Friday, June 29, 2012

Five Stages of Grief: LeBron James Manned Up and Got a Ring

“The best thing that happened to me was us losing in the Finals [in 2011], and me playing the way I played. It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me. I knew I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted." – LeBron James
          It pains me, but I’ll just come out and say it: LeBron James has an NBA title and is the best basketball player in the world. The last few years I’ve been able to put him into the Steve Nash category of flawed MVP winners, knowing that I’ll take the Finals MVP’s Kobe has earned over all the regular season accolades in the world. But instead of folding like a house of cards, LeBron leveraged his failings and the media criticisms to respond, improve, and become an NBA champion. In the last two weeks, my feelings towards him have come full circle and I’ve slowly worked my way through the grief cycle:

Step 1, Denial: At first, I didn’t believe that he’d ever get the title. I thought that Boston would pull through or the deeper OKC squad would give the Heat more than it could handle. Whoops.
Step 2, Anger: As the Heat started to build a commanding series lead, I was angry with Scott Brooks for his inadequate schemes and adjustments. Dude never listened to me, for all the screaming I did at my television.
Step 3, Bargaining:  LeBron continued his march toward a title and I got desperate. I started pleading with forces larger than myself, carrying around rabbit’s feet, four leaf clovers, and even trying a rain dance.
Step 4, Sadness: The Heat showed resilience instead of a collapse and sadness swept over me as the Thunder slowly melted down. Seeing LeBron’s face before Game 5, I knew the transformation was complete and a title was a foregone conclusion.
Step 5, Acceptance: A few days later, I’ve finally come to accept this brave new world but can’t help but wonder, how’d we get here?

The King: Far From Anointed
           Despite being crowned before he’d left high school as the next great, LeBron’s success was anything but guaranteed. As a huge Magic Johnson fan, I loved the way he played point forward and saw the game like no one else in the league today. I’m not sure that I’ve ever admitted it (much less publicly), but I actually bought a LeBron shirt when he entered the league and used to love watching him play before his brief stint as an evil entity. I appreciated his skill, phenomenal court vision, and willingness to pass more than resident Lakers’ blackhole Kobe Bryant. The problem with LeBron was that his incredible talents were as much of a curse as a blessing and led his career to become the NBA equivalent of a giant pressure cooker. The media and the fans expected nothing less than pure dominance from Day 1.
           Reflecting on the way we’ve treated this wunderkind for the last decade, I’ve come to the conclusion that in sports you are judged by two primary criteria: if you reach your potential and how much you win. Until now, I think he was more like Michael Jordan in the 1980’s. People would go out of their way to describe him with a huge asterisk until he won the big one, saying, “He was a great scorer, but…” That changed when Jordan stepped up, smacked the Bad Boy Pistons in the mouth, and beat Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals. Jordan certainly had lofty expectations thrust upon him, but nothing compared to LeBron James, which is also largely a function of the modern media environment. Looking at LeBron James, he arguably has the best body and talent of anyone in NBA history. He’s the size of Karl Malone, freakishly athletic, and unbelievably fast. Combine that with his court vision and an NBA dynasty should be automatic, right?
Great focus, LeBron
          Unfortunately for LeBron, both his basketball focus and off-court antics not only hurt his chances for a title but turned him into a villain. Compared to the other greats of his era, he doesn’t ooze winning and steadiness like Tim Duncan and is not the maniacally dedicated gym rat that hates to lose like Kobe (and Michael before him). For years, it’s been clear that LeBron cared more about his celebrity, his endorsement portfolio, and being safe with his public image (really, still no dunk contest dude?) than improving his game every year in the off-season. There are three standard, and totally legitimate, complaints about his game: he only recently developed a semblance of a post-game, took years to come around on defense, and failed to use his physical gifts to get to the rim at will. I can tell you that Karl Malone never shied away from contact to settle for jumpers against smaller guys, but teams felt comfortable putting guys like Rondo on him because they didn’t fear LBJ in the post. For all his basketball IQ, LeBron failed to assert his god-given abilities time and time again, while developing a reputation as a choker who quit on his team by shying away from the moment.
          Off the court, he was totally insulated from public opinion and done a huge disservice by his handlers, who were mostly just his buddies. Instead of a successful marketing machine, they created a prima donna that was also a publicity nightmare who just didn’t get it. Outside of mega-mistake the Decision and his borderline psychotic promise of 7+ championships, LeBron spent his time before games mugging for photos with his teammates instead of getting ready. In his most tone deaf press conference to date, LeBron essentially defended crumbling in the NBA Finals by saying, “Y’all have to back to your sad lives, while I get to be LeBron, even in defeat.” All he needed was a monocle and a cape to be the bad guy in a Disney movie.  Although the MJ comparison is also apt, I’m inclined to describe this version of LeBron as Wilt 2.0, a staggeringly talented player with a list of priorities that did not put winning at the very top. Even today, Wilt is far more famous for his revered stats and 100 point game than NBA titles.  

For once, LeBron earned
his clever Nike campaign
Redemption: An NBA Title
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
          If you listen to the way he speaks, it is clear that LeBron James has absorbed the media firestorm and and resolved  to be better, as a player, as a leader, and as a human being. LeBron is not a natural villain and the Heatles Experience has changed him. After winning the championship, he reflected that, “It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and a person.” This time, instead of caving under the pressure, LeBron responded by taking the criticism to heart and improving. It wasn’t just motivation; it was an incentive to change. No longer was he an invincible basketball deity who never let his guard down, but a human being like the rest of us. He was introspective instead of scripted, focused on winning instead of endorsement dollars. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one and I have to give LeBron a ton of credit for being so honest with himself.

           For all of the changes I’m ascribing to James, they don’t show up on the standard stat sheet, which is why you have to watch the games. If you compare 2011-2012 above, his regular season stats are equally monstrous both years. As we all know, the man was an all-world basketball player well before this season, as three MVP’s can attest. The changes are more subtle, but still critical. LeBron developed a post-game this off-season and used it to punish smaller defensive players at will. He took a lot less three pointers and didn’t settle for jump shots, instead choosing to use his athleticism and massive shoulders to barrel into the lane time after time. ESPN did a great job of quantifying these changes and their impact on free throws, points in the paint, and clutch performance in the post-season. LeBron also recommitted himself to defense and became the best perimeter defender in the NBA, without question.  Bill Simmons compared him to Bird 2.0, only if Bird was also one of the best defenders in the league. I can’t imagine how much it hurt Simmons to type that “LeBron was playing like a rich man's version of the fifth-best basketball player of all time,” but I’ll bet it still stings.
           Equally important was his change as a leader on the team, on and off the court. Instead of goofing around with his teammates before games, LeBron was focused on basketball. I’ll never forget his face before Game 5, full of steely determination. I thought to myself, “This guy is gonna terrorize the league for the next decade. Shit.” On the court, he was the epitome of class, telling Chalmers to stop celebrating before the game was over and congratulating the Thunder before allowing himself to enjoy his first title. His speeches to his teammates and post-game press conferences showed that he wasn’t willing to let go until it was finally in his hands. Until then, he was going to ride his teammates, prepare for every game the same way, and make sure that the Heat had the best chance to win every basketball game they could. Instead of just leading by example, he brought his teammates along for the ride, mentoring them and helping them understand how to play championship basketball.
           Rather than being the world’s best Scottie Pippen to D-Wade’s MJ, LeBron grew into the true leader of this team. His heart and desire to get better were evident. As his antics slowed, LeBron slowly became someone who was fun to watch again and was no longer the most unlikable member of the Heat. Instead, he left the post-game trash talk, incessant whining, and bullying to Dwayne Wade, who has undergone a miraculous transformation himself into one of the least pleasant players in the league in just 12 months. Maybe he was frustrated with lingering injuries or his changing role, but most NBA fans are just sick of D-Wade at this point. There were a few times this post-season where I couldn’t believe that I had fervently cheered him on against the Mavericks in 2006. Still, Dwayne Wade has two NBA titles to my zero, so we’ll move on.
           In sports, we love winners and people who give it their all. By thoughtfully developing his game and embracing what it means to be a leader, LeBron finally did both. The scary thing is, I don’t see LeBron stopping anytime soon. With Rose out next year, Boston getting blown up (just look at their faces, they knew it was over in Game7), and Indiana still years away, no one can stop the Heat in the East in the foreseeable future. In the West, the Thunder will be back, but the other traditional powers (Mavs, Spurs, and Lakers) are slowly fading into the sunset under a CBA that heavily limits their ability to retool on the fly. While LeBron may not get 5, 6, or 7 titles in a row, this championship changes everything about his narrative and it’s hard for me to envision a world where he doesn’t add a few more to his trophy case. Congratulations King James, you’ve finally earned your position in the sports pantheon and your crown. I'm giving you credit now, but I’m not sorry I didn’t before.You gotta admit though, it's sweeter like this isn't it?


  1. do you even watch basketball?

    1. Pretty sure he's watched a game or a thousand.