Will we ever figure out what happened to this guy in the Finals? Allow me to offer two dopey theories for what happened, and only because I believe everything HAS to be explained and can’t accept a world in which things don’t have an answer …
Remember when Wade tore into LeBron with three-plus minutes remaining in Game 3? When he yelled at him for eight solid seconds? When there was genuine anger in his eyes? When he did it right on the court, right in front of the other players, right in front of 20,000 fans and 10 million TV viewers?
LeBron was never the same after that.
When was the last time anyone ever really yelled at LeBron James? You’d have to go back to high school, right? He just spent the past 10 years being coddled by everyone (teammates, coaches, agents, entourage members, yes-men, general managers, owners, media members, etc.). Imagine he was a little kid (which really, he might still be to some degree), and imagine you were his father and didn’t believe in yelling at your kids. Now, imagine your kid screwed up in his second-grade play and, for whatever reason, you broke character, snapped, and berated him for eight seconds in front of everyone. How would he handle that? Poorly, right? He’d pretend it didn’t affect him, but the more he thought about it, it would gnaw away at him (especially once his buddies said, “I can’t believe your dad yelled at you like that”).
Could that have been what happened to LeBron? Did those eight seconds shake his confidence beyond repair? Did he resent Wade for embarrassing him? Did he think to himself, “Fine, you want to act like this is your team, then YOU win this title?” I believe every basketball champion needs a pecking order of sorts; that’s just what the history of the league told us. Miami tried to cheat this concept by putting two of the league’s best three players on the same team. It worked for 8½ months; LeBron and Wade ran the team together and deferred to one another depending on the moment. Then the Finals rolled around, Wade kicked it up another gear, LeBron didn’t do the same, Wade called him out…and the team was NEVER the same. These are the facts.
Passed along by a friend of mine in NBA circles: LeBron caved from the never-ending scrutiny (as brutal as any athlete has ever faced in the Internet era) and his shaky inner circle, which consists of one parent (his mother, who battled a ton of problems over the years), his high school friends (who assumed an inordinately crucial role in his life without any real experience), his agents (who never threw their bodies in front of “The Decision”), and Miami’s management (who walked him into another fiasco with the Heat's Welcome Party). By all accounts, he’s a genuinely nice and happy guy who just wants to be liked—he was never meant to be a villain, and as much as he tried to feed off the heat (no pun intended), once it piled up past a certain point, he broke. Maybe he felt that happening against the 2010 Celtics as well; maybe that’s why he chose to play with Wade in the first place.
And maybe that’s why, right now, he’s in total denial. Even in the postgame presser, when he should have been devastated the same way Magic Johnson was distraught after coming up small in the 1984 Finals, LeBron was doing the Frank Drebin “Nothing to see here, please disperse” routine, bristling at the notion that he choked and taking shots at anyone who rooted against him. That’s what you do when you’re surrounded by enablers—you blame everyone else, and you never look within. He never understood that people only rooted against him because that’s what you do when someone boasts before they’ve ever actually done anything.
Let’s say you’re in college and one of your buddies says, “See that girl over there? I’m taking her home tonight. And I’m doing this because I'm the funniest and best-looking guy in this room.” And let’s say he’s COMPLETELY serious. Guess what you’re doing if it doesn’t happen? You’re making fun of him. Relentlessly. Really, that’s what 50 percent of the Miami-related vitriol was about; the other 50 percent was because LeBron tried to stack the deck by playing with his biggest rival (we didn’t respect it), and because he broke Cleveland’s hearts on national TV (we didn’t like it). To this day, LeBron hasn’t shown any real regret about last summer; that’s the main reason everyone rooted against him. He couldn’t handle it. He caved. And now we’re here.
So it’s Theory A or Theory B, or maybe both, or maybe neither. I don’t know why I care so much. Maybe it’s because I know LeBron might be the most talented player I will ever watch, the Jordan of this generation, and I’m going to end up being pissed off that he never reached his potential and took me to a higher place as a sports fan…which is only the entire reason we watch sports in the first place, right? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and because once in a while, someone shows up who’s so good and so talented that he makes us say, “I know what’s going to happen next!” Like he’s giving us sports fan ESP. The best thing about Jordan’s final shot wasn’t that he made it, but that WE KNEW HE WOULD MAKE IT. That’s why we revere him all these years later. Usually heroes come through only on command in movies; Jordan did it in real life. We loved him for it.
LeBron? We thought he was next. Then he fell apart against Boston. Then he chose to play with his buddy instead of beating him. Then he fell apart again. Forget about him losing; we’re losing, too. Nobody has ever fully explained that part to LeBron. We rooted against him this season because it’s fun to have villains in sports, and because it’s fun to see an overly confident person gets his or her comeuppance. Not because we hated his guts. There will be a day when we root for LeBron James again. You wait.
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