NBA Finals Post-Mortem: LeBron, Dirk, and The Best In the World
To be a great basketball player, or even a great athlete, or even great in general, you need to have more than rings. Wearing the crown (metaphorical or real) doesn’t make you the best in the world. It’s not enough to hoist the trophy. You need to have class. Respect. Handle the defeat and the victory with equal poise, although nobody would blame a few slip-ups in either direction. Victory, and loss, are emotional things. Especially during a championship game. Things happen.
But still, when we’re talking about basketball, the Finals, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and the whole crew that just partook in this fascinating soap opera of a championship series, we finally realized what it took, what it meant, to be the best in the world. We’ve had a day to think about it, to get past the initial reactions, to get down to what it all might really mean.
LeBron James? The best in the world…on paper. Minus one thing: he’s kind of an asshole, or at least he tends to act like one at the moment of truth.
Not even because of The Decision. It’s been debated to death, and the fact of the matter is this: hometown or not, it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to carry an otherwise shitty team on one’s shoulders, and to want to play with your best friends. That said, it’s completely indefensible to dump your hometown like dead weight on an hour-long TV special. Get it, got it, good. Moving on.
And it’s not even how Bron preened and pranced his way through the season while Miami ran roughshod over pretty much everyone who stood in their path. Coach Erik Spoelstra had it right; he did make sacrifices (a hell of a lot of money, though it’s probably chump change to a King) to play in South Beach, and plus, when you take as much shit as he did for a year straight, there’s nothing wrong with telling the haters to suck it when you’re on point. Vindication is an emotional thing, too.
It’s a little bit because of the coughing video. That was just stupid. But that’s not even the core of it.
It’s because he didn’t have that X-Factor that the greats have: poise, dignity, and class no matter the outcome. To put it in perspective: Michael Jordan (LeBron’s closest measuring stick for some reason) was ruthless, but he showed class at all times. When he lost a big game (the few times, anyway), he gave due credit and began plotting his revenge. When he won, he gave due credit and began plotting to do it again. Nothing else needed to be said.
Jordan was great all around, at least within the confines of the basketball world (his post-playing career has been marred by scandal and a dropoff in that poise, but it doesn’t matter: the die is cast, his legend is cemented). LeBron, for all his immeasurable talents, isn’t there yet.
Why? Because, after he’d been exposed, laid bare, choked, or whatever it is you want to call what Number Six did in these Finals, when all that was left for him to do is accept the defeat with grace and head back to the drawing board, he did something so audacious you half-expected them to call a second press conference for his balls: he sat his ass down, looked into that goddamn camera, and told us all to suck it one more time.
“They got to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had today,” LeBron said of the haters who trashed his name and set fire to his jerseys post-Decision and who cheered his losses the entire 2010-11 season. “And I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live.”
Translation: You all are still losers, you still want to be me. Ring or no ring, I’m LeBron Fucking James. The best player in the goddamned world.
That, to me, is the lingering thought on these NBA Finals. They’re only the third I’ve paid any kind of close attention to (I had a bet with a lady friend over Lakers/Magic in ’09; I watched Lakers/Celtics last year because of the history and Bill Simmons’ live blog), and they were by far the most interesting even before I learned about the Heat/Mavs history from back in 2006. They became even more interesting after the fact because, even after he’d been unmanned by a ragamuffin crew of ballers, LeBron’s self-awareness and hindsight hadn’t improved one iota. If anything, it got worse.
Not to be that guy, but the haters didn’t lose the Finals, dude. You did. The best in the world. With great panache and minimal self-awareness, you fell short at the moment of truth (it happens, much as it sucks), and then started giving the fans shit. The fans!!! Unheard of, at least by anyone who portended to be great and lived up to that hype.
LeBron’s reaction reminded me of a scene in HBO’s fun new show Game of Thrones a few weeks ago. The King (Mark Addy) is being berated by the Queen (Lena Heady) for not taking stronger action against a man she believes (falsely) to be a traitor but who is also the King’s best friend. The King isn’t hearing it, so the Queen throws argument out the window and just starts berating her husband. “Maybe you should wear the gown, and I the crown,” she sneers, and he backhands her so hard it splits her skin. A few snipes later and she’s gone, and the King mutters, to no one in particular: “I shouldn’t have hit her. That wasn’t…Kinglike.”
Only LeBron didn’t have that kind of moment after the Finals. Or in the year preceding them. No hindsight, no regret, no thought to offer the slightest apology for being a little too selfish, a little too preening, a little too horse-before-the-cart. A little too preoccupied with looking like a King than acting like one. The greatest Kings, the ones we remember the most, didn’t just conquer. They conquered well.
And then, on the other hand, you have Dirk Nowitzki. Not the most talented guy in this story (LeBron is), not the most outspoken (Mark Cuban is), not the most celebrated (LeBron again). And yet, he was the winner. He was the greatest. You could argue that it’s because the pieces came together on his team as the pieces on LeBron’s team fell apart. It could have easily gone the other way, and for a while in the beginning of the series, we thought it would.
You could say Dirk came out on top because he was the hardest-working. He suffered the most, in silence, after the 2006 loss to the Wade-Shaq incarnation of the Heat, and, like Jordan, he gave his credit, plotted his revenge, and got back at the haters not by flaunting his lifestyle but honing his talents (Simmons made an interesting point: for all his skills, LeBron is surprisingly rough around the edges in the post-up game and has been for years. Seems fair to me.). And once the game was over, you know what Dirk did? He shut the fuck up.
The guy barely said two words to anyone after the game, scurried into the locker room so he could cry alone and enjoy his hard-won, belated coronation without making a gaudy spectacle of it like most athletes tend to do. Like LeBron might have done. We’ll never know, in any case, which, to the haters, is a beautiful thing. Ironically enough, it’s sad that someone with LeBron’s talent hasn’t hit his peak eight years in; the idea of him ending up like Barkley or Malone, with no title to go with all those talents, is kind of a scary one.
Still, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Is it sweet for Dirk to take his own talents to South Beach, beat his most hated rivals (and their marquee stars) on their home court? Goddamn right it is. But you won’t hear him reveling in it. At least not publicly. He’s too good for that. He celebrates alone.
Will LeBron win a title? Abso-goddamn-lutely. And when he does, mark my words, we will all cheer for him, because he will have done what we always want the greats to do: become stronger through pain, hone his talents, put his nose to the grindstone, and go get what is his.
But not this year, though. This year was another story about the best in the world.
On a closing note, I’ll tell you a particularly telling story about these Finals. In any case, it’s the one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, because it’s all about a single comment that summed everything up quite nicely.
It was during the last three minutes, with Dallas up 10 or so. I was milling outside Thunder Jackson’s, a ramshackle sports bar in Manhattan on the corner of Sullivan and Bleecker that looks kind of like an empty room with a red awning. It’s sparsely decorated, with license plates and retro knick-knacks lining the wall; not that big, and kind of a shithole to look at minus the absolutely gorgeous array of televisions mounted on the wall. There are bigger, better bars in the city (I was en route to my favorite, a cavelike beer hall a block and a half away called Off the Wagon), but this one was the most packed, the most energetic, the most passionate. I couldn’t have gotten in if I tried; it was literally crammed to the gills. So I milled around outside with ten or so other onlookers to watch through the open windows.
No sooner had I taken up a position did Dirk Nowitzki plow his way through a disintegrating Miami defense, plant his feet outside the key, and sink an absolutely gorgeous three-pointer that caused the tiny beer shack to erupt with gladiatorial joy. Everyone tossed their own interjection around on how great the shot was or how much LeBron sucked (my own offering: “HE DRAINS BUCKETS!!!”) but the guy next to me had the best one. He quietly turned towards his girlfriend, who I can only assume isn’t much of a basketball fan because of what he said next:
“That’s the guy I was telling you about,” the man whispered in awe to his girl, who looked pretty amazed herself at what had just happened. “The best in the world.”
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