LeBron…pulling up for a late jumper…the ball sailing through the air…someone squeals…”the Narrative!”
I’ve sat next to friends during these Finals who, on multiple occasions, have made it abundantly clear that we are all finally witnessing the culmination of one of the most polarizing, drawn-out, and intriguing sports narratives of all time. Will he ever get that maddeningly elusive first ring? We’ve seen him falter in the Finals twice already. The only thing that could keep the narrative alive as it exists today–namely with the LeBron Hate Train chugging full speed into 2013–would be a third straight Finals defeat. But if you’ve been watching LeBron closely these past few weeks, you might notice that train has become considerably less crowded. The majority of those riding to the end of the line are the same ones that deem LeBron’s decision as some unforgivable transgression–a personal affront, even. There are others who have had their dislike dissipate into awe and even more who have come to at least respect the unprecedented urgency and seriousness with which LeBron has elevated his game. If there’s one thing that’s become clear now more than ever, heading into tonight’s game in Miami with a 3-1 series lead, there’s no way LeBron is going home empty-handed.
The writing on the wall was there since the day the Heat lost to the Mavs in the 2011 Finals. It became clearer when LeBron seemed almost embarrassed to have won the 2012 MVP award, claiming accolades and awards mean nothing to him in comparison to his pursuit of a championship. And then there was Game 6 against Boston, and Game 2 against OKC, and then, of course, there was this past Tuesday, in which LeBron played so hard that his body, that cyborg body we thought would never slow, finally cramped up. LeBron had finally figured out how to push his mind further than his body could take him.
This is something we’ve been waiting a long time to see. It’s also been disappointing for many fans who have wondered why LeBron, the so-called “chose one”, hasn’t mimicked the late-game heroics of Jordan and Kobe, which have become ingratiated in our imaginations as the golden standard of a true champion. Most recently, Jordan’s 1997 “flu game” was memorialized in a Gatorade commercial that airs in between timeouts of these Finals, reminding us that the will to win comes from within.
Perhaps that’s why LeBron has seemed so demure this season. After his game 4 victory on Tuesday, LeBron’s post-game comments revealed zero excitement at the prospect of being just four quarters away from his goal. His answers seemed bland and rehearsed, more befitting of a post-game conference for a regular season loss than a penultimate championship victory. His true thoughts and emotions have never been more guarded.
In my opinion, LeBron became a different man ever since the humbling results of the 2011 Finals. He’s sacrificed so much since then to get to where he is now. He heeded the advice of his critics and added a near-unstoppable post game. His passing, decision-making, and defense are as good as they’ve ever been. All of his energy has been devoted to his goal and, as a result, his charisma and joviality have suffered. He’s become a very serious man, a one-track-minded man. Inadvertently or not, he’s rehabilitated his image in as much as it’s become harder to hate someone so determined and dedicated to getting what they want.
Watching LeBron in these Finals has started to feel a little bit like finishing the last chapter of the first book in a long series. When it’s over, we might all sigh in relief and maybe even laugh at the thought that our protagonist would never reach his goal, as if Harry Potter might die at the end of the Sorcerer’s Stone. And yes, LeBron really is our collective protagonist. Despite the good (OKC) vs. evil (Miami) side-plot that some have crafted, those who still view him a villain must understand that by placing him so prominently as the recipient of your criticisms and the topic of your conversations, you have cast him as the central figure, love him or hate him, of the NBA. No one else incites interest in the sport of basketball as much as LBJ. Even if he hadn’t made it to these Finals, how much of the conversation would remain centered around the torturous nature of his defeat?
One thing I’ve especially enjoyed about these Finals is the realization that each moment of coverage becomes instantaneously canonized in the collective sports consciousness of basketball fans everywhere. We’ve been talking about this for so long that the act of it finally happening seems unreal. The awareness we experience even lends itself to phonieness. After years of vividly envisioning LeBron’s first championship, the reality could never really match up to our expectations.
The problem, perhaps, is that these Finals have offered very little to be surprised about. The young Thunder team and its dim-witted coach, shooting themselves in the foot; the fully-matured LeBron, exploiting easy buckets in the paint and making the right basketball play at each turn–neither of these developments have been all together unpredictable.
While a 7-game series would have been more exciting for us all, the impending exhale of victory is what I’m looking forward to most. I expect the Heat to close it out at home tonight, but you never know what could happen. For now, I rest easy knowing LeBron is closer than he’s ever been. I look forward to seeing him liberated from the shackles of expectation, if only for one off-season. Maybe then we might see him smiling out there on the court again–loose and relaxed, swagger intact. If he finally gets that ring, it’s safe to say he’ll be a very happy man, a confident King in his prime. If that happens–watch out, NBA–you probably still haven’t seen the best of him.