For my mother Thetis the goddess of silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly - Homer
The narrative surrounding Lebron James is, once again, at a fever pitch. His play during the Finals thus far has been, by any measure, a disappointment. His statistical contributions have been below his Olympian standards and it is plain to see his inability to buckle down in the clutch both offensively, and in the last two games, defensively. Lebron’s play versus Chicago in the last series was reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwan versus David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals:
The overwhelming consensus on that series was that the affront to Hakeem that Robinson was named MVP led him to outscore and outrebound Robinson over the course of the entire series. This culminated in dominating him over the last two games, outscoring Robinson by 40 points. In a gratifying way to most sports fans who want the narratives that we have invested in fulfilled, Hakeem took offense to the “unworthy” MVP given to Robinson and, given the opportunity, made him pay convincingly, both statistically and by eye.
Was this not what seemed to be happening as Lebron hounded Derrick Rose into miserable 4th quarters, despite very little evidence that Lebron even cared that Rose was named MVP rather than Lebron? The lack of success of Derrick Rose versus Lebron could also be read as part of a larger trend where Derrick Rose’s shooting percentages were putrid versus any member of the Miami Heat guarding him. Lebron certainly had a role in stopping him late in the game, but Derrick Rose, at this young stage in his career, simply does not have the jump shot to force Lebron to respect him for anything but the drive. Compare that to the abject failure of Lebron against Jason Terry in these last two Dallas Mavericks victories; certainly it exposes his flaws in defending much smaller and quicker guards when one has to respect their 3 point shot as well as their teammates (the Mavericks worst 3 point shooter, Jason Kidd, has done more in this series from 3 and every other aspect of the game than Kyle Korver, the Bull’s best 3 point shooter).
The endpoint of those 1995 NBA playoffs represented an almost unthinkable apogee for Hakeem. After the climax of dismissing David Robinson from the playoffs, Hakeem came upon the force of nature that was the young Shaquille O’Neal in the playoffs and neutralized him. Shaq was outscored by Hakeem every game, but by a very small margin – the fact is that the rest of the Orlando Magic were also outplayed, by a more significant margin, and Shaq was not able to provide his usual decisive advantage to overcome their flaws (seriously, Nick Anderson?) Shaq would of course leave to L.A., and win 3 championships as the man, backed by a budding Kobe Bryant.
And now, back to Lebron; back, from our jaunt into the dusty corners of NBA history. Lebron had a chance to somewhat replicate Hakeem’s feat, by demolishing first an unworthy MVP, and then taking on another supremely talented player and turning him back from the gates of the championship (although Shaq was on the cusp of his greatness while Dirk is well on his way towards leaving his). He has, to this point, not seized that opportunity. His urgency is not what Heat fans demand – does he not want to claim his championship and etch his likeness into the blank spot in the basketball pantheon that has been waiting for him ever since he has joined the league? Wilting now has bred doubt in his supporters and supplied ever more flammable fuel for his detractors.
The debate surrounding Lebron, and the NBA in general, has always given off an air of Calvinism, given the substitution of Chosen One for the elite, to the endless litany of superstars who are the basketball disciples trailing in the wake of Michael Jordan (with all apologies to the Basketball Jesus himself, Larry Bird). The theme of redemption hangs heavily over basketball in the best of recent times by Jordan, having been denied for years, slowly carrying his cross to Golgotha, crucified by the Detroit Pistons, resurrected for an otherworldly run at multiple championships. Forgive the crude metaphor. The theme of redemption also hangs weightily over Lebron – after his lack of success in turning his statistical dominance into a championship, he seemed, at the beginning of the NBA finals, to be on the verge of taking the mantle of the champion for his own and repeating the usual journey from underachieving wunderkind to triumphant star, forged under incredible pressures and energies. Yet the Dallas Mavericks are up 3 games to 2 games in the best of 7 series of the 2011 NBA Finals. Dirk Nowitzki has beat the Miami Heat defense into submission, has fought through the flu, and is about to redeem his own repeated postseason failures, while Lebron has, in basketball terms, idly watched.
I must turn now to a very dusty historical source – Homer. The Greeks had a different set of religious illusions, and a particular affection for fate and tragedy. Everyone should recall from middle school the discussions of the tragic flaw – Lebron seems to fit far more snugly into the mold of Achilles than Jesus Christ. Achilles’ weakness was his heel – his flaw was his pride. Lebron’s weakness, is, famously, his love for his erratic jump shot, which may be tied to his proud nature and inability to adjust his game to better fit his strengths. Referencing the opening lines, it seems that Lebron is caught in a trap – having decided to join the war, he now faces the grim reality that his best may not be enough to win. Lebron now pouts in his tent, while the rest of the Greeks, led by Odysseus (an apt stand in for Dwyane Wade) attempt to overcome Dirk’s Hector. It is apparent to everyone in the basketball world that without Lebron summoning forth the kind of superhuman effort that has evaded him thus far, the Miami Heat will lose the series. Dirk has routed the Heat – will Lebron join the battle?
But I wonder more about the question of the narrative. Will those invested in either Dirk or Lebron be content to appreciate the tragedy, rather than feel cheated at the result? It is hard, in the Iliad, to avoid sympathy for the fates of both Hector and Achilles, Hector undone by a superior warrior, while Achilles loses his life far earlier than might have been to satisfy his pride and lust for glory. Should Lebron lose, will it be accepted that his game may not be well suited towards fitting into consistent systematic team-play, while he is still on a trajectory to being one of the best basketball players of all time? And will Dirk truly have gained something more meaningful by winning the championship, when his efforts to this point in carrying an inferior team have already been legendarily sublime? I fear that the answer is no in either case.
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