There may be only one person who truly understands LeBron James’ long-awaited redemption story and can relate to the unfairness of how it may be short-circuited in the coming two weeks: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For eight grinding, focused months, LeBron James has done everything he can to turn around his basketball fortunes. He has become a better man — less prone to anger and public-relations guffaws, no longer trying to get his head coach fired or place the blame on his teammates, and radiating a confidence that seems to come, at last, from an inner calm that may have as much to do with growing as a person as it does improving as a basketball player.
The results on the court have been unmistakable: A third MVP award and a stunning performance even by the standards of his own remarkable talent during a pressure-plagued Eastern Conference finals on which everything dear to him hung.
In a gritty series against a Boston Celtics team that would not go away, LeBron’s 33.6 points and 11 rebounds per game, his 53-percent shooting, his Game 6 masterpiece and his Game 7 fourth-quarter fearlessness announced the arrival of a new and improved version of King James. One ready for a championship. One with redemption finally at his fingertips. One made stronger by the hardships that preceded him, both those of his own making (many) and those outside his control (hello Dirk Nowitzki).
LeBron James has grown. He’s changed and evolved and turned his hardships and mistakes into the foundation for incredible success and a stunning redemption. It’s a great story. It’s a story that is the best part of sports, the best of being human: The idea we can learn from our past and better ourselves.
How unfair, then, that Kevin Durant — having peaked sooner and stronger than most saw coming — is lurking in the Finals to take it all away.
Sound familiar, Madam Secretary?
In 2008, she was on the verge of a worldwide unveiling of the true Hillary, the one with the substance and fearlessness that powered her flawed husband, when she ran into a force of nature ahead of its time.
Yes, Hillary can relate to LeBron, and in this perfectly timed NBA Finals, Kevin Durant conjures memories of the 2008 Barack Obama, an irresistible feel-good story with far more potential than seasoning.
This isn’t about one’s political or sports leanings. Both Hillary and LeBron, whether you’re a true-blooded conservative or lifelong Clevelander, turned their own weaknesses into a potent mix for greatness: Humiliation followed by self-awareness followed by a deep knowledge of failure that helped weave God-given talents into greatness.
For Hillary, it begins with getting humiliated on live television by her cheating presidential husband. Sticking with the disgraced Bill Clinton, she lives in a post-Monica purgatory that is humiliating and that further damages her already low standing. People hate her already; now they think she’s weak as well. Undaunted, she spends the next eight years methodically building her reputation and working on her political skills. She takes self-inflicted moments of political stupidity (a vast right wing conspiracy) and turns it into a marveling ability to work across the aisle with her onetime foes as the newly elected senator from New York. She becomes popular, she becomes a political master even under the pressure of a presidential run, she’s the front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination, it’s the perfect anti-Bush climate for a Democrat … and Obama emerges to bring it to a screeching halt.
For LeBron, it begins with getting humiliated (albeit of his own doing) on live television after seeming to cheat on the city of Cleveland and then keep up the poor decision-making with a preseason championship celebration. People hate him already; as the season goes on many start to think he’s weak, too. Playing with a Miami Heat team everyone hates, he keeps putting his foot in his mouth and insulting people and further damaging his increasingly low standing. Then comes the June Finals collapse and a new level of embarrassment and failure. Undaunted, he spends the next eight months methodically building his reputation and working on his political skills and mastering how to turn his incredible gifts into a sure thing come real crunch time.
He disposes of the Celtics in truly heroic fashion in the greatest playoff series of his career and like Hillary seems poised for the top prize, the real signal those dark days were worth it … and here comes Durant, threatening to bring it all to a screeching halt.
History rarely repeats itself exactly the same way twice. LeBron can still do to Durant what Hillary could not to Obama: Through sheer greatness and talent and lessons learned, make him wait his turn.
But the risk is the same.
Hillary Clinton, for all the heftiness of her resume and stature of her current position as secretary of state, did not turn her heartache, failures and mistakes into the pinnacle of achievement. Obama took that away.
Now LeBron stands just short of his own pinnacle, knowing, as he must, that anything short of a championship will not be enough — not for him, not for history. And standing nearby, ready to take it away, is Durant.
LeBron James has walked the same tortured and instructive path as Hillary Rodham Clinton. He failed, he was hated, he learned, he grew, he improved, he waited, and then he mounted a remarkable display of what talent, ambition and greatness can accomplish when armed with enough past failures to sharpen the senses and cut away the weaknesses.
Hillary learned that the thing about historical greatness is that sometimes, while chasing history with the resolve of the almost-redeemed, you can find that a surprisingly formidable adversary is hell-bent on claiming it for themselves.
Be ready, LeBron. There’s a chance you could learn that same painful lesson.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.