A Brief History
Contrary to what I’ve written in the past, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to not root for Lebron: The execution of the Decision; teaming up with friends in general; saying “not 1, not 2, not 3. . . “ and the “they have to go back to their lives” sore loser comment. Even protecting Jordan’s legacy is completely valid. Nevertheless, I believe the most valid reason, or at least what gives his detractors the most ammo, is his inexplicable inconsistent play in some key moments.
This to me underlies the venom displayed by Cleveland fans toward Lebron immediately after The Decision. Remember, the Cavs had just been eliminated from the playoffs earlier that summer in a series where Lebron checked out mentally from the last few games. It was one of the most perplexing things we had ever seen on a basketball court. Fans were so desperate for an explanation that many accepted the troll rumor that teammate Delonte West slept with Lebron’s mother, thus causing the meltdown. To Clevelanders, the Celtics series and The Decision must have felt like having your spouse not come home one night without explanation and then getting served with divorce papers a few weeks later.
From a strictly fan perspective the only indefensible thing he had done up until that point was his disappearance in that Celtics series. This, however, was quickly forgotten in the midst of another historically great season, this time with the Heat, and a playoff run that saw him dominate that season’s MVP, Derrick Rose, on his way to the NBA Finals. Then, for the second year in a row we saw Lebron meltdown against an opponent (the Mavs) in what Bill Simmons aptly dubbed Lebrondown Part II. Not only did this give fuel to the haters, but anyone still on the fence no longer had any reason to root for Lebron. Sports, like any other business, is about setting expectations and meeting them. Lebron’s 99 percent of the time unbelievable play and then inexplicable disappearances in the most important moments was simply bad business. So bad that I made no effort that following season to watch any regular season Heat games. It was fools gold to me. I missed more televised Lebron games that season than I have missed his entire career combined.
The year following Lebron Down II, in the Eastern Conference Finals, it looked as though another meltdown was about to happen. Even worse, it was apparent that the Celtics’ confidence was bolstered by Lebron’s mental fragility. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trashed talked incessantly throughout Game 5 to Lebron, which culminated in Pierce hitting a dagger 3 in Lebron’s face and yelling, “I have the balls to take that shot!” It had all the makings of Lebron Down III, and it wasn’t just the fans and media seeing it this time; the Celtics players smelled blood too. Then Game 6 happened. Lebron obliterated the Celtics on their homecourt from the start, going 45-15-5. The Heat would go on to win game 7, and cruise through the Oklahoma City Thunder for Lebron’s first NBA Championship. Game 6 seemed to have been a major turning point in Lebron’s career.
Either Lebron had figured it all out or he had become the NBA’s version of Game of Thrones. Come season’s end, you didn’t know whether he is going to be Ned Stark and get beheaded, or Daenerys Targaryen walking through fire and birthing baby dragons. Regardless, he has become the most compelling watch in sports and this past season only further proved that.
Forget the historic MVP run where he played unbelievably efficient and managed to rack up a 27 game win streak. Throughout the Indiana series, while he was great most of the time, there were mental lapses of indecisiveness in the closing minutes that resulted in turnovers. It is extremely possible that this is over analysis that we wouldn’t do to any other player, but because of his history we have to acknowledge it when it happens. It is part of the suspense that makes Lebron so compelling, whether you are rooting for him or against him. He creates just enough doubt for the haters to watch and hope.
It was also apparent in the Chicago and Indiana series that despite his having won a championship, he still does not possess a mental edge on his opponents. Instead, teams and players still seem bolstered by Lebron’s presence – remnants of Lebron Downs I and II. It gives them hope. Plus they get to play Davids to Lebron’s Goliath. Nate Robinsons, Gary Neals, Jimmy Butlers, and Lance Stephensons pop up like wack-a-moles against the Heat. Luckily for the Heat, what Lebron lacks in mental intimidation, he usually makes up for in execution, being that the best remedy for opposing players going all Paul George on them is to let Lebron guard them for a quarter or two (Lebron is Scottie Pippen too!).
In the Finals, Lebron seemed on the verge of another Lebron Down. Gregg Popovich essentially said, “we are going to play you like it’s 2006 and you never developed a jump shot,” and basically Jedi Mind Tricked Lebron into thinking he couldn’t shoot the basketball for most of the series. It wasn’t another Lebron Down only because he survived it. He was able to figure out other ways to effect the game just enough to survive, up until he went nuclear and dominated the fourth quarter of game 6 and most all of game 7. That and Ray Allen’s three at the end of game 6. Pre-2011 Lebron doesn’t win that series, but the series proved Lebron has yet to exercise all of his mental demons.
So here we are, four MVPs, four finals appearances, two championships, two finals MVPs later, and yet I will be the first to admit that there is something distinctly not-MJ about Lebron’s game (right now). It is distinct from any athlete we have ever seen. He equally astounds us with how high his ceiling continues to climb but also with how low his floor can go. Peyton Manning is as close to a comparison as I can make. Both are insanely cerebral players who seem to outsmart themselves time to time in the worst possible moments. Lebron gets the benefit of having seven tries to defeat his playoff opponents.
This off-season, Lebron should work less on raising his ceiling and more on raising and fortifying his floor. He should hang out with Phil Jackson for a week to train mentally, like how he spent a week with Hakeem Olajuwon to learn post-moves during the summer of 2011. (Til this day I don’t understand why Phil Jackson’s mental approach to the game isn’t one of the most copycatted methods in sports. Go to any page of his book More_Than_a_Game for a peek at what I am talking about.) In a Game 7 post game interview Lebron hinted an acknowledgment that he needs to work on the mental part of his game. He said, even if he and his teammates need to take some time off physically from basketball, mentally they need to come back better.
I get that this is not the way we prefer to view our sports heroes. We want them to be ruthless killers on their way to shattering records and piling up trophies. The last thing we expect to be the kryptonite of our most elite athletes is the athletes themselves. Their bodies maybe, but not their minds. On the other hand, I am probably overstating his mental weaknesses. The past few years he has come through enormous in every elimination game he has played in. He has definitely reached a point where when the stakes are highest, he can go to a place in his mind that allows him to get the job done. I’m just simply acknowledging that criticism of him is not completely unfair, and that there is still room for him to grow.
That’s about as objective as I can get. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far too invested as a fan to be completely objective, so any silver lining I give you is self-serving after the fact reasoning. But I’m going to give it to you anyway.
The Silver Lining
First and foremost, Lebron just won his second title despite whatever weaknesses he may still have and he did it dragging one of the most inconsistent bunch of teammates I have ever seen complete a title run. Who on that team could you really depend on every single night besides Lebron? If we didn’t have the Jordan template burned into our minds, and we could view Lebron objectively, we would be saying, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone do more for their team than this guy.”
He wants to win as badly as anyone ever has. Don’t confuse his mental lapses and “lack of killer instinct” as him not wanting to win. If anything, those lapses happen because he wants to win too much. He is aware of the pressure – unprecedented pressure – on him to succeed, and occasionally it shows. Two postseasons in a row he has overcome that pressure. Sure it would’ve been nice to watch him start racking up championships without having to overcome these mental hurdles, but the path taken has been just as, if not more, rewarding.
His athletic path has been more analogous to a child celebrity than that of most athletes. About the age Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team, Lebron was being invited by Jordan to attend his pre-Wizards comeback workouts. Without any boogeymen to blame for doubting him or slighting him since he was 13 years old, it’s a wonder that he never flamed out, or paused to enjoy the lavish lifestyle he’d earned. After Lebron Down I and II, most people would have quit. I give him credit for not quitting, but I also know that he is the one person on the planet who did not have that option. Can you imagine living in a world where the difference between you being a complete and utter failure in life or being successful is winning multiple NBA championships? Like Damocles, young Lebron foolishly invited the sword he now lives under. He has wilted at times but persevered overall. Regardless of what you think of him, I believe that is to be admired.
Perhaps he needed failure and the mocking that followed. Maybe the collective anti-Lebron media and public are the boogeymen that finally put him over the edge mentally. (Click here for a catalog of Jordan’s Boogeymen). It is quite possible that every pinpoint shot against the Celtics in 2012 and, the Spurs this year, including the 19 foot dagger, were big F U’s to the world. Maybe that is why the Heat play so close to the edge, series after series, always on the brink of elimination. He needs people to throw dirt on his name before he can harness the hatred needed to demolish opponents. He said to the media, shortly after game 7, “please continue to motivate me. I need you guys.” Here’s some advice if you want Lebron to fail: don’t root for it. You are only poking the bear.