Exhibit No. 1: LeBron James is drifting on the weak side of the court, wholly uninvolved in the last home game he will ever play in Cleveland. He throws the ball out of bounds and misses 11 of his 14 shots. “I spoil a lot of people with my play,” he explains afterward. This is LeBron, the coward who would abandon his city in a self-aggrandizing special on national television about a month later.
Exhibit No. 2: LeBron James is nailing clutch three after clutch three, and you’re surprised when one draws iron. He hammers in an emphatic alley-oop, three wins away from his first title. This is LeBron, the greatest talent the league has ever seen finally blossoming on its biggest stage.
The sports narrative is a curious thing. They’re largely formed on what the public wants to see and often come with sudden, rollercoaster turns, as Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong know well. We want to find saviors, even if they always inevitably turn out to be human.
The two scenes are only a year apart — less if you trace back to the public relations mess that was “The Decision.” And when LeBron scorned the Cavs last July, he was vilified in part because he betrayed the narrative of the underdog, the hometown hero lifting an entire, downtrodden town upon his broad shoulders.
He’s not the only one who’s been stuck a certain reputation. Dirk Nowitzki choked in 2006, the story goes. His Dallas Mavericks were six minutes away from a 3-0 finals lead over the Miami Heat — then Dwyane Wade happened, and the Mavs lost in six. When the MVP was blitzed by the upstart, eight-seeded Warriors a year later, his reputation was cemented, and he played superlative if relatively ignored ball through the next few seasons.
Now, finally back in the NBA Finals, he’s a sure-shot Hall of Famer — this generation’s Larry Bird, armed with a step-back jumper that might be basketball’s most unstoppable weapon since Kareem’s sky hook.
The basketball gods saw fit to put LeBron — who else? — in his way, two one-of-a-kind players pushing back against their histories like Sisyphus nearing the hill’s peak.
We slap these labels on because we’re quick to judge, and we’re quick to judge because we want to make some sense out of games that, for the most part, carry too many variables for the outcome to be shoved onto one man. Jordan had one Hall of Famer with him for his first three titles, and two for the latter three. But his Airness wasn’t charged with decades of sporting heartbreak, and his running mates weren’t announced on an ESPN special.
Winning tends to override everything, fair or not. But as much as people like to use championships to define great players, the measure is woefully inaccurate. Few argue Bill Russell’s case as the greatest ever, but he has enough rings to fill up both hands. Stockton, Malone, Barkley and Miller all had the misfortune of being born at the wrong time.
It’s called confirmation bias, this tendency to pick and choose evidence that supports our preconceptions. Rarely do we temper our most irrational tendencies here, because it is here we can escape from the nuances of real life and indulge in a simple proxy for war.
And again, we have storylines here in the pinnacle of professional basketball, perhaps better than the actual series can hope to live up to.
It’s a changing of the guard, the clear end of the post-Jordan era, the first NBA Finals since 1998 without either Kobe, Shaq or Tim Duncan.
In the Mavs, you have a group of ringless veterans — many of whom have come tantalizingly close — coming together for one last run to the mountaintop. At stake for Dirk is a chance to keep Wade from forever haunting his career.
The Heat are the Evil Empire, a conspicuously manufactured team that embodies the threat of major-market collusion, a case study of what’s wrong with today’s athletes.
The narrative dictates that Dirk needs a ring to secure his place among the all-time greats, that LeBron must win to validate taking his talents to South Beach. Neither is true, exactly. Dirk is just as good a player with or without a championship, regardless of public opinion. LeBron and the Heat will be title favorites for the foreseeable future.
So as the rest of the playoffs roll on, remember that no one game can define a career. Remember that one postseason doesn’t make Russell Westbrook the next Starbury, that Pau Gasol hasn’t completely erased his championship contributions with his last two series, that missing late-game free throws isn’t always going to be Derrick Rose’s thing.
Remember that Jerry Seinfeld once boiled down sports fandom to rooting for different shirts, seeing what we want to see. And remember that, regardless, it’s been one hell of a show.