LeBron James Is Finally Living Up To His Nickname

“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 ShaqKobeMalonePayton 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.

Instead, he had regularly set the bar so high that when he fell short, it was a cataclysmic disaster. He was a hero with a fatal flaw – something mental and imperceptible, the perfect fodder to digest and dissect with unending scrutiny and equally unsatisfying conclusions. The norm had disappeared, and the question then became, “why can’t he play like that all the time?” This question tugged at a deeply embedded and flawed perspective, that it was James’ choice to play well. Taking a step back, the absurdity of it all appears keenly obvious. Basketball was taken out of its own imperfect and fluctuating sense of direction and placed squarely in LeBron’s hands. Didn’t he want to win all those championships, the ones we wanted for him so badly?

It all came to a head with The Decision, which was generally perceived as LeBron’s final surrender to the team concept and abandonment of our one-man dream. Yet to me it seemed like the perfect resolution – really, proof that he wanted to win more badly than we had originally detected.

Put aside, for a moment, your feelings about The Decision’s execution, as abhorrent and ill-conceived and viciously narcissistic as you might have felt it to be. At the time, LeBron shrugged off any immediate animosity and assumed it would dissipate. The widespread hostility was so strong, however, that we assumed the hatchet would never be buried. Two years later, those feelings are still there, somewhere.

The majority of all that sacrificing legacies, illicit consolidation of basketball talent crap has worn off. And, surprisingly, so has that caliber of championship conversation. Winning the title with the Big Three felt perversely wrong at first, but now, it seems, a championship is a championship. There were many reasons to dislike the Heat; yet one has risen above all. They’re really good, and the prospect of dynasties is terrifying. Basketball fans like the 2000s Lakers, the ’90s Bulls and the endless Spurs reign if only because of their basketball excellence – but not for the simple reason of them just being cool. The greater appeal of the Thunder, besides the misguided young pups label, is that they represent, well, not the Heat. A natural birthing (as opposed to Miami’s in vitro fertilization) of sorts ready to upset our post-Decision forecast. No one likes super powers, even if everyone enjoys that same narrative which perpetually reinvents itself to suit contemporary details. You know, the whole David vs. Goliath thing. David’s just more fun to root for.

2012 Miami is just a better version of 2007 Cleveland, and that’s why a Heat title is seemingly okay. Dwyane Wade is a shell of his former “Flash self,” willingly deferring, and Chris Bosh has settled into the proverbial “x-factor” role because he rests uncomfortably between the Big Three and the rest of the Miami bourgeoisie. The rest of the guys just fill in the holes, making plays here and there, but ultimately deferring their fate to whatever LeBron decides. This has become LeBron’s team.

If Miami loses Game 5, the questions will ratchet up once again – I’m almost positive that Oklahoma City will be the quiet favorite to nab Games 6 and 7 at home, if only because we overvalue some small town crowd and the father-child relationship we maintain with the Thunder. They’re like little tots, and we’re their teachers and biggest advocates. But if Miami wins, something tells me that the world won’t explode, leaving basketball in some post-apocalyptic hell. Everything will be fine – basketball might have yet another dynasty on its hands, and LeBron will naturally be atop its totem pole.

Does LeBron get it done tonight?

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