When LeBron Fears, We All Learn
Either late last night or way early this morning -- who knows the difference in this crazy, mixed-up business -- Randy Kim suggested that LeBron James was scared in Game 5. Not "scurrrred" or "shook," but actually registering fear.
That's not the same as doubt; in doubt, you have yourself to blame. Fear is the awful possibility that you can bring it like mad and still have life thrown back in your face. Fear is to be overcome, just like doubt, and is undoubtedly less humiliating. But LeBron James isn't supposed to feel fear. It's human, way too human.
Yesterday on ye old NBA FanHouse list that none of you will ever see, we spent some time kicking around the idea of LeBron and expectations. Matt Moore pretty much nailed it: to paraphrase, we expect nothing less than perfection from James, and anything less is a failure worthy of scorn. Or, as with Tuesday's game, a worry that the sky is falling.
But that might be because of how we've cast James: he is, to some degree, super-human, if not inhuman. James has powers that either came from a laboratory, outer space, or a deal with the devil. No, scratch that last one. It has too much heart in it.
As Mr. Kim also points out, what made Bron's body language notable isn't that he looked like a whiny overpaid punk who should sign for the mid-level exception next year because he owes that to the good people of Manhattan who he let down. No, it was just how, well, relatable an emotion fear really is.
Granted, pressure over carrying a region and occupying the fulcrum of the league's balance of power might get to him. Against Boston, though, you saw something deeper. James was tentative, halting -- the opposite of the bounding, jocular, expansive LeBron we're used to. Come to think of it, that doesn't really sound like the profile of an evil robot-monster, either.
I spend a lot of time wondering about what makes LeBron tick. He plays to win the game, and I mean that in the freshest way possible. James does his thing, makes good decisions, and generally it yields positive outcomes. Contrast that with Kobe Bryant, who sees every possession as a battle in a ditch to prove his supremacy and rule the hour, or Kevin Durant, who even at this young age seems outraged and confused when he can't fight his way to a win. These guys scare you, even in the post-game.
James, though, is at once beyond our comprehension and, in the way he handles himself on the court, as accessible as anyone since Magic Johnson. It's a really undervalued aspect of his game -- and should be at the heart of his image. Somehow, though, when the dust settles and the box score rises, we're left once again remarking on the implacable brilliance of the numbers, the output, the record.
Some simple transitive property here: LeBron wears his heart on his sleeve. It's not Allen Iverson heart, but the kind of energy and exuberance that pisses off some people and makes others feel like the guy has a soul. Note to LBJ's floundering endorsement team: This is his greatest strength as an icon, or at least the one that's got the most appeal. It's the one that launched his first, and possibly still finest, Nike ad. Beneath, or within, his on-court Earth-wrecking, LeBron James is just an overgrown lover of basketball.
That's not to say that he doesn't practice, or watch film, or exercise discipline of any kind. But when LeBron gets going, he does a great job of masking or overcoming the limits of professionalism. He's got spirit, and you can feel it rushing through you when he's at his best. Unlike his peers, it's not necessarily a dark, toxic, or corrosive one. Sports doesn't always have to channel man's most brutal and vicious tendencies.
All of which brings us back to fear. When Randy says that LeBron fears, I don't think about an executive crapping his pants in front of the Senate, or a knight unable to defend his kingdom. It's neither a strictly professional dilemma nor an existential one. LeBron James feared the Celtics team, that night, in that moment. He hit the court, like any other night, ready to do LeBron. And the team he encountered threw him for a loop.
This isn't about the perfect basketball player unmasked, a great man felled, or a tarnished legacy. On the contrary, it's totally consistent with how James looks when he's at peak performance.
That fear has real vulnerability -- as you can hear in the post-game snarkiness from the supposedly omnipotent James. But it doesn't stem from egotism or entitlement; LeBron James is not a prima donna sulking because things didn't go his way. In the same way that he delights at a ridiculous fast break or a teammate's flush, LeBron James is feeling the game like anyone else would. He's just a zillion times better at it. And yet the concerned LBJ is the somewhat comforting (not demeaning!) flipside of what LeBron really shows on the court.This isn't a god, or a toy sent from beyond the stratosphere to amuse us. He's great because of his humanity, and in one of the worst losses of his career, he registered a very human, very revealing emotion.
Kobe or Durant would have radiated anger or frustration. LeBron, unable to get out and play his game, got worried, even lost. Does that make him perfect? No. More human? Yes. And really, isn't it about time we start injecting a little more of that into our view of The Next Great Basketball Savior?