Monday, June 13, 2011

Watching, Hoping & The Unknown

Considering my hatred for LeBron & his manufactured band of brothers that has been ongoing since the start of the NBA season, you would think it would be relatively easy for me to put my thoughts into words the day after the Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals. After all, this is what I wanted. But honestly, I had some trouble deciding where to start.

Throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, I watched and hoped. I watched "The Decision" and hoped the rumors of him choosing Miami were incorrect. I watched the Heat's premature celebration last July and hoped that they'd regret it by never winning a championship. I watched their 5-game losing streak in March and hoped it was a sign that indicated some internal flaw in the makeup of a roster that most thought was inherently unfair. I watched their "fan base" suddenly grow and hoped that those same fair-weather fans would somehow get hit by a truck as big as the bandwagon that they jumped onto. But most importantly, I watched all of their games. And I hoped to see them lose.

The Heat lost some games throughout the year, but not enough to satisfy me, as they found themselves in the NBA Finals having lost only three games in the first 3 playoff series combined. I had been secretly rooting for the Dallas Mavericks to win it all after my Knicks were swept and the Mavs ousted Portland from the first round of the playoffs. But more than anything, I just wanted to see the Heat NOT win.

For LeBron/Heat fans, they saw my anti-Miami rhetoric as "hating". They didn't understand why I would root against a man with out-of-this-world talent. They didn't see the big deal with him wanting to join another great player to win a ring. If anything, they said, it showed great resolve and unselfishness for him to be willing to share the spotlight with another superstar. They also didn't see why anyone should care about Cleveland or its fans, because they were just a bunch of sore losers who were salty that a star bolted from their crummy city. They didn't see any reason why James would stay in Cleveland, and they didn't understand why "The Decision" was a bad idea.

Although I feel that I tackled this topic thoroughly enough when it happened, allow me to once and for all explain why I actively cheered against LeBron. Indeed, LeBron is a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime athlete. That's precisely why I wanted see a championship built around him. Can you imagine if Michael Jordan left the Bulls in 1990 and joined the Celtics? Sure, he would have won titles with Bird and McHale, but would he ever have reached his full potential? Would we ever really
have been afforded the opportunity to appreciate his talent?? Would he ever have become Michael freakin' Jordan?? I vote no. And I know the MJ/LBJ comparisons are overdone and unfair, but really, we probably haven't seen a guy with this much skill and athleticism since... I don't know when. He's like a Shawn Kemp-Dominique Wilkins-Magic Johnson hybrid. It's unreal. And to think that we'd never see him reach his full potential as the head honcho of his own squad really bothered me as a fan. Even more, it bothered me that he didn't care or realize how much he was cheating us.

It also bothered me that he didn't want to put a team on his back and destroy those of his peers that possessed similar talent, like Wade and Bosh. Instead, he wanted to join them to destroy everyone else. It actually felt a little bit like when you're playing a game of pickup basketball and there's three guys who show up together who are all over 6'5". The minute they walk into the gym, everyone knows the game's about to change. Then, when you try to split up into teams, they refuse to play unless they can all play together. It seems ridiculous because they're already better than everyone else, but they don't have any desire to make it fair, competitive, or even fun. They just want to win. What's the point? And what satisfaction do you get when the expectation was that you were supposed to dominate, anyway? LeBron, Wade and Bosh were those guys. And naturally, everyone loves cheering against those types of douchebags. So I watched, and I hoped.

Now let's fast forward to about two weeks ago. The Mavs beat the Thunder to advance to the Finals, and the Heat advance by defeating the Bulls in 5 games. LeBron turns into a monster, hitting tough shots from all over the floor and putting the team on his back, doe. He looked unstoppable. Couple that with Wade's explosiveness and Bosh's rebounding and post scoring, and all of the Heat detractors were suddenly thinking the same thing. Oh, sh*t. They just might pull it off. This sucks.

Enter Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. I won't bother writing about the Mavericks' determination or Dirk's stellar play, because we all saw that with our own eyes. I won't even bother rehashing all of LeBron's late-game disappearing acts, because that story has been discussed ad nauseum over the past week. What I will discuss, however, is my own theory as to why he played so small. Before we get there, though, let's not forget that this is strikingly similar to LeBron's playoff performance last year as a Cav against the Celtics. He found himself down in the series and suddenly seemed uninterested in performing like a superstar. That's the best word to describe it, really: uninterested. Aloof, almost, like he didn't care. And we excused it with sex scandal rumors and imaginary injuries, but really, I just don't think he played that hard.

After "The Decision," I rationalized it by telling myself that he quit on his squad because he knew he was leaving and he was simply tired of carrying a bunch of bad teammates every night. That theory is still completely possible... but what about this year? That excuse is no longer valid, because he was playing with Bosh and Wade this time around. It's not as if he needed to do everything anymore, but he still needed to show up and fulfill his end of the deal.

My theory? LeBron is a frontrunner who doesn't want pressure. You ever notice that some of LeBron's best performances come when his team already has a lead? When his opponent is down, he's great at putting his foot on their neck and delivering the finishing blow. But when the pressure is on and a win looks unlikely, he shrinks. With the exception of that playoff game in 2007 when he scored 25 straight team points to beat the Pistons, he has never really shown the capability to come from behind and dominate down the stretch. He isn't a guy who you ever feel comfortable with as a fan. Some teams have a guy that fans can look at and say, "As long as we've got _______, we've got a chance. I'm not worried." Guys like Wade, Nowitzki, and Bryant. LeBron has never lived up to that billing, and I'm willing to bet that an honest Heat fan would admit as much. In fact, I would even venture the possibility that his unwillingness to be a late-game killer was a part of the reason he went to Miami in the first place. He probably figured that with Wade there, he wouldn't have to put the team on his shoulders, and no one would notice his aloofness. Last night was a testament to that exact theory, as the Heat lost and LeBron again looked lost and uninterested. So as I watched and hoped, this time, my hope finally came true.

(This is a slightly non-sequitur aside, but I would be remiss not to mention that I question if the dynamic of Wade & LeBron will ever work, because they play so similarly. Both guys play better when the other's not on the floor. It would be interesting to see if one of them gets injured and the remaining player is left to play with Bosh if the Heat become a better team as a result.)

More than just the fact that the Heat lost, I think the direct contrast to the Mavs made it seem all the more sweeter. Instead of going into Monstars mode, the Mavericks stuck with their one star and decided that they would take their chances by putting the right pieces around him. You know, the old school way. Instead of broadcasting his free agency decision in a prime time cable special, Nowitzki quietly re-signed with the Mavs, and most people didn't even notice or talk about it. Instead of quitting on his teammates when he felt that the talent around him wasn't good enough, Dirk stayed put and trusted his franchise to figure it out, all while improving his own talents to make himself a better player. And instead of cowering in the moment of the biggest basketball stage in the world, Dirk stepped his game up, playing better than he ever has and putting to bed any notion that he wasn't a winner.

As a basketball purist, this is what we watch for. We want to see the hardest working guys get the most success, not the guys who cut corners. We want to see the unexpected dark horse come out on top, not the guys who everyone brushes off with, "yeah, but they was supposed to win, anyway." We want to see the karmic comeuppance when a team that declares it will win "not five, not six, not seven..." championships three months before a season even starts ends up losing to an underrated squad and is forced to swallow its collective pride. In essence, we like when the guy who thinks he's better than everyone else really isn't. For us purists, Sunday night felt like justice for everything that is right in the basketball world. Finally, peace had been restored.

Despite all of this, I still had a hard time figuring out where I wanted to go with this article. The reason, I think, is because for LeBron, it's hard to tell where his career trajectory will go from here. The purists (along with many casual fans) will continue to root against him. The Miami bandwagon has cleared out quicker than the fans at American Airlines Arena last night, so he doesn't exactly have much of a fan base. And I wonder how much his teammates trust him to be clutch after he's all but proven to them that they can't rely on him. Most importantly, I wonder how he views himself. Does he see himself as a victim of poor circumstance? Does he think less of himself as a player, and perhaps even question his own capabilities? Or maybe he just maintains his ego-inflated, primadonna status and continues to believe that he can do no wrong? Either way, the best thing for LeBron to do would be to spend the summer in the gym, work on the parts of his game that need improvement, and come back in the fall as an absolute unstoppable force. He has the talent. I just don't know if he has the will.

I also wondered today about 20 years from now. I imagine myself with children, hopefully boys. And hopefully those boys will be as much into sports as I am. I wondered what would happen if one of my boys - fascinated by the ability of this guy named LeBron James that he saw on YouTube - looked up LeBron's stats. I imagine that he might ask me what it was like to watch him play back in the 2000s and 2010s. As things currently stand, it's likely that I'll tell my son that LeBron was an amazing athlete, but he never really figured out how to be a champion. I might say that LeBron was kinda like that other guy that I told him about named Dominique Wilkins. I'll probably even tell him that I rooted against LeBron, and I'll tell him about how I watched and hoped.

I imagine he'll ask me why James spent of half his career in Cleveland and the other half in Miami. He might ask why he went to Miami when they already had that Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. He might even question why LeBron didn't try harder to figure out how to be a winner. "Hey Dad," he'll ask me, "why'd he do that stuff?"

And I'll just shrug and tell him, "Son, I don't know."


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