Shortly before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I attempted to write a “Woe is Me” article about how disgusted I was that the Thunder were this close to winning an NBA Championship that should have been Seattle’s. It was full of personal accounts of my genuine disgust of their success. The prime example being how I almost beheaded someone who claimed I should be rooting for the Thunder for “Western Conference Pride”. I counted on the Spurs to beat them. For me. I became enamored with the Spurs roster of veteran swingmen coming together to teach the young folks a lesson. And with San Antonio up 2-0, I was loving it. I was writing about how they were the Sonics, playing like an unlockable team in an NBA2K game against the Thunder. Then, for the next four games, my hope for the bullet that would kill the Thunder’s hopes of getting a championship that should be ours wilted. I fell asleep writing that article.
I woke up with the intention of finishing it, getting it off before Game 1 of the Finals to show how mentally unstable I was in the face of a Thunder Championship. It didn’t get done. And I’m glad it didn’t, because a week and a half later I came out with a new perspective on basketball.
I watched Game 1 in a bowling alley in Oxford, Ohio on the “fun night” of a five day Leadership Academy. That is the equivalent of having someone ask you what your favorite Nickelback song is. I bowled a gentleman’s 71, then retired on top like Barry Sanders did to sit in the greasy chairs of the bowling alley to watch the game. Sitting amongst 80 guys who had no capability of understanding how the guy from Seattle wanted Miami to win so badly, I was a pariah. Every LeBron bucket got a, “%#@& YEAH!” from yours truly and a bunch of judgments that I had the worst case of undiagnosed Tourette’s in the history of mankind from just about everyone else. A thunderous James jam evoked a dickhead fan reaction in me that even I was surprised by. The Heat became the same team the Spurs did, and at that moment I put all my faith in LeBron James to stop the Thunder. He was my Lee Harvey Oswald to the Thunder’s JFK. But, as the Heat became increasingly out of Game 1, my visible sickness increased. I couldn’t hang. Not only was I watching the Thunder get closer to what should have been mine, Seattle’s, something that would have upset me in my own living room; I was watching 85 people my age loving it. And why not, the Thunder are everything the casual NBA fan would love. Unassuming superstars, no player that would ever or has ever had a “Decision” with a taste-the-rainbow supply of Vitamin Water behind him like LeBron did, and an all around likeable team.
But not me. I hated every second of it. I thought I would be alright. I had the whole bridesmaid’s “I told myself I wouldn’t cry” going on. But as I sat sulking in a bar stool that looked like a wolverine had gotten to it, I panned to see these line-dancing fools clapping for the Thunder’s victory. I lost it. Instead of unhinging the stool and using it as a battering ram through the chests of the mass of Thunder fans, I went outside. Furious that no one in there could understand where I was coming from, I went all instinctual and called Mom. In the sweetest, “I don’t know anything about basketball but I know how to calm you down” way, she got me from being about to be headline news in Oxford, Ohio to about to be really heated if anyone tried to talk to me. Big difference. I did almost turn into a much lankier Ivan Drago and “I Will Break You’d” one of the leadership academy’s facilitators that informed me that my cooldown outside meant I missed the all important group photo in the bowling alley. But otherwise my night consisted of deep reflection of what was going on. How a basketball team was tearing my psyche apart. Game 1 didn’t go my way. What if the whole series didn’t? After racking up the hypothetical cost of counseling and an eventual padded cell, I anxiously leaned on Game 2 to give me hope for a sane future.
I took the man in black, LeBron, under my wing as the great white hope. As if he was the best player on my favorite team. How I looked at Reggie Williams when I was ten. I have three pieces of signed Reggie Williams memorabilia. I am the only person in the world that can say that. But I loved him because he was awesome and he helped beat the Cougars, who my dad had Pavlov’s Dog-esque trained me to hate. LeBron became Reggie Williams. Because I needed somebody to help me, I began to put LeBron under the same microscope that ten year old me had good ole R-Dub. If the Heat were down, it was now going to be his responsibility to get them, and me out of the depths of a deficit against the Thunder. I knew the knock on LeBron. I watched sports once in a while. He wasn’t clutch, because he had never hit that game-winner. Fair enough. Being 0-2 in his first two finals appearances and being spanked by Dirk Nowitzki, 55 year-old Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion’s
hoisting motion jump shot in his first year since the Decision the year before, LeBron was in a crisis mode.
People my age who saw, but didn’t really understand what Michael Jordan did only saw a guy with no rings. Kobe has rings. Why doesn’t LeBron? I wore that hat once. I saw LeBron as a great basketball player who sold his opportunity of a true legacy by leaving Cleveland. But I had never counted on him. I had never needed anything out of LeBron. The Thunder weren’t title contenders yet, he didn’t ever play for the Sonics, so I had no allegiance to LBJ. I knew him as a player who was putting up great numbers, just as a player as hyped as he was should have, and as someone that I was indifferent to.
It took a change of scenery. It took LeBron dawning the Green and Gold for 5 games to truly realize what kind of player I was dealing with.
My true love for sports started at around age 8, and for the NBA even later. My favorite team in the NBA as a kid was the Raptors. Not because I loved Vince Carter, or their AWESOME jerseys, but because Jurassic Park was the greatest thing ever and they were dinosaurs. I had no reference point of what Michael Jordan was doing. I never saw dominance. I saw Kobe…with Shaq. I grew into my basketball appreciation when Chauncey Billups and co. brought the Spurs down in the mid-2000’s. I saw what a great team looked like. But it took until the 2012 for me to understand what watching “The Best” was like. I found it in LeBron James. I found it because I needed him, but it was there the whole time. As the 2012 NBA Finals series kept going, and the Heat kept winning, I began to reflect on what I knew him as. I remember the rookie; my dad told me to watch his High School showcase game because he heard about him in “The Papers”. I remember the young star, eviscerating the last good Pistons team to get to the NBA Finals before getting eviscerated himself by the last great Spurs team. And then I remembered the uncomfortable superstar. He had had enough with doing pregame photoshoots and bowling games with his roster of scrubs glued to his back on the way to 60 win seasons with no hope for a championship. And the grown man brought down to the level of a senior in high school with NBA dreams picking hats at a podium in “The Decision”. It all made much more sense. LeBron never matured. Something I can only half-blame on not going to college (Kobe/Garnett didn’t), but can reasonably blame on him being too comfortable being so close to home. I’m fifteen minutes away from my mom right now if I really need to be and admittedly that is a crutch.
Getting out of Cleveland, getting out of home, stepping out of that comfort zone and playing a man’s game as a man made him the player that was capable of the Championship he earned Thursday night and the player capable of hoisting Seattle and Miami on his back simultaneously. I could go on and on about the statistical performance that LBJ put on this series. But I prefer to not put a single number into this article. There was no dancing kid out there lost in translation against men. There was a man who hit huge shots, and then turned around and played defense. Every slow motion shot of his face after another huge and-one showed a solemn, determined, statue like face ready to erupt if and only if the series was over. A man who simply re-allocated his talent to the post because although the kids love the jumper, the fans love the championship. A man who was ready to understand what it takes to win. Not to beat the 20 mediocre to very bad teams in the NBA, but to beat the best on the biggest stage. The expectations placed on him were not unfair, but deserving. In this day and age, when anyone with a smart phone can pick you apart, when a high schooler picking where he goes to college (for a year) can get 100,000+ views on ESPNU, when any kid can make a clever meme and get 1,000 likes on facebook, when Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless have daily debates on your ability to win, the microscope is at it’s most powerful.
LeBron’s talent transcends that microscope. A player is at his most impressive post-retirement nowadays. I watch Magic Johnson and Larry Bird documentaries and am blown away by their highlights and the hyperbole attached to their name. In terms of a Lifetime Achievement Award, they deserve it. But a Magic Johnson bad game goes away after the postgame show. There is no ESPN First Take, NBATV, and NBA Tonight to salt the wound. But in the here and now LeBron has been dissected more than the bullfrog that I got a hold of in sophomore year biology. And I’m sure Skip Bayless will still call him “Queen James” at some point, and I’m sure people will still hate on “The Decision” in the face of James’ first championship. Sure, he happened to choose arguably his best chance to win in his free-agency. But when you have 10,000 reuses a day of the LeBron “four quarters” joke on any given social media site, why wouldn’t you want to give yourself a good chance to win a championship? If I got one mention that what I write sucks on twitter, I would be pissed. I’m a white guy who’s blog’s Facebook page has a very underwhelming amount of likes. LeBron James has to take criticism like 50 Cent takes bullets to the chest every day of his life. He opened himself up to a good chunk of what he must get, but his realization that talent is all that matters has made him a man. Do what I do best, look at no one other than who I have to guard on every possession, and I will win all that I ever wanted. It took a while, but I think the “not five, not six, not seven…” is imminent. I encourage all of you to take the time to understand what The Best looks like. Put yourself twenty years in the past, you might have hated to see MJ win, but you couldn’t share your thoughts with your 600 Facebook friends, or your 127 pity followers on Twitter. At some point, if you truly love basketball, sports, or literally anything, you have to appreciate what The Best looks like when you are in the moment.
It took me needing LeBron, literally for my own sanity, to understand all that he is as a basketball player, and more importantly a human. The human explains the basketball player’s struggles amidst unprecedented god-given talent and statistical success. I would have developed the same fascination for Joe Johnson had the Atlanta Hawks miraculously made it this far in the NBA Playoffs, if the Hawks were my hope for salvation against the face of all that stole my basketball team from me. But Joe Johnson is Joe Johnson. LeBron James is the best player I will ever see play basketball. I was lucky enough for the Heat to face the Thunder in the Finals.