|Maybe LeBron James doesn’t like being Jordan-esque, a killer on the court. (US Presswire)|
LeBron talk begins, of course, with “Aladdin.” The Disney movie. Well, where else would we begin? You might remember — especially if you have children and have been pressed to watch Aladdin 284 times — that there’s a scene where Genie explains a few things he cannot do. These were the provisos and quid pro quos. Rule No. 1: Genie can’t kill anyone. Rule No. 2: Genie can’t make anyone fall in love. And …
“Rule No. 3: I can’t bring people back from the dead. It’s not a pretty picture. I don’t like doing it!”
OK, so when you’ve seen this movie 284 times something about this scene is troubling. Genie says at first that he can’t bring people back from the dead. That seems clear enough. But then he explains that it’s not a pretty picture, suggesting he actually has brought people from the dead, or at least tried to do it. He then says that he doesn’t like doing it, which suggests he absolutely can do it, but it’s a dark place and he doesn’t like to go there.
So this connects with LeBron … how, exactly? Let’s go back a few days. In the Sunday game of the Miami-Indiana series, LeBron played one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen anyone play. The Pacers unexpectedly led the series 2-1, we who stand United Against LeBron (UAL)* were huddled close to the television rooting for a Pacers team few of us had even thought about since Reggie Miller fought with Spike Lee. And LeBron was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. He scored 40 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and dished out nine assists. Do you know how many other people in the last 25 years have pulled off that combination in a playoff game? Nobody. Not Bird, not Magic, not Barkley, not Karl Malone, not Shaq, not Duncan, not Jordan. Nobody. He also had two steals and two blocks … but it wasn’t just the numbers because, let’s face it, LeBron’s remarkable talents often lead to remarkable numbers. It also wasn’t a single-handed effort — Dwyane Wade made like 48 shots in a row. Still, it was the possession-by-possession will LeBron showed that game that stuck with me most of all, the way he backed down anyone guarding him, the way he dominated the glass, the way he found open teammates all over the floor, the way he — in announcer speak — refused to let the Heat lose. It was breathtaking stuff.
*I readily admit that my continuous hope for LeBron to fail says some bad things about me. LeBron was an amazing basketball player for the Cavaliers. He brought me years of joy as a Cleveland basketball fan. He had every right to leave and try something new. Yes, he left in a low-rent way, but at some point you have to get over such things. He was young. He was full of himself. He didn’t commit any crimes against humanity. He’s an extraordinary player who does extraordinary things. I consider myself a fan of the game, I should be willing to just enjoy the wonder of it all. But, you know what? I like rooting against LeBron. It’s not a noble endeavor, I realize, but we all need our hobbies.
When that Indiana game ended, I wondered: Why don’t we see that LeBron more often? Isn’t that the question everyone asks? Yes, LeBron is a great basketball player almost every night he plays. It’s too easy for people like me to forget just how amazing LeBron was when he lugged a bagful of Larry Hughes, Eric Snow and Donyell Marshall to the NBA Finals by averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and nearly two steals along the way. It’s too easy for people like me to forget that in the Cavaliers’ heart-wrenching seven-game loss to Orlando in the 2009 conference finals, LeBron scored 49, then 35, then 41, then 44, then 37 (that was his crazy 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game) before struggling for a mere 25 in the final loss. The guy does extraordinary things, and he does them with regularity.
But, as a longtime LeBron observer I can say that Game 4 against Indiana looked fundamentally different. He was so charged on every possession, so locked in, so relentless, so Jordan-like. Why can’t he do that all the time?
And then this idea struck me. Maybe he can go there. But it’s not a pretty picture. He doesn’t like doing it.
I think to play at that level, to be at that level, an athlete has to go to a pretty dark place. It isn’t just athletes. I think it’s a place great writers go, great performers, great composers, great scientists, great doctors, great lawyers and so on. I’ve never been there myself, but I imagine it to be a place where nothing else matters, where no one else matters, where there is one overpowering goal and that goal drives every action, ever move, every inspiration. I think it’s a place Michael Jordan loved going — a place he desperately misses going now that he spends his days tearing tags off the back of underwear and building the worst team in NBA history. I think Tiger Woods loves going to that place. Kobe Bryant. Joe Montana. Tom Brady. Mark Messier. I know Roger Clemens loved going there.
LeBron? Obviously, I’m making this all up as I go along but … no, I don’t think so. I think LeBron loves playing basketball for the fun of it. You know when LeBron looks happiest? When his team is up by 20 and he can pass the ball behind his back. I don’t mean that as a knock — well, OK, maybe I do — but did you see the joy he felt at the end of Game 1 of this series when the Heat were destroying the Celtics? This, I believe, was why he came to Miami to play with D-Wade and Chris Bosh in the sun — to destroy teams and have some fun doing it.
“Not 1 [championship],” he famously told that Miami crowd in the afterglow of “The Decision.” “Not 2. Not 3. Not 4. Not 5. Not 6. Not 7. And when I say that I really believe it. … The way we’re going to challenge each other in practice, once the game starts it’s going to be easy. I mean with me and D-Wade running the wing, I mean Pat [Riley] could come back and play like he was in his Kentucky days. Just throw it up there and we’re gonna get it.”
Obviously that moment has been relived again and again as LeBron has found the waters choppier than he expected — and it’s probably a moment LeBron regrets. But it might get us as close to LeBron’s mindset as anything else. He likes when it’s easy. I don’t think this makes him a bad guy or takes away from his remarkable skills as a basketball player. I don’t deny having some of these tendencies. I used to play this computer game “Civilization” — which I’m sure is still around and much more complicated — and after a while I decided I liked it better in cheat mode, when I could become an advanced Civilization and have helicopters and guided missiles and the most advanced weaponry while other tribes were still fighting with sticks. I’m not proud of what that says about me, but hey, it was just a game.
|LeBron was more than just good in Game 5,
scoring 30 points and grabbing 13 rebounds
in 45 minutes. (US Presswire)
And I think LeBron has that in him. I just think he likes playing basketball. He likes dunking, likes running a player down and blocking shots from behind, likes throwing beautiful passes through tiny cracks of air that only he and maybe Rajon Rondo can see. I think it means LeBron sees basketball as a chance to display his wonderful talents. It’s a game to him in a way that it probably wasn’t to Jordan or Magic or Bird. They obviously liked it when the game got hard. LeBron might like it but it sure doesn’t look that way. Dragging that sorry team around in Cleveland for so long while trying to win a championship for a hometown that hasn’t won anything since ’64; LeBron was eager to head down to South Beach, join other great players who might make some game-winning shots, and just play ball again.
Tuesday was a banner day for those of us in the UAL. More or less everybody expected the Heat to win — most figured they would win convincingly. The game was in Miami. The Heat were getting Bosh back. The Celtics are ancient. I ended up watching a few minutes of ESPN’s pre-game show and watched with awe as they went around the table and all four panelists picked the Heat. I’m not saying any of them should have picked the Celtics to change things up — though that might have made for, you know, actually interesting television — but I am wondering why they would go to each person individually to have them say exactly the same thing. They couldn’t just say something like, “OK, is anyone here brave or crazy enough to pick the Celtics?” and then condensed their identical picks into one cohesive segment. Instead they went around the table like there was drama involved:
“I think Miami is awesome. They will win. What do you think?”
“Well, I hate to disagree with you, but I think Miami is formidable and fearsome. They will win.”
“Look, both of y’all are wrong. Miami is stunning and magnificent. They will win big.”
“OK, well, I guess I have to be the one then. I say the Heat are awe-inspiring, dazzling, glorious, impressive, majestic, monumental, striking and superb. The Celtics might as well not even show up.”*
*This little production led to one of my favorite moments of the year so far, when the game ended and the ESPN crew savaged the Heat for being a bunch of poorly coached losers who have no team chemistry and have no idea how to win big games. At least Magic apologized for his pick first.
Then the game began, and the Heat played pretty well for a while — LeBron dominated for a while. The Celtics kept finding ways to come back. This did not seem to fit the Heat’s plan. LeBron was more than just good this game. He scored 30 points, grabbed 13 boards, played 45 minutes. To say he choked or did not play championship basketball is to take for granted his remarkable ability to play this game. But it is true that after his three-pointer early in the fourth quarter to give the Heat a two-point lead, he kind of disappeared. He missed a three-pointer. He drove to the basket and got his shot rejected by Kevin Garnett. He was the defender when Paul Pierce stuck the dagger three-pointer that gave the Celtics control.
Blame LeBron for the loss? No. Celebrate him for a “good job, good effort,” the way that enthusiastic kid did after the game?* Well, also: No.
*I love that kid — he was yelling “Good job, good effort” the Heat as they walked off the floor in dismal defeat. The kid was a Twitter sensation immediately, and I imagine he will be discussed often if the Heat get knocked out of this series — kind of like that famous USC Song Girl who was signaling a touchdown when Vince Young scored the game-winner against USC in the Rose Bowl. But, hey, I love kids who love their teams, and let’s face it — it isn’t like Erik Spoelstra said anything different in his press conference afterward.**
After the loss, according to the incomparable Adrian Wojnarowski, LeBron said: “We played good enough to give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for.” This, I have to tell you, is much more gripping than the “Good job, good effort” kid. All you can ask for? A chance to win? LeBron went to South Beach to get himself eight championships, and it led to him being thrilled about a chance to win at home against a prehistoric Celtics team. By the way, what chance was that? What chance did the Heat have to win? They would have won had Pierce missed that three-pointer? Is that what LeBron meant? They would have won had the Celtics missed free throws down the stretch? What chance? They lost by four. They spent the last minute fouling and hoping for a miracle. What chance?
**Spoelstra deserves special recognition for his charge to the team to think of this as only a loss — no more and no less — and “to fight any kind of noise from the outside or any human condition.” Human condition? Really? I actually like Spoelstra, and I recognize that he’s been given a ridiculous job where he can’t really succeed but he absolutely can fail. Still, let’s face it, this whole speech felt like a concession. Human condition? “Hey, fellas, we just need to remember that this series isn’t over yet! Don’t listen to the mean old cynics out there. Fellas! Guys! Hey, Udonis, put Mario on your shoulders. Their basket is 10 feet high! I think you’ll find its exact same measurements as our gym back in Miami!”
There’s no telling what we will see in Game 6 from LeBron. Oh, he will play well — that’s almost a certainty. He will score 25 or 30, almost guaranteed, and he will grab some rebounds and make some nice passes. He will block a shot or two. He’s simply too good not to do those things. But will he go deeper, will he go beyond, will he take on the rugged Celtics, the fans and his own doubts? Will he play the sort of basketball that he played that day in Indiana, when he went to that place where nothing, absolutely nothing, could discourage or detour him?
He can go to that place, I think.
But, like Genie from “Aladdin,” I just don’t think he likes to do it.