Contrary to popular, knee-jerk opinion, no legacies have been defined. It takes a much longer body of work to create things like epitaphs, legacies or whatever else it is we sports fans like to drone on about. These are complicated things that take depth to speak about with any type of substance.
In other words, don't cry for LeBron James—not that anyone was or will. He's just 26-years old and largely viewed as the most talented basketball player on the planet. He's also teamed with Dwyane Wade, another one of the most talented ballplayers in the world, so one would assume his best days are in the future.
So if LeBron is the type to think about such things as legacies and his place in the pantheon of NBA greats, he has to know that it's how a player comes back that proves his mettle.
It’s the Buddhist proverb that goes: fall down seven times stand up eight. LeBron just has to stand up once.
That's the tricky part. After the Dallas Mavericks sent the Miami Heat and LeBron into a summer sure to be filled with second-guessing, Magic Johnson came on TV to talk about how he dedicated himself to the game after his Lakers lost the Celtics in seven games during the 1984 Finals. Even though Magic had won an NCAA national title and two NBA titles in less than five years, it wasn't until he lost that he says he, "got it." In losing Magic knew what it took to win.
From Jackie McMullen's, When the Game was Ours:
“It was the worst night of my life,” Magic said. “I told myself, ‘Don't ever forget how this feels.’”
The 1984 NBA Finals could be ground zero for when the league took off into the stratosphere. Not only was it the first time the Larry Bird-led Celtics and Magic's Lakers met in the finals, but also it was the last time the NBA played a season without Michael Jordan. Better yet, it didn't hurt that the series was one the greatest ever played and actually made the pre-series hype seem as if it wasn't hyped up enough. For seven games both teams punched and counterpunched—sometimes literally. After the clubs split the first two games with the Celtics taking Game 2 in overtime because of costly mistakes by Magic and James Worthy, the Lakers trounced the Celtics in Game 3 by 33 points.
Game 3 was the epitome of Lakers Showtime. They sprinted past the Celtics as if they were standing still, turning even the most mundane of missed shots into transition baskets that resulted in dunks and layups.
But afterwards, two things happened. Bird stood in front of the throng of media in the crush of the post game deconstruction and said that the Celtics played like "a bunch of sissies." The next day during a film session where all of their mistakes were placed on display, Celtics’ coach K.C. Jones gave the simple edict that turned the series on its head:
No more layups. Then this happened:
The series changed with that one, dirty play from Kevin McHale. Of course Bird still had to play MVP-type basketball the rest of the way, but the die had been cast and one of the greatest seven-game series ever played unfolded.
Still, Bird knew that there was no resting on victory, either. Magic said he wanted the pain of defeat to linger so he could learn from it while Bird, with his second ring in five seasons understood that victory had a price. Again, from McMullen’s When the Game was Ours:
The morning after Boston’s celebration, Bird finally went home for a little shuteye. Around midafternoon, Buckner, who was experiencing his first-ever NBA title, drove to Bird’s Brookline home with the hope of celebrating all over again. Dinah informed Buckner that Larry wasn’t there.
“He was out running,” Buckner said. “When he got back, I said to him, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Bird looked at him quizzically before he answered.
“I’m getting ready for next year,” he said.
Make no mistake about it, LeBron’s issues have nothing to do with the sideshow silliness that dogged him ever since he staged that ill-advised, The Decision followed by a pep rally in which he promised a veritable Miami dynasty. For a guy who never won anything, well, ever, it was a pretty ballsy move. Worse, the soap opera-aspect didn’t die after the series, either. When asked about the schadenfreude aspect his life has taken, James really suggested that he pitied the regular people out there with their mundane lives.
Really. Check out a bit from Adrian Wojnarowski’s column on Yahoo! after Game 6:
This is still Dwyane Wade’s town, and probably Wade’s team. One Eastern Conference star said, “Right now all he’s doing is helping D-Wade get his second ring.”
To hear James suggest that the world will have to return to its sad, little ordinary lives and he’ll still get to be LeBron James late Sunday night was a window into his warped, fragile psyche. It was sad, and portends to how disconnected to the world he truly is.
“They have to wake up and have the same life that they had before they woke up today … the same personal problems,” James said. “I’m going to continue to live the way that I want to live. … But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
There’s nothing real about James’ world, and never has been. He’s a prisoner of a life that his sycophants and enablers and our sporting culture has created for him. He’s rich and talented and something of a tortured soul. He’s the flawed superstar for these flawed times. He’s a creation of a basketball breeding ground full of such twisted priorities and warped principles. Almost every person who’s ever had to work closely with him, who has spent significant time, who’s watched him belittle and bully people, told me they were rooting hard against him. That’s sad, and that’s something he doesn’t understand and probably never will.
That still gets back to the sideshow side of things. The truth is James’ problems all come from basketball. If he wants to quiet the doubters or prove his greatness, it doesn’t come when the tattoo is finally affixed or the checks are cashed. It comes when a man is true to his art. If there was one thing that was proven in the NBA Finals it was that James’ game is still a work in progress.
Oh sure, LeBron is the most talented player in the game, but that doesn’t mean he’s the smartest or even the best player in the NBA. During the finals against Dallas he disappeared in the fourth quarter, failing to move to the ball. When he did get his hands on it, he was content to fire up long jumpers where he was barely a threat. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter during the series and attempted just 20 foul shots in the six games. Those are fine stats if you are J.J. Barea, but not if you have “The Chosen One” tattooed across your coat rack-like shoulders.
In the finale, there were two non-plays that stood out as evidence that James doesn’t understand his place in the Heat’s halfcourt offense and they occurred right on top of each other. One was when James found himself guarded by Mavs’ point guard Jason Kidd. With a good five inches of height on Kidd, all James had to do was back him down to the low block, post up and feast off that for a basket. Or, if the Mavericks chose to double down on James on the post, a man would be open and there was a 50-50 chance it could be Wade or Chris Bosh.
Needless to say, those aren’t bad odds.
Instead, James kicked the ball out before drifting away from the post where he could position himself around the three-point line. You know, the spot where he could do the least amount of damage.
Shortly after this, James was guarded by six-foot guard Barea, a player whom he had an advantage of nine-inches in height and approximately 70 pounds in weight. This wasn’t a mismatch, it was a gimme. But rather than score over little Barea, James was whistled for an offensive foul while attempting to back him down. Worse, he was credited with a turnover, too.
Still, two chances with the ball against smaller guards like Kidd and Barea and James didn’t attempt a shot, committed a foul and turned over the ball.
Nope, that stuff has nothing to do with arrogance or the soap opera-like scrutiny he lives under. That’s just bad, bad basketball. Here, don’t listen to me… let someone who knows what they’re talking about explain it.
“If I’m LeBron, I’m going home this summer and I’m getting on the low block and I’m working everyday on a right-hand jump hook and a turnaround jump shot,” former NBA champion with the Bulls and Phoenix GM, Steve Kerr said as a guest on the Dan Patrick Show. “If you followed what happened during the series when he went down there, they had some success. In the fourth quarter he went down there, Dallas brought the double, he swung it to Mario Chalmers for a three. Next time they don’t double and he turns on Shawn Marion and lays it in. It was like the easiest thing you’ve ever seen and yet they couldn’t do a steady diet of it because he’s not comfortable down there. That’s the next step for him and it’s tough for LeBron because of all the scrutiny and all the criticism and the attention.
“But he has to cut through all of that and get to the core of what is wrong which is basketball. It’s basketball-related. He’s flawed as a basketball player and he has to address those issues.”
Maybe the difference between LeBron and the all-time greats is they knew they had to work to correct those shortcomings. They had to add new wrinkles to their games and take away what doesn’t work. Look at Jordan, who went from a Doctor J clone to become the most complete player ever. Magic went 0 for 21 from three-point range in 1982-83 and made just 58 three-pointers in his first nine seasons in the league. However, in the final three seasons of his career he made 245 threes.
Finally, it was always said that Bird couldn’t leap over the lines and needed a sun dial to time his sprints up and down the floor, but he led the NBA in defensive win shares in four of his first seven years in the league.
Indeed, the all-time greats were driven by the game and obsessed with improving all the time. That’s how things like legacies are defined.
Clearly, LeBron has some work to do.