Friday, June 8, 2012
-- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, "Becoming: Part 2."
One of the most appealing facets of basketball is its inherent lack of artifice. Basketball is elemental; it's a primal thing. Wood court. Metal rims. Glass backboards. Twine nets. Rubber ball. Ten guys essentially wearing clothes that anyone might wear to the gym, albeit with matching colors and logos and higher thread counts. There are no illusions and no concealment on a basketball court. The game and its participants are laid bare.
Perhaps no person on earth would be more qualified to give a symposium on that aspect of the game than LeBron James. The cumulative effect of everything from his disappearing act in that last game in Cleveland to The Decision to The Laser Show Fog Machine Pep Rally Thingy to last year's NBA Finals to Haslem-Bouncepass-Gate has been an accrued level of pressure unlike anything we've seen an athlete experience before. Every iota of his being gets dissected and analyzed and turned into a referendum on Global Iconography or What Greatness Means or whatever. At this point, people would probably label his dental hygiene "unclutch" if he forgot to floss one morning. The thing about pressure is, you put an element under enough of it for enough years and apply the requisite heat, and eventually you get a diamond. Which, aside from its monetary value, is a beautiful, purified bit of rock hard enough to cut through damn near anything on earth. Last night, LeBron James was the world's most expensive and spectacular engagement ring.
The situation was all too familiar. An elimination game in the Boston Garden, high stakes, backs-against-wall, win or go home. He's been there ... and failed. He's been there ... and let Dwyane Wade carry the moment. And now, he's been there and done that, submitting his latest superhuman (meta-human? supra-human?) entry in a playoff resume that, despite lacking the all-important rings, is still resplendent with several nights of sheer brilliance.
We talk about athletes going into "video game mode" whenever they appear particularly unstoppable during a given game. While he certainly played as such, LeBron also turned that concept on its head, appearing literally as if he were controlling his body from some distant remove, munching chips on a couch as he guided a catatonia-eyed avatar through an impossibly flawless game.
It wasn't just the numbers either, though certainly they alone are enough to dizzy the mind: 45-15-5. That's Wilt territory, if you're scoring at home. Much has been made of the efficiency with which he scored those points, but LeBron had an economy of being last night that I don't believe we have ever witnessed before. Jordan played with a contained fury and a calculated destructiveness. Kobe has his trademark bulldog-lipped menace and god help anyone, even his own teammates, in his way. This was an entirely different thing. To all appearances, LeBron didn't have any teammates last night. There were also no opposing players, refs, coaches, crowd, TV cameras, or even a building. Heck, there might not have been a court. He was alone without being lonesome, separate without seeing there was anything to be separated from. LeBron's world last night had borders so tightly-defined that they ended where his fingertips touched the ball. For all the acknowledgement he gave anything else, his feet may as well have been traversing negative space in a howling void.
LeBron wasn't a blank slate; then we would at least have been looking at the slate with the knowledge that something might be drawn on it at some point. He didn't have a thousand yard stare, because that would imply that he was in a state where distances have meaning and can be measured. It wasn't a zen calm, and he wasn't dialed in. If anything, he was tuned as out as possible. Forget radio silence, he was simply gone.
We can't know for certain, obviously, but if I could hazard a guess, I'd say that LBJ, out of sheer desperation and need, discovered within himself a completely new way to play basketball. Faced with the possibility of once again crumbling in the same arena where so many of his past catastrophes have played out, and the full, brutal knowledge of what the fallout from such an occurrence would be like, LeBron James elected to shut down. He retreated from the weight of the moment by becoming weightless, sliding down an infinite spiral further and further into himself until he struck the middle of emotional and cognitive nowhere, which was his essence as a basketball player. Away from the glare and clangor of being Chosen, detached from even the most rudimentary of interactions, he was precisely and only himself in all his myriad gifts and instincts, devoid of any context save that which he allowed. Which was not this game, but The Game of Basketball, actual and pure. It's been said and written innumerable times that LeBron can sometimes seem as if he's playing a different game than everyone else. Last night was the first time he transcended "seeming" into the realm of truth.
The question of LeBron replicating such a performance is easily answerable. Yes, he'll have more games like this one in his career. No, Game 7 on Saturday night probably won't be one of them. But if LeBron has figured out some sort of meditation/alchemy/transubstantiation mental trigger by which he becomes a 100% hoops-by-volume distillation of basketball, if he can duplicate that Nowhere Man dream state with even semi-reasonable frequency ... watch out. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, but last night he became something more, different, and rare. When you strip away everything else and you're left with only him, that's when you see greatness. After the hammering and thrashing he's received in the court of public opinion, last night LeBron proved that we are all still, and always, witnesses.