Lord of the Almost Ring

A year ago, it happened. The stunned silence of a people. The agonizing faces of a nation. The tears buried in the soil. It wasn’t a long goodbye, not that night in June that created the trauma. Had it been a long goodbye, had it taken hours for it to come to an end, then perhaps it would not feel incomplete. But it was a pretty swift last chapter that began with a Game 6 in Cleveland and ended with Game 6 in Cleveland. The aesthetics of the moment separated facts from the truth- the screaming desperate fans, the exhausted desperate team- losing was horrible and gut wrenching. It was at its worst, and it was at its best, LeBron James and the weight of everything. By his own admission, the weight is still there.

It’s a sobering thought that you can be exceptional and it will lead you nowhere. Perhaps it is why LeBron James voice never cracked after he lost the championship last June. Tell a lie once and all your truths are questionable. Ring number three was elusive again, hijacked by a better team. That’s two years in a row LeBron couldn’t bargain with his body and claim his third title. Afterwards, his solemnity was eerily traumatic, his eyes were flat, nearly dead, his face was sallow, he spoke but he didn’t embellish the words. It takes a long time to get over these things. True grief is a walk alone.

Has LeBron James put it in his rearview mirror, said to himself that was then? A healthy Kyrie Irving and a healthy Kevin Love changes a lot. But the coach is young and new to all of it. The Cavs are the underdogs. They are back in Oakland again.

What is known is that a legendary figure like James can’t outrun labels, they cling. They cling like sand to damp soles but for the first time in a long time, the aura of Michael Jordan is a distant shadow. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, 14-5 in the NBA Finals, is beyond anything he can imagine. He is 2-4 in the NBA Finals, the same as Wilt Chamberlain.

LeBron James may be more talented than all of the greats but on the biggest stage he has walked away defeated, head bent, shoulders slumped.

In 2007, he willed a young team past the Detroit Pistons and was quickly eviscerated by the veteran San Antonio Spurs. In 2011, he couldn’t find a way to shake the teamwork of the Dallas Mavericks and frankly, James had a bad series. In 2014, the Spurs dismantled the heart of the Heat’s dominant defense while emasculating their athleticism and forcing them to cover shooters all over the court.
And in 2015?

James was simply spectacular in trying to hold together a team with tape and glue. The Cavaliers were the sum of their parts, they were nothing more than what James could give them through his nightly injections of effort, ethic, sacrifice and talent. Less could never be more with J.R. Smith in the backcourt, and no Kyrie Irving, no Kevin Love, and LeBron James playing the way he hates, having to do everything. Be extraordinary is a catchy slogan but it is not meant to translate to every second of the 48 minutes of a NBA playoff game.

A long time ago, in the muck of his team’s mediocrity, in the Smush Parker years, Kobe Bryant was frustrated, exhausted, tired of having to score nearly 40 points by himself, and so he muttered out loud, “Do I have to score 40 every night for us to win?”

LeBron never said as much but it was clear. Never had one player been pushed to the brink of his own mortality. He was great in the NBA Finals of 2015, his teammates were not; the disparity was nearly killing his body and wearing down his mind, there was atrophy.

And so here he is again, at the same place but not at the same place. Familiar but different. LeBron James but older. Mature. A little bit desperate. A little bit calm.

What he did last year won’t be needed. The breathless 40+ minutes, the weary 36 points, the brilliant 9 assists, the gritty 13 rebounds, the taking everything on because he had run out of choices and he had run out of luck. It is unparalleled in NBA history.

In a twist of fate, LeBron James would have been the NBA Finals MVP had the Cleveland Cavaliers won the series in 7 games, had they found the grit and skill to take a 6th game in Cleveland, and with a magician’s trick, turn it into a 7th game in Oakland, had they any sort of perimeter offense, speed on defense, length on their bench, coaching experience. But, the particulars did them in by game 6 and it was a quick burial.

Amidst the Warriors coronation that night, on the other end of the court, in his last game of the season, there was a hint of LeBron James as he resigned himself to his dubious post-season history and unbearable fatigue, as if the jig was up and he knew it. He just couldn’t do it anymore. And so, he was particularly human as the oxygen drifted out of the balloon in which his will had been trapped for nearly two weeks. The complicated expression he had adorned since the playoffs first began was instantly gone, replaced by vulnerability and a standard of sadness that is acquitted upon losers.

So much has changed in the basketball world since LeBron inhaled one more defeat. The Golden State Warriors tilted the universe, sucking all of the oxygen to the northern California coast. Steph Curry, not LeBron James, is the favorite son who is followed, talked about, romanced over, given treatment other athletes would not get because he is spectacular. He is a scorer and he is in his prime. He won the MVP award unanimously; LeBron has never accomplished that. So who is the greatest player?

LeBron James entered the 2016 playoffs as the old dog who has been around the block. Rarely did you hear anyone say LeBron had a chance to do what only Bill Russell did, six straight trips to the Finals, until if finally happened. There is a sense that LeBron, when it’s over, will never get a retirement tour that reeks of mania similar to what was just concluded on behalf of Kobe Bryant. Because LeBron made one huge mistake. He dumped Cleveland and ran somewhere else. While the basketball world can forget what happened to Kobe Bryant in an Eagle, Colorado hotel room, they can’t or won’t forget LeBron turned his back on his people.

Coming home was to settle the score and ask for forgiveness. If he wins a title, all is good. But will he win a title?  Has LeBron James run out of time?

Ask the boy who listens to his father as his father sits in the barbershop chair. He has already heard the stories about what James did against the Pistons. He will have heard how LeBron, in an elimination game, went into Boston and annihilated the Celtics. He will have heard how LeBron did everything in the NBA Finals in 2015. He will have heard how LeBron James was undefinable. Not a scorer. Not a passer. Not a rebounder. Not a playmaker. Not a defender. Not a shot blocker. Not an open court player. Not a half court player. Just a dude who balls on the court and has a NBA Finals record of 2-4.

It is often repeated that you could put LeBron James on the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that won 10 games, and he would get them the 7th seed. But he couldn’t get them to the Finals.

Will LeBron get the Cavaliers team, the best team in the East, a title? If he does, prepare for bedlam in Ohio. If he doesn’t, 5 NBA Finals losses will taint him and not because he is a loser. It is more complex than that. LeBron is different than every other superstar who came before him. With LeBron, we traffic in his failure. It binds us to him because he was the first NBA superstar of the social media era. He alone has to absorb all the wounds of being dissected, trolled, discussed, criticized, loved, tolerated, because once upon a time Sports Illustrated said he would be the greatest player in NBA history. In the middle of LeBron James career he has had to prove himself worthy of that description. It is unfair just as it is the truth.

Can he get it done within a span of two weeks and match his buddy Dwyane Wade with 3 rings. Or will he go down in the Finals for a third year in a row with 5 losses beneath his name. Only Jerry West with his 8 losses would be worse.

The time has finally come to make up for last year, to erase the pain of an entire region. What happened last June isn’t forgotten though it has been put aside, jotted down in notes on how easily it can all fall apart in front of you. There is no surprise here. LeBron James was supposed to return to the playoffs in grand fashion. The prologue is boring in its inevitability.

The drama lies in the man and what he is capable of. LeBron James was the only superstar in the playoffs who had the burden of having to prove something. Just as he was the only superstar when the playoffs started no one was religiously talking about. Paul George had a story. Steph Curry had a story. Dwayne Wade had a story. Chris Paul had a story. Kevin Durant had a story. LeBron James had pressure and history to rewrite.

Two weeks will change everything you think you know about LeBron James. For better. Or, worse.

photo via llananba