Just about everyone else has taken a crack at this one, so here are my two cents.
The issue, of course, is why NBA superstar LeBron James was inexplicably passive during critical moments of the recent NBA Finals series against the Dallas Mavericks.
NBA afficionados will note that this was actually the second year in a row James seemed to play with little will or passion at key junctures during the playoffs. Last year’s meltdown occurred in Game 5 of his then-team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, against my Boston Celtics.
Efforts to explain these “no mas” moments have ranged from years of entitlement to fear of failure to being yelled at teammate Dwyane Wade to being utterly baffled.
For me, the clue may come in his bitter statements on Sunday in response to a question about whether it bothers him that so many people are happy to see him fail:
Absolutely not. Because at the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.
They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.
Sounds pretty rough, right?
Apparently, it did to LeBron, too. He felt compelled yesterday to add the following:
“I think it’s interpreted different than what I was trying to get out there,” he said during a media session at American Airlines Arena. “Basically, I was saying, at the end of the day, this season is over and regarding hatred, not only myself, but everyone has to move on with their lives, as well.
“They have to move on with their lives and their day-to-day, good or bad, as I do, too, at the end of the day. I’ve got to move on with my life.
“So it wasn’t saying that I’m superior or better than anyone else, any man or woman on this planet, I’m not. I would never, ever look at myself better than any of you guys sitting here or anybody that watches our game, or anybody that would look at me as a professional basketball player. I’m not superior to anyone. So, it may have come off wrong, but that wasn’t my intent.”
So he backed off his earlier comments, yet in a way that tried to say he had not given the offense so unmistakably meant in his initial statements.
What does this have to do with LeBron’s play in the clutch, you might reasonably ask?
Here’s my thought: LeBron does not completely know who he wants to be, on or off the court.
On the court, he and Wade never fully resolved their issue about who was truly the Alpha male who would take the big shots in close games, of which the Finals series had many.
In other words, he did not completely know whether he was going to be Pippen or Jordan.
There’s something else though, too, and it’s a bit deeper.
At the end of the day, LeBron James does not relish the role of being a villain.
Somehow, in his mind, he thought he could make “The Decision” on national television without alienating the hometown that raised and revered him, thought he could coast his way to a championship by signing up with some of the best players and could swagger his way to not just one, but seven championships just by dint of saying he could.
When these actions led to an understandable revulsion that many have pointed out has been a boon for the NBA, James and the Heat tried to strike an “Us against the world” posture.
There’s one problem, though.
It’s not really them.
Instead, we heard about the team crying in the locker room in March.
Beyond the team, though, James appears to have some need to be, if not loved, the subject of adulation.
He often speaks about himself in the third person.
In 2009 he walked off the court without shaking the hands of the Orlando Magic, then declared that he was a winner.
He wears sunglasses indoors with some regularity.
I am not a psychologist, and someone could easily have an overweening ego and be a villain.
It just seems that James cannot completely stand the outpouring of negativity his actions have engendered.
In other words, he’s not Bill Laimbeer.
Now, to be fair, Laimbeer did not play in the Internet and Twitter era where every move, statement and action is scrutinized analyzed and discarded almost before it has ended.
This endless presentism may be part of why some people, including Scottie Pippen himself, rushed to crown James as one of the greatest of all time before he had even won a single game in the Finals, and, in a similar vein, annointed the Heat champs after they had won two of the necessary four games to earn the much-coveted ring.
But this is besides the point.
My main assertion here is that Laimbeer loved being the object of the fans’ derision, thrived on that negativity, was energized by being booed.
James, in my opinion, is different.
While he’s taken antagonistic actions such as throwing up the chalk he always did before a game in his return to Cleveland, on some level, it has seemed more like a role he is playing, rather than, as in the case of Laimbeer, someone who he truly is.
And this is the point.
James is more like the pro wrestlers I grew up with in the late 70s and 80s who were good and turned bad, but, on a very visceral level, you knew they were not that guy.
Now, of course, if he and D-Wade don’t celebrate in front of the Dallas bench in Game 2, maybe this all goes out the window.
There again, though, LeBron both gave offense by showing up the Mavericks, yet afterward said he had not done that.
Laimbeer would never have said the latter.
He knew who he was.
LeBron does not, at least not yet.
And that makes all the difference.