|LeBron James single-handedly broke the Celtics in Game 6 in Boston on Thursday (Getty Images)|
Last time, I compared LeBron James to Genie from “Aladdin.” This time, I’m thinking about the end to “The Hustler.” I’ll have to give you a bit of a rundown of that movie to get to the point, so let’s just say SPOILER ALERT for those of you who have not seen “The Hustler.” And if you have not seen it, well, go. Now. The older I get, the more I think it is the best sports movie ever made.
The movie is about a pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson played, of course, by Paul Newman. Fast Eddie is kind of a genius and also kind of a knucklehead. He’s charming, and goofy, and he believes he can sucker anybody, and he’s probably right. His genius is pool. It’s clear that he can play the game the way Greg Maddux could pitch, that is to say on a level above. He has been using that genius by traveling from pool hall to pool hall with his partner, Charlie; together they work many different kinds of hustles. But Fast Eddie — though he has a hard time explaining it — wants something bigger than money. He believes that his goal is to be the greatest pool player in the world. And he knows the only way to do that is to beat the best, Minnesota Fats, as played by Jackie Gleason.
Fast Eddie shows up at the pool hall, and plays an epic match against Fats. He drinks, and he plays, and he gets up $18,000. He’s so brilliant that at some point Fats considers quitting. But a shady gambler named Bert Gordon (played by George C. Scott) tells Fats to stick with it. “He’s a loser,” Bert announces. Fats washes up, straightens up his clothes. powders up his hands, walks over to Fast Eddie and, as fresh as morning, announces: “Fast Eddie, let’s play some pool.” Fast Eddie starts laughing — a sad, drunk, uncontrollable laugh. He loses everything. And he’s left a broken man, begging for one more game at the end.
Fast Eddie: “You can’t run out on me.”
Fats: “You watch me.”
The movie, then, is about Fast Eddie’s efforts to get another game with Minnesota Fats. The journey back involves involves a break with Charlie (“You still don’t see it, do you Charlie? You are nothing but a small-time Charlie!”), a lame prostitute named Sarah who has delusions of grandeur, the shady Bert character and a memorable scene involving broken thumbs. There’s also perhaps my favorite ever movie sports soliloquy; Fast Eddie had just demolished another hustler by running the table in a matter of seconds. He had broken the hustler code, showing his full powers in full public view. That’s what led to his broken thumbs. He tried to explain to Sarah:
“Why’d I do it Sarah? Why’d I do it? I coulda beat that guy. I coulda beat him cold. He never woulda known. But I just had to show him. I just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great. Anything can be great. I don’t care: Bricklaying can be great … if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why, and if he can make it come off.
“I mean when it’s going, when I’m really going, I feel like … like a jockey must feel. He’s sitting on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him. He’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him — and he knows, just feels, when to let it go, and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him — timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy. It’s a great feeling when you’re right, and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know it’s … pool cue’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, but it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls, boy, you don’t have to look. You just know. … You make shots that nobody’s made before you. And you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.”
I think this is Newman’s greatest performance in a lifetime of great performances. When he’s giving that speech, you can tell how amazed he feels to be saying those words, how he may have thought them before but had never dared say them. It’s self discovery. He doesn’t want to just be the best. That’s too bland. He wants to play pool like no one has ever played it before. He wants to make shots that nobody’s ever made before.
But as the movie goes on, he comes to realize that this is not what the real world is about. Reaching for that peak gets your thumbs broken. Over time, Bert gets his hooks in him. He plays a drunken millionaire in a game of billiards and sees what it means to destroy someone. And finally, most dramatically, Sarah comes to a terrible end.
Last, we’re at the final scene, and Fast Eddie is no longer a knucklehead. He’s no longer charming and goofy, no longer believes he has the ability to fool people. He’s without illusions. He shows up at the pool hall, challenges Fats to a match for $3,000 a game, every penny he has. “You were right Bert,’ he says bitterly. “It’s not enough to have talent. You gotta have character, too.” And then, he seriously and without any apparent joy takes apart Minnesota Fats. It’s a destruction — a joyless, vacant and resolute destruction. No liquor this time. No joking around this time. No hustling. He is focused entirely on the game, entirely on crushing Minnesota Fats and winning. That was all. Winning.
After a short while, Fats just says: “I quit, Eddie. I can’t beat you.”
|LeBron shed all emotion and poured in 45 points,
15 rebounds and five assists to keep the Heat’s
season alive. (Getty Images)
I thought about that scene again and again while watching LeBron James on Thursday in Boston. James’ performance was astounding enough — he broke the Celtics all by himself. He scored 30 in the first half, 45 points in all, grabbed 15 rebounds, dished out five assists. But again, bigger than numbers, he broke the Celtics. For an extended period of time, he simply did not miss a shot. On one follow up, he jumped so high he seemed to dunk the ball with his elbow. The Celtics kind of hung around, but you could feel it: With LeBron playing like this, they had no chance to actually win the game. They knew it. They could plug away and hope the winds shifted. But mostly, it was hopeless. They could put two or three or four men on him, but there was no stopping this LeBron. He was inescapable.
“I quit, LeBron. I can’t beat you.”
Beyond that, though, there was LeBron’s demeanor. You saw it. Everybody saw it. There was no smiling. There was no joking. There was no complaining to the officials on every play. There were no celebrations after made shots. The halftime interview was blunt and without emotion. The interview after the game blunt and without emotion. There was just … cold and steel.
I think this is what I meant about that dark place people must go to bring out the extremes of their talents. LeBron had come to Boston to conquer, and I would say he looked, acted and played fundamentally different from any time I’ve ever seen him. The fact he scored 30 points in a half was not the telling point — he’s done that before. The fact he scored 30 points in a half in Boston, in Game 6, with the season at stake, with the dream on the line — no, he’s never done that before. And it was clear from his demeanor, his purposeful glare, his unsmiling face that this was exactly what he had come to Boston to do.
A few readers have written in to say that the expectation of LeBron James is ridiculous — nobody is good enough to just go out and score 45 points and dominate a great basketball team based on sheer will. I think that’s right. LeBron scored 45 on Thursday in large part because his outside shots went in. Other nights they will not go in. But I will say that I don’t think there has ever been a basketball player — not Jordan, not Magic, not Bird, not Oscar, not anybody — who can dominate a game as many different ways as LeBron. When he’s driven like that, when he’s locked in and focused and aggressive and impossible to distract, I think he’s as close as we have ever seen to limitless. Is that unfair? Sure it is. But this is also a man who calls himself King.
I remember when Cleveland was playing Boston in the playoffs in LeBron’s last year there, it was my deepest ambition to see this serious and adamant version of LeBron. He would not or could not go there. He played the worst game of his playoff life; he was a barely recognizable version of himself. After the game, he complained that people wanted too much from him. His next time out, he had a triple-double, which included 19 rebounds, but there were other numbers like 8-of-21 shooting and nine turnovers. The Cavaliers surrendered in the final 90 seconds. LeBron took his talents to South Beach.
Last year, when I was desperately rooting against LeBron for the fun of it, it was a serious worry that we would see this adamant version of LeBron in the Finals against Dallas. He would or could not go there. He played an even worse game than he had in Game 5 against Boston on Tuesday, then had another triple-double that didn’t feel like a triple-double until you saw the box score, then he did not want to shoot the ball at the end.
Thursday, he showed the adamant and serious LeBron. He was terrifying in his single-mindedness. I always thought the wonder of “The Hustler” was the way it fused and separated winning and losing. At the end, Fast Eddie won the game while he lost his wonder. I don’t think it’s that stark for LeBron, but I also say that something in him shifted Thursday.
When LeBron has played beautiful basketball, it always looked like so much fun. He has that gift of transmitting joy and happiness; nothing in the world looks more fun than playing basketball like LeBron at his best. Thursday, did not look fun. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but in the end that was entirely irrelevant. The Heat won big. The series is going back to Miami. LeBron had imposed his will. And fun had nothing to do with it.