I found it satisfying watching LeBron James smoothly and yet somewhat subtly carry his team to victory in an NBA Finals game seven. That is despite really not feeling comfortable watching the team he was carrying win.
I’ve always wanted to like LeBron, and most of the time that hasn’t been very hard. There are the obvious exceptions of The Decision and his reaction to the reaction to that, but overall he has done quite well rehabilitating his image since then. Amazing what a few cell phone commercials and some sympathetic magazine articles can do even in a short time.
His performance last night came after his teammates – the combination of overrated, over-the-hill and young, inconsistency that they are – bailed him out from a pair of terrible plays that for all intents and purposes should have cost his team the championship one game earlier.
The Heat were playing for this team’s legacy to a much greater extent than they were LeBron’s. He has more work to do to reach G.O.A.T. status, and that remains true today as it did yesterday. He is closer, of course, but not particularly close yet to reaching the complicated, nuanced and complete greatness of Michael Jordan. But of course the conversation has started and the path is in front of him.
He has a lot more time to get there, too, and that still would have been true if the Heat lost last night. Last night was about one chapter in his story, just like Cleveland was another.
I am not a Cavs fan, though I have nothing against them whatsoever. I have always been something of an NBA nomad, for better or for worse. My first memory of the league is vaguely understanding that Larry Bird was on his farewell tour and seeing NBC broadcast one of those games some afternoon.
After that came the Dream Team, and by then I was swept up in His Airness so I became a Bulls fan (Yes, a bandwagonning teenager, I admit, but I have no regrets). Jordan cut quite a career arc, of course, growing up with one team, becoming an individual superstar, learning the frustrations of building a team and necessity of sharing while having to overcome various obstacles (including the two-time champion Pistons) to get to the top of the heap.
Then he created (unintentionally) a whole new set of variables to conquer when he retired the first time, and when he walked away from the game in 1999 it was as an indomitable champion. He set the standard that all who come after will be measured against, and the layers of his greatness are many, varied and thick. They extend beyond his physical ability to include his will, drive and killer instinct.
I thought I would become a Cavs fan when LeBron joined the team, but it just didn’t feel right. I hadn’t been in the trenches with those folks. I liked seeing him and the team succeed, but the Wine and Gold just never took hold.
However (or perhaps thanks to that detached perspective), I always felt like the people who looked at his tenure in Cleveland as a failure were not being realistic. I thought the Plain Dealer cover noting he had no championships there was over the top, especially for a daily newspaper.
He didn’t get over the hump there, but he wasn’t ready to and I don’t think it was really fair to expect him to be based on his age and the fact the cast varied from bad to mismatched as the years advanced. Not only was he lacking another great talent even of the Scottie Pippen variety – the role players didn’t complement him or each other.
That said, the Heat have rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, both for why they came together – it felt like they were cheating the system – and how they acted when they got together. So I respect nothing about the team, the franchise or its fans. It all feels fake, and the contrived storyline about hardships they have supposedly faced made me want to see them win less. Have they had to deal with a lot of negativity? Yes, but they brought that on themselves, so overcoming it doesn’t really move me at all.
And as young as LeBron is and as difficult as it looks like it’s going to be for this team to stay together for more than another year, it was not hard for me to root against the Heat while watching with ambivalence LeBron’s legacy continue to build. As I said, he has a lot more time either way.
And so he won another title, and he did most of the work even though one could argue that was one of the more subtle 37-point performances you will ever see, right up until he hit a couple of jump shot daggers in the closing minutes.
It was quite a journey with troubles he probably never considered popping up. The chapter has its pinnacle. Should be fascinating to see what happens next.
Let’s watch it with an open mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves either. That will make it easier to enjoy the ride, wherever it ends up.