By Zach Naidu
This is my last column.
As an outgoing senior, I don’t know when I’ll again have the time or platform to write a published piece. Journalism has given me so many gifts: an outlet to express myself, a medium to connect with an audience, and life-long relationships. I’m excited to share some parting thoughts with you all to enjoy those aspects for a final time.
While I am a creative person, I wouldn’t label myself an artistically talented one. As a kid, I rarely built anything functional out of LEGOs and struggled to sketch or color something interesting beyond SpongeBob SquarePants. The crowning artistic achievement of my childhood was the “bowling-ball” themed clock I crafted in 7th grade woodshop at St. Mark’s School of Texas.
But when I started writing for my school newspaper in 9th grade, there was always something decent for me to say and I was capable of telling it in an interesting way. Within journalism, sports writing has always been my strong suit.
You know this already, but I live and breathe sports. I think that’s because I owe a lot of my life’s joys to the existence of sports. My joy for Sports Illustrated instigated my journalism career, led to me assuming leadership roles in my high school newspaper, and is what kept me wanting to stay involved in journalism in college with my sports columns.
However, more than that, my greatest leisurely fulfillment comes from sports in many forms: playing pickup basketball, managing a fantasy football team, or playing NHL on Xbox.
Indeed, sports strongly bond me and my closest friends, be it that fantasy football league or rivalries among our favorite professional teams.
I enjoy all sports, but my heart belongs to basketball more than any other one. More than 10 years ago I watched former L.A. Laker Ron Artest (now named Metta Sandiford-Artest) characterize in an interview that the feeling of seeing the basketball go in the hoop is “addicting,” and no statement has resonated with me more.
Emulating my hometown Dallas Mavericks’ hero Dirk Nowitzki, I grew up shooting one-legged fadeaways in my driveway. I often pretended I was Ray Allen on the Boston Celtics shooting a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. I’ve attended enough Mavs games for five lifetimes already, and there’s no sport I enjoy engaging in thoughtful discussion more than basketball.
Given all of this, it is quite apropos the topic of my final column regard the two greatest players in basketball’s history: Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
While Nowitzki will always be the most important athlete of my lifetime, LeBron will always have a special place in my heart because in my personal memory of the NBA, he is the best player I have witnessed.
Until very recently I had had a life-sized Fathead of LeBron on my bedroom wall since 2009. My first non-Mavericks jersey was LeBron’s navy Cavaliers version from his first stint in Cleveland, and I bought his Miami Heat jersey shortly after he took his “talents to South Beach.” My adoration for “King James” was perhaps most exemplified when our school chaplain asked us to write down on a slip of paper in 5th grade whom are our personal heroes and I wrote “LeBron James” right below “My dad.”
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have always beaten the “LeBron is the best player ever” drum. There had never been a doubt in my mind he’s the best and greatest player of all time, despite what Jordan pundits often declared. With apologies to Giannis, LeBron James is the Greek God of Basketball. I felt so strongly about all of this until I watched ESPN’s “The Last Dance” during quarantine. This was my first in-depth exposure to the career and life of Michael Jordan.
Of course, I knew he went 6-0 in NBA Finals series, won five league MVPs, and retired thrice, but I had no insight into MJ the man and leader. I knew plenty about LeBron. Especially as I have grown older, I have been able to more thoroughly examine my awe for King James, and despite my admiration of his talent, he eventually started rubbing me the wrong way with his disloyalty to franchises and always flocking to teams with elite talent, but I had still regarded him as the best ever nonetheless.
I no longer feel that way. MJ is the greatest, and probably best of all time. This is in my opinion, of course, regarding what I personally value. Perhaps it’s that I find more similarities in my life with MJ’s than LeBron’s: his singular focus on being the very best, his best friend/mentorship relationship with his father, his hyper-competitiveness in literally anything to the point of alienation.
LeBron in my eyes seems to be the more carefree of the two and I’m not saying that makes him a bad leader. With what I value, though, from a solely on-court perspective, Michael’s style resonates with me more.
I intended to delve more deeply into this discussion. But in reality, much of this commentary is moot. Despite how impassioned and stubbornly entrenched I get in my own perspective, I need to acknowledge how every fan is entitled to their own opinion and nobody is necessarily right or wrong; that’s the irony of sports debates be it the greatest player ever, the best team ever, etc. In a discipline defined by objective right and wrong, success and failure, a winner and a loser, nearly every tangential discussion about these sports are subjective without a decisive answer. Even here, who’s to say my definition of “best” and “greatest” is the same as Stephen A. Smith’s or Michael Jordan’s. This what makes the discussions so entertaining and polarizing and is why I’ll never get bored engaging in them.
On a different note, I typically reserve my “thank you” mentions as tag lines for when I share my column via Facebook, but this being my last writing, I wanted them to be a part of the column:
Ray Westbrook: Thank you for teaching me the fundamentals of journalism and giving me my first chance to pursue what has become one of my purest passions.
Coach Mihai Oprea: To pretty much the only coach I have had, although you taught them through water polo, thank you for instilling in me the values of discipline and delayed gratification that manifested so often in journalism.
Alejandro Salinas: Thank you for providing me this platform in college and helping as a trustworthy sounding board for my ideas over the past three years.
Cameron Clark: In addition to being one of my best friends, you taught me lessons while working together on The ReMarker in high school that continue to inspire and impact my writing.
Professor Foster: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to indulge in my passion for sports beyond writing. Working with you and your classes have been the highlight of my time at Stanford.
Mom, Dad, Kaitlin, Chandler, Olivia and Uncle Woo: Thank you for being the most supportive family I could’ve asked for throughout my journey.
Lastly, thank you, Stanford. You have exposed me to more people, ideas and schools of thought than I could’ve anticipated four years ago. You helped me mature in a way few other places could have done so.
I am grateful for everything I have learned as a student and am excited for the next chapter of my life, but I’ll never forget the people, places and things that have made me who I am.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.