LeBron James, Pau Gasol and the Fight for Ring #3

LeBron James isn’t counting. But over a hundred days have passed since what felt like a death march. He walked on a basketball court optimistic, he played as hard and as willfully as he knew how, and then, two and a half hours later, he walked off defeated. He was one of the vanquished. It feels as if it was so long ago when he could barely speak. James voice was stunned as he maneuvered himself restlessly in front of the microphone. It was Game 6 in Ohio, a June night. It was the end.

You remember the pain, you just do. The finally blow to end the season. All that was memorable was James inability to push a depleted and tired and often helplessly mediocre Cavaliers team to one more win. It exhuasted him in the final half of the game he couldn’t save. By the time it was over there was nothing left, nothing he could possibly do. It was one more defeat in one more year on one more stage. There were the usual platitudes and the usual regrets about what might have been had Kevin Love been here and Kyrie Irving been here. But at the end of the day that meant nothing. It was loss number four in the NBA Finals for the greatest player of his generation.

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One hundred and sixty six days are all that separate Pau Gasol from despair. Game 6 in Chicago on a May night was the finally knife in the heart, the season ending blowout in which the Chicago Bulls fell on their sword without much of a fight. Hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers in a close-out game, the Bulls were never present, never in the war, a little too tired, slow, worn down. Rumors all season about the longetivity of their coach finally seemed to sink in as the game slipped out of their control, as they no longer could look forward to a game 7. And so it was that the 16th year without Michael Jordan had come and gone and the Chicago Bulls had nothing to put on the plus side of the ledger. Only one Eastern Conference Finals trip a long time ago. Other than that it’s been treading icy water and nothing to show for it.

Try to love something and not devote yourself to it. Is that even love? Pau Gasol had a emapthic sort of embrace for the city of Chicago, not the murder capital Chicago but the other Chicago, the pulsing beat of a town far removed from war torn neighborhoods that annoint death. Cultural Chicago and energetic Chicago and supportive Chicago, the life blood of a great city, that drew Gasol in.  Here, he was embraced, here he was supported, here he carried so many expectations upon his shoulders.

But in that Game 6 he was as human as any one man could be, barely able to run up and down the court with a weary hamstring even as he would never admit to that, to his body failing off. Excuses were the ritual of the coward. Gasol used none when in Game 6, in Chicago, an entire arena was let down.

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It’s always been a fight. Basketball has. It’s always been about taking something. It’s always been about greed. It’s always been about wanting what you want and then going out and sweating for it. It’s always been about being better and knowing you are better. It’s always been about men. It’s always been about pride going before the fall; pride doesn’t matter. You do what you have to do. You push who you have to push. You demand what you have to demand. Because. It always been about who is there at the end, who is the last one standing. Who is great enough. Who is courageous enough. Who is strong enough. It’s always been about the ring. About the trophy. About the celebration on the very last day, during the very last game of the season.

And so it is that LeBron James and Pau Gasol search for that last day, that last moment. James won his last title in 2013. Gasol won his last title in 2010. So they both know about the dog in the fight, how big it has to be. They both have two championship rings that says as much. They both earned their badges of courage on the court. They both played with dynamic shooting guards who defined their generation. But they both have their burdens. They both have been unable to take midwestern cities to the top, to that final moment of grace. And so they both have failed.

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It happened on their home court, a game 6 defeat. They lost to end their season in a public way, the crowd behind them waiting for the impossible to not be possible. But the effort wasn’t enough because both were beaten by a better team, a more collective unit, more talent, better coaching, healthier players. Sure, their fans were let down, disappointed, some were disgrunted. It felt familiar, losing did.

Midwestern cities. They capture everything. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. Anticipation. Anxiety. Hope. Pain. Their first year after signing on as a free agent, James and Gasol were in the middle of the country, and when they lost the chance to be a champion both felt the dull saddened sting of losing in a city that was electrified by what happened all year long. Both felt responsible.

It’s appropriate then that they are here. They start this NBA campaign on the same court, on the same day, facing one another. Gasol has been to three NBA Finals, LeBron twice as many. Gasol is the greatest European to play in the NBA. This is his 15th year. LeBron is one of the greatest Americans to play in the NBA. This is his 13th year. They both want that third ring. LeBron wants it to cement his legacy; rings are what matter whether you like it or not. Gasol wants that third ring to punctuate his career, to have the last laugh, to fling it in the Lakers faces though he would never admit to that. He is too kind.

And so here in October, at the begining of the beginning, they stand as humble and competitive men. Whatever happens in game one won’t really matter. So much NBA is ahead of them this season. But narratives seem to stick to them they way they don’t seem to stick to anyone else. Pau is soft. LeBron can’t win in the Finals. Pau is too nice. LeBron isn’t selfish. Pau needs Derrick Rose. LeBron needs Kyrie Irving.

It’s unfortuante. Expectations have no off-day, no vacation. We want great but more than we want great we want perfect. The perfect season for both James and Gasol was supposed to be last year. Now it is supposed to be this year when the Cavaliers and Bulls, it is assumed, will be back here again in May, wrestling each other for the Eastern Conference crown. Maybe. Perhaps.

In every generation there are players we trust, players we can depend on. It was present in the coked-out 70’s and the Bird and Magic 80’s and the high-school revolution 90’s. It has followed us here to the lords of the East: Pau Gasol and LeBron James, elites for over a decade who had to bury the past, the horrific way last season ended for the both of them. They are on the clock, it is ticking. It starts again.

Today. Right now. The marathon. It begins.

photo via llananba