Before I get to LeBron James and the matter of his sudden, if entirely undeserved good fortune, let me address the prevailing standard for on-court heroism in professional basketball.
That would be Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. With torn quadriceps, Willis Reed limped forth from the tunnel at Madison Square Garden, the applause rising with each hobbled step. Then he hit his first two shots, his only points that night.
It was inspirational, to be sure, though I’m not sure the magnificence of the image itself doesn’t overwhelm an even greater accomplishment. Clyde Frazier, then in his third season, had 36 points and 18 assists that night.
Let me offer an even better example, again, with no disrespect for Reed. Wednesday will mark the 32nd anniversary of Game 6 of the 1980 Finals between Philadelphia and Los Angeles. It’s incredible to think that a full season could end on May 16. Even more implausible, however, was the performance of Magic Johnson. He was a 20-year-old rookie jumping center for the greatest scorer in NBA history. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in Los Angeles, one wondered how the Lakers could make up for his numbers — he averaged 25 points, 11 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.4 blocked shots that season — on the road. But Johnson, not known as a scorer, came away with 42 points (14 for 14 from the line), 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and the first of his five championship rings.
And so, in an admittedly roundabout way, I’m back to LeBron James. He is, as Magic was in his day, the most versatile and distinctive talent in basketball. His game doesn’t look like anyone else’s. It defies conventional characterization. He doesn’t even really have a position. I mean, he’s kind of a point guard but built like an NFL tight end, only bigger. But that’s not to say, as was often argued early in James’ career, that he’s a new and improved version of Magic Johnson. In existential terms, Johnson has an all but insurmountable lead. By James’ own recent admission, MVP awards are not the standard by which to judge him. Championships are. But after eight years in the league, LeBron James has yet to win his first.
Still, all is not lost for James, his entourage and their corporate sponsors. Rather, this second round of the playoffs could begin a grand transformation, a windfall for that which James holds most dear — his image.
It’s been almost two years since The Decision. Perhaps you think I should let it go already.
The Chosen One. King James. LBJ. The monikers, like the expectations they engendered, didn’t come about organically. They didn’t originate with the fans. They weren’t even manufactured by the media. They come from James himself, along with the mercantile interests that have nurtured his narcissism since high school. He should own the expectations; he was the one who spoke of winning eight championships with the Heat.
That is, after all, why James signed in Miami, to win championships, right? He didn’t do it to be a hero. He did it to make it easier. Problem is, dynasties aren’t supposed to be easy. And that’s why so many people still can’t stand the guy.
But this injury to Chris Bosh — out indefinitely because of an abdominal strain — could change that. It might not be good news for the Heat, but let’s be honest, it’s good for James. He wins a title as part of an ensemble, it’s only the first of many he was supposed to win. But without Bosh, James gets another chance. He can yet be as good as advertised. He can still play the hero.
Personally, I don’t think it’s too much to ask, him carrying Miami to the Finals, certainly not in a conference without Derrick Rose. Nor would I dare to compare Bosh with Jabbar or Willis Reed. But it’s not one game, either. James has a few weeks to work without the least important member of the Big Three.
Then, later this summer, he’ll compete for an Olympic gold medal, a souvenir that tends to do wonders for injured reputations. Think about it: James could get the MVP, the gold and a championship ring in the same year, a legitimately Jordanesque accomplishment.
It’s a start.
If I’m Nike, though, I’m telling him to jump center. Also, work on his limp. Make a great ad, no?