I can pinpoint the exact moment I changed my mind about LeBron James: it was late in Game 4 of the NBA Finals as he was kneeling on the sideline desperately trying to will himself back into the game after suffering debilitating cramps. They’d been working on him with ice and pouring Gatorade down his gullet like they were refueling a racecar at a pitstop. It wasn’t really working but LeBron was crouched down waiting to get back in, his face a mixture of anxious worry and fear. Off camera someone obviously urged him to drink some more fluids.
“I can’t drink no more.”
It wasn’t a dismissive jerk athlete yelling at a trainer, rather a plaintive soul baring a cry of desperation. He looked like he was on the brink of cracking up. It perfectly captured everything: the man child let down by the one thing he could always rely on – his supremely conditioned NBA body. What must have gone through his mind at that moment?
“How? How can this be happening? After all this hard work? After finally getting it about not coasting? After watching relentless Russell Westbrook playing out of his mind and then matching his intensity? And the inevitable headlines flashing in his head– LeBron James collapses again in the fourth. He can’t finish.”
But LeBron willed himself to keep going and his three pointer on one leg will stand as his signature shot. The one where he changed the narrative.
Narrative. LeBron James has spent a long time letting other people control the narrative.
Michael Wilbon tells us LBJ has been reading a lot lately. That’s a good thing. And maybe it has helped LeBron. Exposed him to some different points of view. Made him reflect and understand that just because Nike says you’re the chosen one doesn’t mean the fans agree. Wally Szczerbiak said the other night on Jim Rome’s show that LBJ is a people pleaser. That explains a lot. Like how he was so caught off guard by the negative reaction to the Decision and the forklift press conference. And how his responses to all the criticism ranged from a hurt puppy to a defiant child.
Fact or fiction, books tell stories. They teach us things, and help us put our own struggles and journeys into perspective. In my opinion, up until last year, LeBron’s basketball career had none of that. In his defense, how could it have? He’s a preternaturally gifted athlete who’s been fawned over and given special treatment for most of his life. When that’s all you know, that’s all you know.
But as a pro athlete, it’s not just about you. It’s about the fans too. I say this all the time: Ownership may sign your check, but the fans pay your salary. You cannot take them for granted or alienate them, or they won’t show up. You know what basketball is without the fans? Practice. Nobody’s giving out shoe contracts for practice.
For the fans, it’s not about all the swag and the bling, all the hoochiemamas and the bottle service. If we’re going to spend our time and hard earned money paying to watch you play and wear your logos on our bodies, we just ask one thing in return: effort.
The Heat have spent way too much time the past two years coasting. It came home to roost in last year’s Finals. Dallas came to play. They gave effort and fought through adversity. Maybe now both James and Wade understand what an affront to the basketball gods their snickering at Dirk Nowitzki playing sick was. Not so funny in retrospect. Dirk showed you what a champion looked like. It is supremely ironic that LeBron’s body failed him in Game 4.
The Heat crashed and burned last year. Icarus is the obvious parallel. Fill in your own Heat related pun.
As Lakers fans, we know all about effort because we have the (purple and) gold standard here in Los Angeles: Kobe Bryant. Love him or hate him, you must respect that. And respect for effort is never given, it’s earned. Always. That’s a big reason why Lakers fans are uneasy about the mantle of franchise leader eventually passing to Andrew Bynum. He acts a little entitled and doesn’t always give max effort. Sound familiar?
So Miami triumphed and LeBron proved something to the haters and most importantly to himself. He’s a champion now and no one can ever take that away. The Thunder deserve praise too. They played hard. Their time will come. In fact, the Lakers will be battling these two (and a few other Western Conference contenders) in the foreseeable future.
What the Heat found out last year is a super team in and of itself doesn’t work. You’re not entitled to a title. You have to earn it.
And when you do sometimes that means the new narrative is redemption.
Congratulations Miami Heat – now you can bask in the glory. This time you earned it.
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