He caches the ball in the low-post, America’s most hated athlete, and backs down his defender. And then the help comes – one, two more defenders, arms up, cutting off all passing lanes, blocking his line of sight. He’s isolated now – nobody to pass to, nobody to set a pick – and he has no choice. This is Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, an elimination game for his team, on the road, in an arena thirsting for his blood. He swivels around and fades away, releasing the ball from nearly 10 feet up in the air.
For any other basketball player in the world, people cheer in front of their televisions. They marvel and say – #$%^, that was a tough shot – and respect the greatness of the play and the player. Look at that silky smooth KD jumper! Derrick Rose with the circus shot! Dwyane Wade with the Euro-step! LeBron James…oh, right.
Let’s see what happens in the 4th.
Let’s see what happens in the Finals.
LBJ just had one of the greatest series’ in NBA history – averaging 33/11 on 52% shooting– but it doesn’t really matter. He has dominated the league through the regular season, averaging 27/8/6 on 53% shooting, even earning MVP honors – his 3rd in 4 years – but who are we kidding, it doesn’t really matter. He plays 5 positions on defense and is unquestionably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, but come on man, did you watch The Decision? He’s a quitter. He’s a choker. He can’t win.
And that is how we watch sports, and why we watch sports – we watch it as much for the grand narrative and the storylines as we do for its aesthetic appeal. The Finals is always the big stage, a close game decided only in the waning seconds is far superior to a blowout and individual duels (Bird-Magic, Wilt-Russell, LBJ-Pierce in ‘08) are more fascinating than team ball (Pistons ’04, Spurs ’03, ’07). It’s in these moments of pressure that ‘greatness’ bubbles to the surface, we think, and a player is ‘clutch’. It doesn’t matter if you play terrible basketball through three quarters if you come out and explode for 15 points in the fourth, ideally all tough fade-away contested jumpers. The best play you can make in any NBA game? A contested three pointer with a hand in his face from 30 feet out in game 7 of the NBA finals. Because that’s greatness. That’s a will to win. That’s what we would love to see. In truth, that’s just good theater.
LeBron never stood a chance. He was always just too good – arguably the most talented and physically gifted player the NBA has ever seen – too strong, too athletic, too much of an outlier. A physical freak with no equal. Basketball always came easy to him and that’s why he never stood a chance. Because a guy like that has to, quite simply, be perfect. He’s got to be the guy who fights through obstacles and carries everybody on his shoulders. They’re too broad and he’s too powerful – any role outside of hero or God is unacceptable of him.
And then he committed the most heinous crime in sports. He left his team, his hometown, and his mentors and joined another. We don’t like disloyalty in sport; it borders on treason. When we can follow one team through thick and thin, what gives him the right to quit on it? To decide where, and with whom he wants to play? We have even managed to convince ourselves that sportsmen automatically forgo the right to privacy and a normal life outside a stadium. The truth is, LeBron James is what we do in our free time. On Twitter, Facebook and chat forums, we dissect LeBron and everybody like him, you know, when we aren’t working. When there’s nothing more pressing on our minds – a sick daughter, the family’s financial security, a mother’s depression, our frustrations at the workplace – that’s when we quietly, and with surgical precision, tear into all those guys, the superstars of our imaginary worlds we are convinced don’t deserve to be where they are.
Worse, how can he join another Superman, another hero, another God? There’s always only one extraordinary hero, one leader, one supreme God – imagine two William Wallaces in Braveheart, both Apollo and Rocky being equals in Rocky, two Rams, two Sachin Tendulkars…what a laughable idea! Imagine two Stallones garroting and snuffing out the Vietcong: would it feel the same?
It doesn’t matter to us that LeBron is just another human being. A fun-loving 26 year old who is stuck in the rarest physical frame in sports. We’ve succeeded in changing that. For all he’s doing now is simply business…taking care of business. He doesn’t do his customary powder toss routine any longer. He’s on a self-imposed Twitter blackout. He reads books every free minute – especially before games. He’s changed himself now – because America and all NBA fans across the world demanded it. Win a title, or spend another offseason grappling with deep anxieties of professional impotency – our ultimatum to LeBron James. We don’t care what sort of person you are – we saw enough in one hour-long interview – we just want you to fail. Because that’s the only way what we believe in is affirmed.
LeBron James is no longer just playing basketball as he and the Heat head to the NBA Finals. Let’s not reduce it to that now, because we never did before, we never have made it that easy for him. He’s fighting the grand narrative of sports. He’s fighting the way we watch sports and he’s doing it with more grace than his critics could ever muster. Above all, he’s fighting himself. Not for a minute can we possibly realize what is going through his head when he’s on a play-off basketball court and the world is watching.
Every time he drives into the lane and rocks the rim with a ferocious dunk as he did in the 4th quarter in game 7, every time he hits that fade away from 15 feet out, every time he goes off for 30+ points in a game (6 games in the MIA-BOS series) 10+ rebounds (5 times) and forces the opposing team star to take an impossible jumpshot, ever time he drives and absorbs contact from two, three players and finishes… don’t be foolish enough to call that just basketball. Because he’s been playing extraordinary basketball all his life. No, this is more. In the next two weeks, on the biggest stage (and that’s what it is) of his life, he’s fighting the way we watch basketball. He’s fighting his deepest fears and anxieties.
And he’s winning.