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When the Going Gets Tough, the Weak Fold

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“Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven.”

That was LeBron James’ response when asked if he came to Miami to win a championship. So far, he’s holding up to his end of the bargain. As the Heat were soundly beaten by the Dallas Mavericks in game 6 of the NBA Finals, ending their season in the manner that seemingly 95% of America had been hoping, LeBron James found himself in his normal position; left making excuses and watching another team celebrate.

Was the Finals loss entirely LeBron’s fault? Probably not, but the fact that it’s even a question leaves room for the possibility. There were two very distinct turning points in the series. The first was in Game 2. The Heat were up 1-0 in the series with a sizable lead and the apparent likelihood of a two game lead when Dwayne Wade fired a three from the corner then posed in front of the Dallas bench for a long five seconds that felt like five years. The Heat downplayed the importance of the moment, but Dallas certainly did not. They came storming back and stole game two. It was a moment straight off of the schoolyard. The cool kids team up and start pushing around the nerdy kids, over and over and over… until finally one of the nerds balls up his fist and delivers a haymaker to the nose of one of the cool kids. The bullies, with their pseudo-toughness in question fold like a portable stripper pole. That’s exactly what happened in game 2, Dallas not only stole the mojo, but the rest of the series was all but decided in that moment.

The other turning point came in Game 3, a game that the Heat ultimately pulled out. Dwayne Wade, the anti-LeBron in that he actually leads instead of just telling everyone that he does, got vocal with a few of his players. Miami was going through the motions, still in shock from the broken nose they received in game 2. Wade saw this and called out his teammates, most notably LeBron James. It was off camera, but it was seen by nearly everyone in the building, including the throngs of media who were quick to point it out. After this, LeBron was done. He mentally checked out. It was like he watched his best friend steal his girlfriend and pretended he didn’t mind. He played the rest of the season in a haze… a haze that included an 8 point game four performance.

Watching him in games 4-6 was eerily reminiscent of the Celtics series from a year ago where he was not only accused of quitting, but undoubtedly did quit. Unlike Wade, LeBron played scared in the 4th quarter of any of those games. He treated the ball like Rosie O’Donnell treats healthy food, acknowledging its existence but wanting no part of it. Character is defined by how a person acts under pressure and the final four minutes of game 6 show exactly who LeBron James is… a 10-year old kid in the body of a 25 year old man; afraid of his surroundings, afraid of failure, and nowhere near mentally tough enough to put himself out there.

At the four minute mark, the Heat were down 8 to a Dirk Nowitzki led Mavericks team that he and Dwayne Wade openly mocked any chance they could get. A deficit that Reggie Miller overcame in under 9 seconds; certainly not insurmountable by any stretch. I was watching the game at the Wynn Sportsbook, a crowd made up of 99.9% Maverick fans… at least for this series. It was at this point that I said to the guy next to me, I’ve watched LeBron for 7 years now… watch him stand outside the arc and more or less run away from the ball. What did he do? He stood 25 feet from the hoop and acted as if he were playing a game of hot potato. The ball came to him twice and he barely touched it before firing it to a teammate. He didn’t even move. He stood there like a bridge between two islands; immovable and with only one purpose, in this case to act as a way for the ball to get to players who actually wanted it. It would be easy to call him a quitter, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case. He works hard at his craft and has honed it to elite levels, he’s not a quitter, but he’s afraid. He plays with fear in his eyes. He changes his game in the stretch. An unstoppable force anytime but in the last 5 minutes where he settles for fadeaway 30 footers. It would be harder to see if he developed any semblance of a post game. If he did, he could hide underneath and still be effective. Instead, he chooses to put himself on an island, isolated from his talent, but with his flaws on full display.

Will he win a title? Not on his own, and maybe not even with his cherry picked team of all-stars because people will forever lean on him to be the man, and he knows in his heart that he can and never will be the man. He’s nearly 27, playing without fear isn’t something that is learned, it’s innate. LeBron never failed in his formative years, he was never challenged, always enabled. He was so much better than anyone else that he never had to play with fear and never had to worry about the outcome… His career mirrors that of Mike Tyson. A pure athletic phenom who no one doubted would be the greatest ever… until he ran into a no-name fighter named Buster Douglas, who actually stood there and punched him in the face. After that, Tyson was done, he knew it, the world knew it. LeBron’s Buster Douglas may very well have been Roger Bacon High School. Roger Bacon was the team that showed LeBron what losing was. Up until that point, he felt infallible; he had never lost, and felt like he was never supposed to lose. Then Roger Bacon stepped up and changed everything. Beckham Wyrick knocked LeBron down with a forearm to begin the game. They then went on to control play and take the state title against LeBron’s St. Vincent St. Mary squad… all the while holding James’ Sports Illustrated cover upside-down in the stands and openly mocking “The King.”

LeBron was and still is a dominant physical force, but his air of invincibility is gone. He had tasted defeat and had been mocked in the process. Since then, he has looked like a frightened puppy thrown into a dogfight. Once in a while he gets in a good bite, but his moves are tired, predictable, and show little heart. Repeating the question, will he ever win a title? Before this year, my answer would’ve been yes… but now, I’m not so sure. Yes, the Heat will get better, but LeBron is as good as he’s going to be physically. He’s never really dealt with any injuries (aside from a made up elbow injury and various other made up injuries he uses as excuses) and he doesn’t have Kobe’s killer instinct. Sure, 27 isn’t old, but next year will be his 9th year in the league, Wade will be 30, and Bosh, who I’ve roundly criticized this year but showed serious heart in the finals, will be 28.

The clock is ticking and as LeBron knows, finals trips don’t come along every year. Oh…and Oklahoma City is primed to be the elite team in the league for years to come… so there’s that. LeBron should get a few more looks at a title, but if I’m were a betting man, I’d bet the house that he gets swallowed up by the moment yet again… but as he said in so many words, he’s still rich and we’re all still poor. If that’s what helps him sleep at night, then so be it, but he has the look of a guy that certainly won’t need to buy a ring box any time soon.

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