Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The title that money can't buy

“One bounce, that's all it took. One pingpong ball, and LeBron James stays home. One pingpong ball, and the Cavaliers go from the team with the NBA's worst record and lowest attendance to perhaps the hottest ticket in town. One pingpong ball, and suddenly experienced coaches will want to come to Cleveland, and viable veterans should want to play for the Cavs. One pingpong ball And Cavs fans have hope.”

-Akron Beacon Journal, May 23, 2003

In some ways, I remember May 22, 2003, like I remember Sept. 11, 2001. Like people remember when the Challenger exploded in 1986. Like people remember when JFK was gunned down in Dallas. It was one of those occasions, at least to one town, one fan base, where you remember who you were with, where you were and how much your face hurt from smiling.

It was the day the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Draft lottery, guaranteeing themselves that LeBron James would cruise into the league wearing wine and gold.

(My parents’ living room. Home from college. Pacing back and forth. Went outside and screamed loud enough to bother the neighbors six houses down. With my dad sitting in his brown La-Z-Boy).

Some kids who grow up sports fans remember the smell of the grass at their first baseball game. I remember a four digit combination of ping-pong balls.

This was IT for Cleveland. The Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, the Mesa Meltdown … it was all ancient history. The most hyped amateur athlete ever was ours. And he’d be playing in his own backyard.

Game-winning shots. 50-point games. League MVP.

Even the big words weren’t laughable anymore. Ch-cha-championship. People weren’t afraid to say it. Heck, I’ll take your title talk and make it plural. We had Houdini in high-tops. Eleven other players, a coach, a front office … none of it mattered on May 22, 2003…

“Here's what I know. I had four conversations with connected NBA people over the weekend that centered around the same themes: LeBron isn't playing nearly as hard as he did last season; it looks like his only goal right now is to get his coach fired; he's regressing as a basketball player (especially his passing skills and his shot selection); he made a huge mistake firing his agent and turning his career over to his buddies back home (all of whom are in over their heads); he was a much bigger problem during the Olympics than anyone realized; he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself anymore; he has an overrated sense of his own worth and his own impact in the sports world (as witnessed by the ESPN interview last week when he answered the ‘What are your goals?’ question with two words: ‘Global icon’); he's been protected by magazine fluff pieces and buddy-buddy TV interviews for far too long; he doesn't have the same relentless drive to keep dominating everyone like Wade and Kobe have; and basically, we're much closer to LeBron re-enacting the career arc of Martina Hingis, Eric Lindros and Junior Griffey than anyone realizes. This will evolve into THE dominant NBA story of the next two months. You watch.”, Feb. 20, 2007

And here we are three years and nine months later. Heck, nine months ago we were still knee-deep in the glory of that first paragraph. The Cavaliers had knocked off the Wizards in LeBron’s first playoff series and had battled the seemingly invincible Pistons tooth-and-nail in a seven-game circus ride in Round Two.

LeBron signed an extension in the summer. Progress was being made. The foundation was there. The Finals weren’t far off. Size up those ring fingers, boys.

We sat down to watch this season, the popcorn buttered and the soda on ice, feet up, ready to witness what was next. Only once we were strapped in, the video was a little bit ahead of the audio, like one of those old movies in Japanese that’s given an English translation. Lips were reciting words that didn’t quite seem to fit. We sat down anticipating The Empire Strikes Back but instead we’re seeing The Phantom Menace.

Maybe we all expected this one man to do too much. Placing the weight of an NBA franchise on an 18-year-old kid had never been dreamed of before this. But the thing was, with all the hype, with the expectations, he came out and exceeded all of it that first year. What else could we anticipate other than excellence?

Then, a funny thing happened as the arc continued upward in years two and three, leading to this fourth season of extraordinary expectation. Beyond the shoe deals, trading card cash and sports drink dinero, LeBron had a new goal in mind: to be “the richest man in the world.”

Michael Jordan was arguably the greatest basketball player to ever walk this Earth. He made more money than the average person could dream of. But the richest man in the world? That’s a title reserved for guys like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Warren Buffett (who LeBron met with over milkshakes this summer). Not long after that meeting, he clued us in to his “richest man” wishes, and soon after, earning potential surpassed assist-to-turnover ratio on LeBron’s hot list. Jordan didn’t set out to be a global icon, like LeBron claims he wants to be. He worked until he was the best player in the game, one who transcended his sport, and his popularity took off.

We’re led to believe Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eric Snow are to blame for what has been an underwhelming season in Cleveland, and there are certainly elements of truth to that. Hughes is more fragile than a Faberge egg, Ilgauskas is hot and cold, and Snow would struggle to shoot the ball into a whirlpool consistently. But, as the self-proclaimed leader of this team, LeBron has to pick up the slack. He can’t wander around the perimeter dribbling incessantly, then jack up a 25-footer as the shot clock winds down. He can’t disappear in the fourth quarter, something you’d never dream of seeing out of this wunderkind last year.

Maybe most of all, he needs to stop construction on that Habitat for Humanity home he’s building with his bricks from the free-throw line. And as any basketball mind worth his salt knows, free throws are mental.

As long as LeBron James is employed by the National Basketball Association, he’ll be one of the league’s top 10 players. He’s simply too talented, too special to be anything else. But as far as he’s come since entering the NBA, he hasn’t crossed that bridge from individual superstar to winner, and I’m afraid he never will. The great ones all had megawatt talent – Jordan, Bird, Russell, Kareem, Magic. Most, if not all of them, had less than LeBron. But the reason those guys have their fingers decked out with rings is because they wanted it more than anything. They had that burning desire to cut their opponents’ throat, that fire in their eyes to always take and make that last shot to win a ballgame, or, if necessary, to stop the best guy on the other team from doing the same.

That’s one trait that LeBron may never possess. Like height, I don’t know if that champion’s mentality can be taught.

One thing’s for sure: it can’t be bought and sold, or traded like a stock. And without it, LeBron will never be the richest man in the world.