Championships are the very fabric on which professional sports are built. The idea of supporting one’s team through thick and thin happens because fans have the hope that some day somehow their favorite team will win the title and reward their faith and investment into the team.

Professional sports also offer a dirty little secret that many fans might not want to hear: not every athlete sees winning as the only thing that matters in their careers.

If that one was a shocker, this next one might be equally eye-opening: a lot of players want to get paid first and if they don’t have anything they deem more important on the table, they might take a stab at trying to tackle this winning thing.

For instance, James Harden had a fantastic night last week against the Oklahoma City Thunder, lighting up his former team for 46 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

At the conclusion of the game, many were quick to point out how much better the Thunder would be with Harden on board and that the bearded one had made a mistake by accepting a trade to a Houston Rockets team that wouldn’t be contending for a title anytime soon.

At no point in time did any of the talking heads pose this question: is winning a championship even at the top of the list of priorities for James Harden?

For the record, no one is suggesting that the left-handed Rockets guard is a loser or that he does not aspire to win a title. Instead, my larger point is that fans can make the mistake of projecting their views or needs onto their favorite players and/or teams.

Indeed, several multi-billion dollar companies employ a multitude of employees, but not all of them are necessarily invested in making their employer the top business in its respective field.

This may sound ludicrous at first glance for people that watch the NBA because it is the best professional basketball league in the world and offers a host of incredible players that often execute feats many of us could only dream of. But in truth, the old adage of  “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” just doesn’t apply universally.

Take Larry Hughes as an example.

The Cleveland Cavaliers won 50 games during the 2006-07 regular season and made it all the way to the NBA Finals where they were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs. The following season, Hughes was traded to the Chicago Bulls, and shared this nugget with the Chicago media:

I play to enjoy myself, some people take this the wrong way, but winning a championship is not what I base everything on. I was given an opportunity to play basketball, travel around and have fun doing it and that’s what I want to do. I wouldn’t take being unhappy and not being myself and winning.
I would rather enjoy myself with 18,000-20,000 people watching the game and the people sending fan mail and those things and be happy…I didn’t come here to play the point guard, that’s just it. I came here to run the wing, just like he [LeBron James] was running the other wing. I was asked to sacrifice for the team to win and for everybody, I guess, get paid. That is what was told to me and I wasn’t happy with that.

Hughes made it clear to all that playing basketball his way mattered more to him than winning a championship.

These instances aren’t isolated, but their occurrences in the public eye tend to be.

Nonetheless, we sill have the example of Latrell Sprewell giving the Minnesota Timberwolves grief in the fall of 2004 due to unfair compensation offers. Or so he felt.

The Timberwolves (58-24) had just had their most successful season ever, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Sprewell had just pocketed $13.5 million for the 2003-04 season and was scheduled to earn $14.6 million for the 2004-05 regular season according to Basketball-Reference, but was distressed that the Wolves offered him a contract extension with yearly figures representing roughly half of what he was earning that season.

The Alabama product refused the Minnesota extension and made this infamous proclamation:

I’ve got a family to feed.

Normally the Wolves’ stance could have been construed as incredibly insulting for a player, but in the case of the former Warrior, he was clearly no longer worth the amount he had previously pocketed.

His presence in Minnesota could have helped them contend once again, but his performance completely dropped off and that was the last season Sprewell played in the NBA.

Whether professional basketball aficionados like it or not, players aren’t created equal and neither are their personal goals.

Some have aspirations to be the greatest ever while others are much more enamored with the lifestyle of being a professional athlete.

As uncomfortable as this may sound, for every Kobe Bryant we see play, there may well in fact be a couple of players similar to Vince Carter that turn it on and off at different points in their careers.

And the sad truth might just be that some of us on the outside looking in care more about winning than some of the players themselves. That’s not an indictment on the players, it’s merely a reality.

Questions or comments? Feel free to leave them in the comments section or you can contact me by email at [email protected].