Lebron James and his quest for vindication (read also: a championship)
If you’re an NBA fan, you probably looked at the headline and wondered why I’m wasting my time with something so obvious. The media has belabored the story to the point of exhaustion –“ Lebron doesn’t have a ring, Lebron is a villain, how does he handle all the hatred?” We cannot escape it. It surrounds us, permeates nearly every sports discussion. It lurks, and it lingers, ready to spring on us at any moment – the gentle drone in the background.
Then again, if you’re not an NBA fan, you probably read the headline and rolled your eyes. But the fact is, the story elicits some sort of reaction from everyone interested in sports – few are truly apathetic when it comes to Lebron James and the Miami Heat. Love him (few people do), hate him (as many do), or celebrate his shortcomings with glee (as most people do), Lebron James moves the needle.
Tonight, the Boston Celtics host the Heat in Game 6, up 3 games to 2, ready to deny Lebron, Wade and the injured Chris Bosh a shot at the title. It would be Miami’s second failure in as many seasons with James – who has been one of the best three or four players in the NBA for the last eight years. Yet, he lacks a title, the missing piece to his resume, a glaring deficiency in a stellar career.
Lebron’s “ring-less” narrative has been building ever since the 2006-07 season (when Lebron and the Cavaliers were swept out of the Finals) – and nothing in the other three major sports (the NHL, MLB, not even the mighty NFL) can match its depth and intrigue. As sick of the story as some may be, once you stack it up, head-to-head, with what is available to interest us on the rest of the sports landscape, it’s clear – this is the most compelling story in sports.
The National Hockey League is little more than a niche sport. Its big attention-grabber at the moment is the story of the Los Angeles Kings, the 8th seed on the brink of winning it all. Other than that, Sidney Crosby’s injury status is the only thing that’s cracked the national consciousness – and even that was paltry, considering the magnitude of that injury to the sport. Hockey lacks the juice to rile the collective sports fan base up.
Major League Baseball has had to deal with the realities of performance-enhancing drugs, but even the way that story has unfolded has mirrored the game itself – plodding, slow, a ceaseless hum. Names of users get released, new stars see their names besmirched (most recently, Ryan Braun) – but the marathon of games begins anew, and all is forgotten.
One player cannot dominate the sport of baseball the way Lebron James dominates basketball. While Albert Pujols is the closest equivalent America’s Pastime has got, his defection from St. Louis and subsequent early season struggles already feel as though they were a lifetime ago. The games themselves are long – the storylines are fleeting.
The National Football League deserves unique consideration. It does not lack for big stories – but its abundance of them seems to water down the overall narrative. Right now, the buzz words are “player safety” and “Bounty-gate”, which replaced the Tim Tebow phenomenon, which replaced the lockout, which replaced the Brett Favre retirement saga… and on and on it goes.
Football is America’s most popular sport – without a doubt – and interest in the game has never been higher, for a myriad of reasons. But if you are talking about a single, compelling storyline playing out in front of us, the issue of concussions doesn’t match Lebron’s quest for a ring. In terms of staying power and magnitude, it’s on the same level, but it isn’t (yet) encapsulated in one player or event. Should an NFL player perish on the field of play – something that seems more and more like an inevitable reality – that would be something transcendent.
But what we see in Lebron James is unmistakable skill meeting unreasonable expectations. Everyone expects him to win it all, everyone expects him to make the big shot in the fourth quarter, everyone expects him to act perfectly at all times. Ironically, he plays the sport better than anyone on this planet – and it isn’t enough.
The fact that basketball is the easiest team sport for one player to dominate contributes to the intrigue. The best player on the floor has maximum impact on the outcomes of games. The fact that Lebron is in his ninth season and still hasn’t won a title sounds shocking, but not when you consider some history. It took Jordan until his seventh season to get his first ring, Isiah Thomas and Wilt Chamberlain needed eight tries, Hakeem Olajuwon needed nine attempts and Dirk Nowitzki got his first title in his 13th campaign.
Sure, Magic, Bird, Kobe and Duncan each had a ring by their fourth year in the NBA, but until last season Lebron never had a Kareem, McHale, Shaq or David Robinson. Heck, he barely had a Worthy, Dennis Johnson, Glen Rice or Sean Elliott. He’s out of excuses, now – he’s paired with another could be Hall-of-Famer in Dwayne Wade.
If the Heat muster the wherewithal to win Game 6 on the road, bring the series back to South Beach, win Game 7, then right the ship and beat the Thunder in the Finals – what becomes the NBA’s biggest storyline? I suppose the ascendance of the Clippers, the Dwight Howard soap opera, or whether or not the Thunder can win a title with Durant and Westbrook together would lead the conversation.
Fact is, none of those subjects are half as interesting as Lebron’s current predicament. Part of me hopes the Heat go down tonight, just because it’s so damn interesting – the sport’s most iconic player, the best basketball player since Jordan, would lack a ring for another year. And in the vacuum of the sports world, nothing nearly as compelling is waiting in the wings when (if?) Lebron gets this monkey off his back.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!