Monday, June 13, 2011

Monkeys and Torches

There are an awful lot of cliches that sportswriters tend to reach for we we're looking for a way to phrase things. The list is long, a plethora of banality, and you don't need or want me rehashing it here. But last night gave us a gift: a uniquely compounded metaphor encasing two of our favorite go-to moves. You've heard them before. Passing the torch. Getting the monkey off one's back. Finally, the stars aligned so that we could say this: "Dirk Nowitzki got the 'soft' monkey off his back ... and passed that unpleasant monkey/torch right to LeBron James."

I had originally planned not to write this post or anything like it. As the seconds ticked inexorably away in the fourth quarter last night, and Miami's "fans" streamed towards the exits like passengers headed for lifeboats on the Titanic, everyone saw what had become of "The Chosen One." The world had pulled the pins on its invective criticism grenades; they were just waiting for the buzzer to sound before yelling "fire in the hole!" and throwing the things. No need to lob another projectile into the conflagration, right?

But I can't resist. That bullish and unthinking post-game presser was just too much.

(ahem) ... "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!"

What's funny is, after the Boston series last year, I was vehemently opposed to applying the "choke" label to LeBron. I fell squarely into the camp that figured his elbow was bothering him far more than he let on, and that some manner of off-court issue was compounding the stress to intolerable levels. Cleveland hadn't exactly surrounded the guy with a bang-up supporting cast, maybe he needed a true sidekick. Or maybe he just wasn't ready. That was my mindset at the time, and I'm not the first person to espouse the notion that maybe you need to get kicked in the teeth a few times to truly plumb those inner depths of "killer instinct" and "greatness." Infuriating and silly as The Decision was, is was a bad PR move and nothing more. I didn't see it having long-term implications on his hoops legacy. Same goes for the absurdity of that Heat celebration replete with fog machines and bombast before the season started. In short, I thought LBJ was poised to catapult himself into the ringed brotherhood, and sooner rather than later.

This Finals proved me completely wrong. After a playoffs full of promise, LeBron's game went ghost town the moment game one tipped at the Triple A. The drop off was cataclysmic. The hot-potato passing, the listlessness on defense, the trailing on plays, everything was indicative of an irrefutable fact: LeBron James was shot. Like a lion who's been trapped behind bars at a zoo for too many years, his prowess and ferocity, so evident just a scant time ago against the Celtics, had been extinguished. We must give the Dallas defense its due for limiting James in certain situations, but he looked utterly disinterested in, and fearful of, aggression in any form. We know the skills are there, so whatever mental or emotional machinations were whirling around behind those dead eyes must have been extreme. When you're electing to dish off to Juwan Howard in key moments, something is clearly wrong.

To be sure, we are all witnesses. To the evaporation of 99% of the chances that we'll one day speak of LeBron in the reverential way we talk about MJ, Magic, Russell, Bird, et al.

And then came that press conference.

As they had all season, James and fellow Heat player Dwayne Wade sat side by side at the podium, but this was a darker, more humiliating ride by far than the locker-room tears incident or any other nadir the Heat suffered this year. Early on, a lot of the questions were sophomoric and directed at James, his answers petulant and defensive. That whole "the people who hate me will still wake up with their same crappy lives tomorrow" bit? Well, LeBron probably has grown tired with the heaps of scrutiny and criticism, the villain role, and all the rest of it. But to pointedly torch his ill-wishers by reminding them of the gulf separating his life from their own was childish and classless, especially since most of those public sentiments now seem well-founded. How unaware can a dude be? Apparently, severely.

And the "God just didn't think it was my time" line. Can you imagine Jordan or Kobe ever saying something like that? If you're as great as LBJ's talents indicate he should be, don't you make it your time? We'd like to think so. But what rankled worse than either was the incredible ego. LeBron hijacked the mic last night, desperate to defend himself. Did you notice that reporters started tacking on the caveat "for the both of you" to every question? They were clearly conscious that LeBron was subsuming the whole charade and leaving Miami's hometown boy in the shadows. Yet, nine times out of ten, LeBron still rushed to grab the mic and make his views known, while Wade was left hanging.

To be fare, Dwayne Wade has nothing to prove, nothing to answer for. He owns a ring, he never bolted his team, and he busted his rear last night. He didn't need to acquit himself, and had LeBron addressed his personal failings in a contrite and human fashion, I would have been fine with him gobbling up the majority or air time in that room to do so. Instead, he made an abysmal botch of it and confirmed that his lack of clutch-ness is not confined to the court alone.

Even if the Heat do manage to rattle off a string of titles at some point, LeBron would have to scale an Everest of fourth-quarter production and display a completely revamped mindset in those moments to shift the judgements that descended on him last night. Is he capable of doing so? Probably. Anyone endowed with his unique gifts has the potential. But his long-term place in the pantheon took some big hits across the bow during this finals. A global icon he might still be, but that star could fade too is this continues. Ultimately, it's all up to The King, but I'm starting to think his crown is ill-fitting at best and made of tin at worst.

In my lifetime, I have never seen an NBA player this transcendent plummet so far in esteem so fast. LeBron has wandered right off the edge of the basketball map. Careful, your Kingliness; here there be monsters.

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