Posts tagged ‘playoffs’

June 20, 2012

What I Learned From LeBron James Last Night (and it’s probably not what you think)

Full disclosure: I haven’t liked LeBron James in a long time, but I did once upon a time. I stopped liking LeBron before he left Cleveland. It wasn’t because he couldn’t win and it was more than his inability to carry a team on his never before seen physical specimen and it was more than mental checkouts during the playoffs. There was a void: nothing in his game which made me want to be him, even if he was the best player of his generation. When I’ve shot wads of paper towels into bathroom trashcans, simultaneously filling the roles of athlete and commentator, I’ve never substituted his name for my own.  Even as he flew around the floor making plays at both ends, the grace and fluidity with which he performed was too effortless, too benign, to be endearing. There was nothing to suggest he was doing anything more than chasing a bright orange ball around the room or performing in the Russian Ballet.

Contrast that to players who I do pretend to be. With A.I., there was always a Napoleonic desperation in his attempts to will the 76ers to victory. With MJ, you knew all he wanted was to rip his opponent’s heart out with his teeth and gnaw on it. Kobe is like that, and you know it’s coming when he sticks out his lower jaw, but in his dreams he’s doing it to MJ in his prime. There is something internal, a level above competitiveness, which gives our idols an edge as well as our affections.

LeBron has never exhibited that to me, especially in light of playoff check outs; he has never been a killer. He just loved basketball as a game, not as a competition, not as a fight. He just wanted to be your friend and run around with a bright orange ball. If you punched him first, he wouldn’t punch back. That is why he could feel camaraderie with a bunch of substandard role players who couldn’t help bring Cleveland a championship. That is why he wanted to go to Miami, to play with his best friends. Just like he’d group together a ragtag bunch of journeymen together for imaginary group photos in Cleveland, he gathered together the press and the city of Miami for an imaginary victory parade; because he wanted to be gracious to his new friends. Playing with his best friends, who happen to play at something at least close to his level, is what denied him access to the pantheon of players like Bird and Magic. They were able to be best friends off the court, but on the court try to destroy each other; joining forces was never an option. Playing with your friends is what the Olympics were for. The NBA was for war.

The festivities with which he joined Miami were the final nail in the LeBron James Fandom coffin for a lot people besides me (i.e. Bill Simmons). It pushed LeBron into a villain’s role for which he was regrettably unprepared. The guy who wanted nothing more than to be everybody’s friend was now everybody’s enemy and, ironically, every attempt to rehab his image only seemed to distance him more from the populace who found his preoccupation with his image the source of their dislike.

Last night Bron Bron exhibited what we always demanded from him and never received. It wasn’t MJ’s flu game, and it wasn’t as dramatic as Paul Pierce going to locker room in a wheelchair only to return, but it showed LeBron punching back. Falling to the ground with cramps and turning the ball over in a tight game, he popped up, spat out metaphorical teeth and blood, and proceeded to score on the next possession before heading to the bench. Now I know that had the Thunder won, I’d most likely not be writing an article because LeBron’s fighting through cramps would be seen as only a façade to save face as he wilted down the stretch. But the fact is that they didn’t lose because he didn’t wilt. Hobbled, and significantly sidelined, he fought to be on the court as much as he could stand. He wasn’t playing basketball now because he wanted to effortlessly chase around a bright orange ball; he was playing because he could taste blood in the water, both his own and the Thunders, and he’d be damned if he was going to be friends with the shark trying to devour him this time.

I still dislike LeBron. He’s probably going to be my NBA antagonist until he’s past his prime and fighting to maintain his relevancy, a’la Kobe’s last few years, against the rise of newer stars whom the media will dub the “next MJ.” But now, even if the Thunder manage to win the series, LeBron has recovered a modicum of respect in my eyes.