Making his teammates better
CLEVELAND – "Make way for the superstar!" shouted LeBron James to the throng crowded outside the victorious Cleveland Cavaliers locker room. "Make way for the superstar!"
Whatever King James asks around here, King James gets, of course. Only he started laughing as a path was cleared not for him but also for his previously anonymous teammate, Daniel "Boobie" Gibson, who entered this series as a role player, a rookie and a second-round pick and ended it with 31 knockout points on the Detroit Pistons.
Cleveland finally rocked Saturday, this long hopeless, mostly helpless franchise growing stronger and stronger, higher and higher with each passing game until a wave of building, budding confidence just crashed its way into the NBA finals.
James produced 20 more points, 14 more rebounds and eight more assists Saturday in the Cavaliers' 98-82 silencing of Detroit, but nowhere in any box score was a measurement of James' ageless leadership ability and contagious confidence. There was no measure of its profound effect on his unheralded, uneven supporting cast that keeps getting better by the day. There was nothing of an icon acting as the bodyguard for a lowly rook.
Gibson entered Game 2 of this series averaging 3.7 points in the playoffs. But he got his chance, drained a few three-pointers and immediately had LeBron hugging him on the court, whispering in his ear and lifting him up.
If Gibson, the 42nd pick in last June's draft, wasn't certain he was ready for a starring role in the Eastern Conference finals against that vaunted Pistons backcourt, James was. He had watched his work ethic all season. He had been telling him that when he got his chance he'd deliver.
Now that the time was here, LeBron kept telling him and telling him and telling him until the rest of the series the kid from Texas with the silly nickname averaged 17.8 points and became a weapon Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton couldn't handle.
None of it happens without James. No way. Not Boobie, not Drew Gooden's baseline jumpers, not Anderson Varejao's tenacious inside play, not the Pistons' reduction to nothing but shouting at officials, not this frantic, frenetic college-like crowd, not an entire franchise that never had any reason to believe in anything suddenly rising up.
James may be 22, but he's always been a leader. His boyhood friends back in Akron say he dominated Pop Warner football games. When he was a high school freshman, he was the best player in Ohio, everyone looking to him, everyone focusing on stopping his game. He compared what Gibson did Saturday to what his best friend, Dru Joyce, did when they were freshmen in the Ohio state championship game. The defense focused on LeBron; Joyce won the game.
Different stage, different kid, same result.
"He told me he was going to make me something special," Gibson said. "He told me to keep shooting, don't hesitate.
"When a guy like that tells you that, you step to it with a lot of confidence and knock it down for him."
Yes, for him, everything for him. James is such an oversized superstar – the commercials, the highlights, the international fame – that he could cast an awful shadow over his locker room. Yet he stuns each and every member of this organization with his humility, his friendship, his desire to take even the most nervous of rookies under his wing if it might, just might, make this team better.
"I just knew he was going to be something special and tonight it was perfect," James said.
You've never seen a team grow so fast, so furious. Every moment seemed to build toward this, every decision James made a part of a master plan that would pay off.
He was criticized for half of his moves by so many knee-jerk skeptics, but giving up the potential game-winning shot in Game 1 led to Detroit having to respect the pass in Game 5 and his teammates developing boundless confidence in Game 6.
The averages of 25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists in this series were just some of the magic LeBron worked here. The rest were the little conversations, the postgame praise for his guys, the talks on the plane, the bus, the locker room, the way he makes everyone – even the old veterans – do it for him.
James was never going to let this series get away. He alternated between dominating when necessary and playing motivator for his teammates when possible; he was like a parent teaching his kid to ride a two-wheeler, letting go and grabbing on at just the right moments. On Thursday, he scored the final 25 points. On Saturday, the other Cavs scored the first 18.
If two teammates hadn't missed wide-open game-winners in the first two games, Cleveland would have won this series 6-0. But even with the misses, LeBron never criticized, never pouted or frowned. He just kept telling them to shoot, kept telling them they were good enough, kept telling them this was possible.
"From day one I've chanted, 'One, two, three, championship,' " James said of the way he breaks huddles. "Funny faces at first looked at me. I didn't care. I kept it going. 'One, two, three, championship' every single day."
And then he worked to make it happen. Not just by making himself better but by making everyone else better. One, two, three. Every single day.
Make way for the superstar, he said. Make way for these Cavaliers.