CLEVELAND – This isn’t important enough to LeBron James(notes). That’s the uncompromising, unconquerable truth. Everything has come too easy to him, and he still doesn’t believe that winning championships takes a consuming, obsessive desire that borders on the maniacal. He is chasing high school and college kids on recruiting trips for his fledgling marketing company, medicating his insecurities with unending and unfolding free-agent dramas.
James is chasing Warren Buffett and Jay-Z the way he should be chasing Russell and Jordan and Bryant. He wants CEOs to bow before him, engage him as though he is a contemporary on the frontlines of industry. Only, the truth of the matter is, he’s a singular talent who’s going to watch his playoff failures start to chip away at the thing that seems to matter most to him: his marketability and magnetism.
Most of all, James is forever selling something of himself – an ideal, an image, a possibility. Something nebulous, something promised. He’s chasing a global platform, the bright, blinking billion-dollar fortune, and he’s largely gotten the natural order of things backward.
Stop strutting, stop preening, stop stomping away as an ungracious winner, a sore loser, and win something, LeBron.
Win something now.
No more excuses. Not now, not after this biblical bottoming out that pushes the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink of an unthinkable collapse. And yet, after Tuesday's ferocious failure of his professional career, the encompassing embarrassment of a 120-88 Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics, James dismissed his unthinkably poor performance with this colossal cop-out: “I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in seven years, it’s easy to point them out.”
Who is he to be indignant after he gave a playoff game away? What’s he ever won to be so smug to the masses? That’s what drives the Celtics crazy about James. Eventually, he will understand his greatness isn’t measured on the hit-and-runs through NBA cities across a long season. It’s measured now, in the teeth of the battle, when a tiny guard, Rajon Rondo(notes), has stolen his stage and nearly a series.
Somewhere, the whispers of the game’s greatest talents became a murmur louder and louder: James still doesn’t understand part of the price of greatness is inviting the burden on yourself and sparing those around you. He missed 11 of 14 shots. James didn’t score a basket until the third quarter. He was terrible, just terrible, and yet James couldn’t bring himself to say the worst home playoff loss in franchise history began and ended with him.
For all of James’ unselfishness on the floor, he can still be so selfish off it. They could’ve lined up the greatest players in the game’s history Tuesday night in the primes of their championship lives, and there isn’t one of them who would’ve deflected and deferred like the self-proclaimed King James. They would’ve been livid and they would’ve put it on themselves. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant(notes). Tim Duncan(notes) and, yes, Shaquille O’Neal(notes).
They had titles, and they would’ve mutilated themselves for public consumption. James is too cool, too stubborn and maybe too self-unaware. This is on me, they would’ve told you, and, I’ll get us out of this. They would’ve made sure teammates and opponents, fans and enemies understood. They would’ve made sure the whole world understood: This isn’t how an MVP plays in the playoffs. This isn’t how he lets a legacy linger in limbo. What you heard out of James was self-righteous: “I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out and be great and the best player on the court. When I don’t, I feel bad for myself.”
This wasn’t the night to feel bad for himself. There’s been enough pity for him in this series. As much as anything these past two years, the Cavaliers have taken on James’ persona: Entitled, arrogant and expectant that the sheer divine right of his greatness will win them a ring. Only, the Celtics are proud, old champions arisen out of the rubble and on the brink of closing out the Cavaliers on Thursday night at the Boston Garden. No one saw this coming on Tuesday night, the surgical removal of the Cavaliers’ hearts surrounded with a stunned silence that devolved into the debris of boos.
James lorded over one of the most agonizing, humiliating losses a championship contender ever endured. So much comes with this collapse, bookended with decades of a city’s championship sports futility set against the free agency for the son it spawned in neighboring Akron.
This collapse will cost people jobs. This will change the course of the franchise. Where’s James going? And as job security goes, the CEO of British Petroleum has more going for him than Mike Brown right now. Forty feet away Tuesday night, Kentucky’s John Calipari was sitting under the basket with Leon Rose, the agent Cal shares with his buddy, LeBron.
James invites these storylines into the gymnasium, this drama, and leaves everyone else to live with the consequences. Owner Dan Gilbert has fostered a culture of permissiveness with James that hasn’t served him or the franchise.
The Cavs live in fear of him, his moods, his whims, and it’s the reason no one ever tells him the truth: Hey ’Bron, you looked childish for refusing to shake the Orlando Magic’s hands last season. You sounded small grumbling about criticism for your wildly up-and-down play in this series. James walked out of the Q on Tuesday night and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever return as a Cavalier here.
Yet make no mistake: James has enough around him. This team isn’t perfect, isn’t assured of beating the Los Angeles Lakers, but it has no business losing in the conference semifinals – never mind failing to even compete. And, yes, as much as ever, this is on James.
He invited all this drama about walking out on his hometown team this summer, and now free agency hung over the Q like an anvil. Here’s a city that’s waited 46 years for a championship, a town that reacts viciously to the sheer suggestion that James could leave for New York this summer. These fans have been much better to James than he's been to them. It hasn’t been the media that’s built his role in the summer of 2010 to a crescendo, but James himself. He constantly manipulated it with suggestions and hints and wink-winks to New York.
James proclaimed July 1, 2010, as the biggest day in the history of basketball, ramping up suspense of his ultimate decision: Do I stay or do I go? What it has done is throw more palpable pressure in the air, more desperation, and it’s come back to haunt him now.
James says the Cavaliers know all about what it takes, but he knows about winning in the regular season. This is a different time, a different game. Three bad games in seven years? He’s kidding himself. Now, he has a championship cast around him. Now, he’ll be judged. No one gives a damn what he did in the regular season.
Perhaps sooner than later, he’s going to get his coach fired for losing this series. Or the next to Orlando. He’s mocked Brown for acting too angry with the Game 2 thrashing, but the coach understood what James refused to acknowledge until Tuesday night: The Cavs have been wildly inconsistent in these playoffs and they’re nowhere near playing championship ball.
Across the regular season, James can play hard, let his talent take over and embark on all the side gigs that gobble his time.
This isn’t a part-time thing. Winning everything takes a single-minded, obsessive devotion. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant does, too. They didn’t want to win championships, they had to win them. They needed them for validation and identity and, later, they became moguls. LeBron James is running around recruiting college kids to his marketing company. He picks up the phone, tells them, “This is the King,” and makes his pitch to be represented in his stable. Think Kobe would ever bother with this? Or Michael? Not a chance when they were on the climb, not when they still had a fist free of rings.
LeBron James is on the clock now, and Game 6 in Boston could be for his legacy in Cleveland. He has been prancing around the edges for too long now, angling for a transcendent existence he believed his brand could bring him. Only, it’s all a mirage. It’s all vapor until he does the heavy lifting that comes now, that comes in the shadows of Magic and Larry, Michael and Kobe. This isn’t about selling an image to Madison Avenue, about pushing product through all those dazzling plays across the winter months. This is an MVP’s time, his calling, and there was LeBron James standing in the middle of the Cavaliers’ locker room at 11:25 p.m., staring in a long mirror, fixing his shirt before the long walk down the corridor to the interview room.
James stood there for five seconds and 10 and maybe now 20, just staring into the mirror, just taking a long, long look at himself. For the first time in his career, the first time when it’s all truly on him, maybe the sport stood and stared with him. All hell breaking loose, all on the line now. Forget everything in his life, all the make-believe nonsense, Game 6 and maybe Game 7 will promise to serve as the most honest hours of his basketball life.