Bryan Joiner

Why then I

A few more LeBron thoughts

Rather than Twitter my thoughts one by one, here are the remainder of them:

The holdover from the Jordan era, which pretty much wafts at every level of the NBA experience, is that a single, singular player leads a team to a championship, and that amongst a group of elite players, only so many of them have “what it takes” to get there. You can choose to believe this narrative if you’d like, but it’s a flimsy one, because once someone’s won it, it crumbles. Kobe couldn’t win by himself, and then he did. Look elsewhere in sports, and you can see it folding on itself (as you’ll see the next time Kobe loses in the playoffs): Phil Mickelson couldn’t win the big one, then he did, then he choked again, then he won again. Peyton Manning couldn’t win, then he could, then he choked.

I think what people are angry about with LeBron is that we’re not going to get to see if he has that, I don’t know, “it” that may or may not even exist in the first place. That’s a presumption in and of itself, but let’s just say it’s true: If the Heat win the title with relatively equal contributions from Wade and Bron, does that tarnish LeBron’s legacy? The answer, today, seems to be yes. LeBron seems to either not care or to have taken people at face value when they said he needed to win a championship to be a complete player, or something, when they really meant he needed to lead a team to a championship. Having played for a  Team USA—on which he wasn’t the top draw, Kobe was—that was roundly lauded, you can see how he’d come to this conclusion. Why would people praise his ability to play with superstar then, and tear it down now? (He might be asking himself.)

Another thing about Team USA: So many stories about how watching Kobe brought LeBron’s work habits to another level. Maybe this is something where LeBron thinks he can get better just by being around Wade. Kobe himself has admitted that he’s basically stolen every move in his arsenal, an aggregation service along the lines of, jeez, Maybe LeBron needs to see things up close to duplicate and surpass them, and got a whiff of it at the Olympics. I don’t know. I’m just saying.

He’s certainly read the tea leaves wrong about what was expected of him, as evidenced by the audible vacuum that hit the Greenwich, CT Boys & Girls Club last night, when he awkwardly spoke the words “South Beach” as his destination. (Seriously?) He honestly thought we just wanted him to win one, when we actually wanted so much more. What did we want? Something we hadn’t seen before, something transcendent. This was something we hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t transcendent. Our new fear is that it won’t be transcendent even if he wins it all. That’s a disappointment, sure, but LeBron probably won’t feel like it’s a disappointment when he’s holding the trophy. In 20 years, maybe he’ll wonder “What if?” But it doesn’t matter if he knew he had that mythological extra oomph in 20 years; he’s searching for it now, frantically looking for it on the beach like a lost key. The thing is, we told him the key was there, even if it might not exist, and even if he thinks it’s the bottom of that trophy we’ll tell him nope. you don’t have it. Unlike many people, I have no problem feeling a little bit sorry for the guy and also rooting heartily against him, and that’s just what I plan to do (and root for Cleveland to absolutely pound him, somehow). The idea of this team winning the title sickens me to the point that I would root for Kobe against them. I wanted transcendence as much as anybody, and I find the idea of Wade and LeBron playing together categorically unfair. But you know what? It’s totally fucking fair. I’m being deprived of a negative, something that I only imagined existing: LeBron flying through the air, delivering the team on which he was Top Dog to a title, averaging 35 PPG in the Finals with 10 and 10. Now even if that happens we’ll think it’s silly. What a joke.

If everyone always did the safest or most popular thing, the world would be a shitty place*

LeBron James is 25 years old. Twenty five-year-olds can make stupid decisions, and even they can be aware that these decisions may, in fact, be stupid. LeBron seemed to know something was up with his pawing desire to go to Miami. For all the talk of his being a “committee of one,” it seems like there was really a committee of five or six, and at the top was not LeBron, but Gloria James. It was both heartbreaking and totally reassuring that LeBron said his decision finally came down to his mom’s approval. It was heartbreaking because you know there was a last line of defense to talk him out of it, but it was reassuring because it reinforced true loyalty in a scenario where loyalty was being imposed upon LeBron—not at all unconvincingly—left and right. Even Gloria James had to know that her son’s best chance to win a title was with Chicago, and that his chance to write the best story was in Cleveland. But her son effectively asked her if she would be okay with him forgoing both those scenarios to play with his friends in Miami, because it would make him the happiest, and she said yes. Maybe playing in Cleveland so long expanded his vision of what needed to do that he thought playing in Miami would strap blinders on him in a way playing in Chicago wouldn’t have done; maybe he does crave the spotlight, but needs some time off. I don’t know. All I know is that Gloria James trusted in her son’s ability to work these things out for himself. What can I say to that?

Did LeBron “betray” Cleveland? Well, if he “quit” on the team in four of games of the NBA playoffs, as Dan Gilbert suggested in his acidic open letter on, then yes. But let’s not forget than his ending up in Cleveland was the result of a roll of the ping-pong balls anyway. It made a great story because it seemed like it was preordained, but nothing is preordained—that’s hacky sportswriter bullshit that’s no different, spiritually, from the filler for hundreds of stories on James that were written last week. At the same time, he did come to Cleveland, and he is from Akron, and it was a great story while it lasted. And now this.

I think it’s worth remembering that an unhappy Allen Iverson was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Clippers the year before the 76ers made the finals; an unhappy Kobe was nearly traded to the Bulls the year before the Lakers made the Finals; and an unhappy Paul Pierce was almost shipped out of Boston the year before the Celtics won their 17th title. The reports on Kobe, specifically, came so fast and furious it seemed like the next time you refereshed he’d be out of L.A. None of these things happened, but the groundwork was there. If they had been free agents, there’s no question they would have bolted.  Cavs fans could say that they didn’t exactly provide the pressure-cooker environment of Philadelphia or Boston, or the dysfunctional one of L.A.; I’m not sure I would believe them. Check out the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s cover this morning. You might not be able to read it, but the arrow pointing to his hand says “7 years in Cleveland. No rings”:

I thought it wasn’t about rings in Cleveland? I thought it was about his hometown. I thought it wasn’t 7 years, but 25. And I thought it was about the promise of bringing a title that lingered despite the Cavs’ “failures” to win it all in the last few seasons. I mean, if you’re going to be so blatant about admitting you were using James as a tool toward your own deliverance, you’re pretty far into the muck.

I can’t really blame the Plain Dealer for playing populist, however; it’s just a shame that there were never really any real adults in this situation. LeBron didn’t act like one; Dan Gilbert didn’t act like one; ESPN’s commentators were almost, to a person, eating shit in the sandbox. LeBron is the most hated man in basketball today, but if you’ve got the energy to get mad at LeBron you should already be 10 times angrier at the NBA for its very often brutally inconsistent, self-aggrandizing, borderline unwatchable product. LeBron James isn’t the system, he’s a product of it, and now he’s going to play with Dwyane Wade in Miami. That’s totally ridiculous and throws everything David Stern has done for the one superstar, one team ethos right back in his face. If it doesn’t get thrown back in LeBron’s face when D-Leaguers are missing wide-open layups on the break, why will we criticize him? He obviously doesn’t care. We do. What I’d most like to see is compelling, fair basketball. If I can’t have that, this will have to do.


* Yes, this is a tweet from last night.