“He won’t let his team lose,” they say. People enjoy this halfhearted turn of phrase, even if it’s only some sort of careless and surrogate flattery for “he’s playing better than any other player on the floor.” It pretends emotion, a player dragging his team by its bootstraps through sheer force of will. Sort of like some chivalrous ancient hero defending his bride’s honor by slaying thousands of hapless enemies. This has been LeBron’s underlying narrative during Miami’s postseason run – one that began with Game 4 in Indiana, extended through Games 6 and 7 against Boston, and now might just finish with an NBA championship. And so we collide with another cliche: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Throughout this ongoing championship saga, LeBron has been crawling towards expectations, even if he’s already far exceeded the ceiling of any other basketball player. We reveled in his fruitless years in Cleveland, if only because we could marvel at some basketball-oriented cyborg skip to an NBA title, all the while playing one against five. 2007 was that climax – LeBron scoring 29 of his team’s final 30 points and transforming Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson into relevant NBA names. It was a beautiful thing to watch, and one that challenged basketball’s team ideology. This was nearly the same Pistons team that had defeated the Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton Lakers, when multiple individual credentials were supposed to overcome those measly defensively-minded gnats from Detroit.
That flicker of novelty subconsciously guided our rooting interest: LeBron was going to be the first player to win a championship by himself. Even Michael had Scottie, Shaq had Kobe (and he had Pau), Larry had McHale and Parish, and Magic had Kareem. Of course there are outlier teams, like the Pistons, but they were teams in the truest, starless sense. LeBron was an enigma set to break the fabled championship mold – even Batman had Robin. But, of course, James fell short, and we returned to that glory-seeking mentality every year until he skipped town for Miami. Rooting for the pre-Decision LeBron was rooting for justice, the little guy conquering the big bad corporation. It was altering the status quo, even though we were its ancestral architect. LeBron was Tiger Woods, that sublime individual whose ceiling simply did not exist. He surmounted our loftiest goals for him, leaving no other choice but to drop our collective jaw and place aside our critical eye for once.
We wrote off a championship as a given – Cleveland would keep tinkering with the periphery parts until LeBron grabbed that first not-so-elusive title. He was going to do it by himself, and that was going to be just perfect. Each year went by and those pesky little championship rings just couldn’t seem to find their way onto LeBron’s fingers. And that’s when the questions came back, and we nitpicked his game and earned our psychology degrees and we corroded that exterior shell of masculinity. We liked him so much – the way those Cavs teams used to dance around on the sidelines like childish goofballs was cathartic – we could actually look at basketball players and smile, too. So when it came to that first championship for LeBron, we just wanted to get it over with already. There had to be bigger and better things to come.