oxygen. 

Can an obese man in his seventies, staring down COVID-19, not crawl into some pajamas, quarantine, let the Vice President do his thing for a few days? 

LeBron’s a Laker now. This year, he leads the whole league in assists. That’s how the Lakers got back to the Finals--with a star who sometimes does things that look heroic, but often does things that are good for the team, like playing intense defense and seeking opportunities for teammates.

What’s happening at the White House now is about accruing glory, not wins. Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus of the Wall Street Journal describe what a mistake it was for people on Trump’s team to trust the President.

As the virus spread among the people closest to him, Mr. Trump also asked one adviser not to disclose results of their own positive test. “Don’t tell anyone,” Mr. Trump said, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Don’t tell anyone? That you are in the early days of infection, and almost certainly a spreader? 

Your teammates are wondering if they’ll get a chance to matter.

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