He has been here before. But not like this. He has played in a Game 7 before. But not with such a large burden upon his shoulders. He has been dominant in the Finals before. But not dominant like this; he may win the MVP even if he loses. His legacy has been debated before, and broken down and separated and put back together. But not like it is now, with exaltation or disaster on the line, and one side of the world wanting him to succeed, and the other side of the world wanting him to fail. He has been studied before. But not like a bio-specimen scientists can’t yet name nor sample. LeBron James has been talked about and praised and vilified and scorned and exalted for thirteen NBA years. Nothing is new here. But everything is new.
While other players have had one pivotal playoff year to show us who they are, with James the bar keeps changing. Kobe had to win without Shaq, then the pressure was off. Jordan had to vanquish the Pistons, then the pressure was off. Magic had to win in Boston, then the pressure was off. For LeBron James, the pressure has never been off. Every year, he has to cross some unimaginable hurdle to satisfy the thirst of those who have never forgiven him for hurting his own people.
And so it can be a storybook ending tonight. Six years after The Decison, LeBron James may finally be a hero.
LeBron James has paid a high price for a 2-4 NBA Finals record that lingers like a viral infection without a cure. The first loss, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the Finals, after he was throttled by the Spurs, Tim Duncan famously told LeBron loud enough for the cameras to pick up, “the league is going to be yours one day.” Duncan was right. And Duncan was wrong. While the league is his, while LeBron has been the face for a decade, while he is the single most gifted athlete to ever play the sport, he also is diagnosed and critiqued and imprisoned by his own genius. The assumptions tossed his way create a playing field that can never be fair: the best player of his generation always falls on his sword.
It’s easy to imagine the ending, two ways. If LeBron loses tonight, if he loses his third NBA Finals in a row, his third in five years, if he wins the MVP but can’t handle the Warriors on their home floor, it will be walking into the same frozen river twice. Another Cleveland heartbreak, another instance of so close so far away, another hope dashed so drown your sorrows people, another trick- we thought we had it, we thought it was ours, another cruelty to get over by pretending the cliched excuses about losing a game 7 and having heart and fighting back from adversity and being proud will make it better. It won’t. Another Cavs loss will be one more scar on a body of scars, for a city that has legitimized athletic suffering and fan despair.
If LeBron wins, if he goes into Oracle and pushes his team to the brink of exhaustion in order to get his 3rd NBA title, if he is the first player to carry his team back from the black hole of 3-1 death, if he breaks the abusive curse that has manipulated The Land for more than half a century, if his team is the first team to win a Game 7 on the road in 40 years, then LeBron James will have come full circle. His potential will have finally met his reality. He can retire tomorrow and be one the five best players in NBA history.
It is not that the Golden State Warriors don’t have their own version of pressure. Their 73 win season hangs in the balance. They have to win tonight to make the historic regular season matter. Having failed three straight times against the Cavs would be a devastating denouement to the Warriors season of brilliance and it will only regurgitate the often repeated, the Warriors were lucky last year narrative. If the Cavaliers had Kyrie, this is what would have happened. So Steph Curry has burdens too. But they are not LeBron James burdens.
Curry is universally beloved, has very few detractors other than a cadre of African Americans who aren’t quite on board, and a group of Hall of Famers who reek with envy. Other than that, he quantifies perfection. He’ll take his lumps if he loses but they won’t stick to him because Steph Curry was never on the cover of Sports Illustared in high school. Steph Curry was not the number one pick earmarked to save a depressed region. Steph Curry was not a king and we were not his witnesses and he did not use television to lay out his ambitions on the one hand and devastate a populace on the other. Steph Curry has always said and done the right thing.
The emotional toll of what is at stake for LeBron James is something no other NBA player has had to live with. LeBron’s peers and those who came before him have had the luxury of a game being a game, of a game being an important thing but not everything, of a game being life, not death. Simply put, this is the most significant game in the career of LeBron James. If he is to be remembered for one thing and excel at one thing and devote himself to one thing it is this, tonight, Game 7, the Cleveland beautiful dream of a NBA title.
Larry Bird was a 3-time champion. James Worthy was a 3-time champion. Dwayne Wade is a 3-time champion.
He writes the script tonight in hostile and ecstatic and nervous Oracle Arena.
To much is given, much is expected. It is the LeBron legacy and the hope. Do everything. Do it for Cleveland.
photo via llananba