Let us be quite clear. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team worth cheering in this year’s NBA Finals. As admirable as Tim Duncan is, I have no desire to spend the entire offseason listening to how he and the Spurs—and the sainted Gregg Popovich—do things The Right Way, and how they are such good examples to The Children, especially after the way they thugged it up against the Phoenix Suns. The tendency of a trend-drunk media to anoint certain teams as a demonstration of what James Naismith would have called muscular Christianity is one of the more loathsome of our galloping public hypocrisies. It’s long past time we all abandon John 3:16 as The Official Licensed Sports Scripture in favor of Matthew 19:24. (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”) But the folks down in marketing are uncomfortable with the change. Even the New England Patriots, long the apotheosis of this phenomenon, relieved themselves by bringing in Randy Moss, perhaps the most perfect purgative for sanctimonious constipation that any team could ever find. So enough, please, with the Spurs.
The other reason is more basic. LeBron James is right on the cusp of becoming the face of professional basketball in a way that nobody has been since Michael Jordan first blew town. No less than Michael Jordan says so.
To be fair, Duncan never really seemed to want the job. And, for all their undeniable excellence, the current Detroit Pistons were a uniquely faceless bunch, except for Rasheed Wallace, who may finally have worn his welcome down to the nub with Detroit GM Joe Dumars with his idiotic meltdown in Game 6 Saturday night.
Shaquille O’Neal managed to hold on to the job for a while in Los Angeles, but his age, physical breakdowns, and willingness to subordinate himself to Dwyane Wade’s ascendance in Miami have put him in eclipse. Wade himself failed to capitalize on his 2006 breakthrough this season because of injuries.
And, even in Los Angeles, O’Neal was grappling for the title with Kobe Bryant, who’s subsequently managed to demolish his public image as thoroughly as has any athlete who is not the third baseman with the New York Yankees. The best measure of how far James has risen on the strength of his playoff run is the fact that he’s now being used as a club on Bryant—see, for example, this column by the redoubtable Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post. If James manages to carry this collection of role players (Drew Gooden), draft gypsies (Daniel Gibson), and rodeo clowns (that guy with the Juan Epstein hair) to an NBA title, not only will it be as great a personal triumph as Jordan ever achieved with Bill Cartwright, it will also distance James from his peers to such an extent that they will likely never catch up.
The most striking thing about the way James plays has always been his modesty. Back when ESPN was getting moist over covering his high-school games, you could almost feel the network’s teeth grinding when James would dish the ball to the wing on the break, thereby depriving the network of a thunderous dunk and Stuart Scott of a full-body orgasm. Since he’s been in the league, he’s waited patiently until there were enough pieces around him in Cleveland to enable the Cavaliers to make a run in the landfill that is the NBA’s Eastern Conference. At the beginning of the conference finals, he got roasted for being Not Jordan because he gave up the ball in a crucial moment to Donyell Marshall for what would have been a game-winning 3-point shot. However, the impulse that made him pass the ball—in fact, the essence of what makes him the player that he is—is the same impulse that made him unleash himself in Game 5, where his 48 points, including 29 of Cleveland’s last 30, will now stand with Magic Johnson’s turn at center for the Lakers against Philadelphia in the deciding game of the 1980 Finals as the greatest individual playoff performances in NBA history. On Saturday night, the same inclination allowed him to defer—in a way Jordan never did after leaving North Carolina—to Gibson, whose 31 points probably ensured him an NBA career. The fact that James put up 20 points and 14 rebounds, and hardly anyone noticed, is a further indication of his ability to control a game without conspicuously dominating it.
Of course, there’s another parallel with Jordan that’s less flattering to him, and the more James comes to personify the NBA, the more he’s going to get called on it. In April, Ira Newble, a teammate of James’ on the Cavaliers, drafted an angry open letter to the Chinese government, excoriating it for its heavy investment in Sudan and, therefore, its involvement in the genocidal atrocities in Darfur. Every member of the Cavaliers save two signed the letter. One was Damon Jones. The other was LeBron James. Since then, James has taken a bit of heat for his reluctance, most notably in the Christian Science Monitor, which not unreasonably speculates on the economic reasons why he failed to put his weight behind Newble’s letter. Of course, Jordan wrote the book on how to become a wildly popular and successful athlete without demonstrating even the sliver of a public conscience. More to the point, he created a new template for risk-free stardom, whereby involvement in the unruly hurly-burly of the real world is something that a star is not expected to do. Do the public-service ads for the safe issues, but go no deeper into the forces that create those issues in the first place.
And that’s the real pity. The Darfur letter was, you should pardon the expression, a slam dunk. Had James signed it, nothing would have happened to him. Were Coke and Microsoft going to cancel his contracts while he was putting up a transcendent playoff performance? Not bloody likely, and that goes double for Nike, which is as heavily invested in China as it is in James himself. The NBA wouldn’t have dared say anything, not with the league slow-dancing with the Chinese government itself. And does any person with the moral compass that God gave the common gopher really care what the International Olympic Committee says about anything any more? James could have signed the letter, explained why he did it, once, and been on his way. I don’t believe he declined to do so because he is uncaring, or because he is uninformed. I think he declined because he was asked to do something that athletes of his stature do not do anymore.
It’s no longer part of the job. You might as well have asked him to play in canvas shoes or travel by train. It’s not the way to Be Like Mike, which sounds more and more like a curse as the years go by.