Did you notice what LeBron James did as soon as it was over?
As his jubilant teammates poured toward him, jumping up and down like careening adult-children in a bounce house?
As the Indiana Pacers bent over with the sudden sickness?
As South Florida roared and swayed with all that good noise he created?
And as the referees scurried toward technology to double-check that what they had just witnessed so fast in real time was, in fact, so?
James was still and serene throughout this celebration. It was strange, given the asylum he has just made of his surroundings. James removed his mouthpiece gently with his index finger and thumb to reveal no overt smile or joy whatsoever, as echoing bedlam broke out all around him and teammates came over for hugs that went unreturned. Facially, emotionally, impossibly, he would have looked about the same if he had been wandering down a grocery aisle shopping for produce. He somehow looked normal. And ordained. And not yet done.
It was the peace and belief and clarity a bullet-dodging Keanu Reeves was trying to channel when he realized he was The One in the chaos of The Matrix. Only this wasn’t, you know, science fiction. Less than one year removed from America’s mocking laughter, the butt of televised late-night jokes and character smearing that suggested he was a late-game coward, James somehow seemed to be the least-surprised person in this entire bouncing building about what he had just wrought.
We are in such a big hurry these days, staring into our phones as we walk past strangers, texting while driving, so connected to a bombardment of instant stimuli that it is easy to miss even the biggest and most obvious things whizzing right by us. James made a very difficult thing look very easy at the end of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the magic/art of this was lost in howling and blame and all the noisy insta-opinion wondering how the coach of the Indiana Pacers could possibly be so dumb as to allow it.
That is a loud criticism today, wondering why the best defense in basketball would bench its best defender at such a crucial time, allowing the best basketball player in the world the easiest shot in the world while a 7-2 rim-protector sat far away on the bench. But it ignores all the other things that had to happen over a lifetime for James to find that kind of freedom suddenly at that most important moment, things that don’t have much of anything to do with some suit on the opposing sideline being an idiot bum.
This wasn’t the perfect photograph taken in 2.2 seconds by some right-place-right-time amateur. This was an artist dedicating his life to a craft and becoming a master of his trade before our eyes, so that the opposing coach found himself choosing between only bad options late Wednesday before realizing with a punch-to-the-gut horror that he had, oh my God, chosen the very worst one. It says more about us and the nature of sports analysis that we would conclude this wonderful show by shoving the magician out of the way in our zeal to go behind the curtains and immediately start questioning the guy in charge of the lights.
The selflessness that got James branded a coward in these late situations, the fact that he is one of the only superstars in the history of this sport who won’t automatically take the contested jump shot with ego in search of game-ending glory, is precisely what left him so open on this particular play. Indiana coach Frank Vogel pulled 7-2 Roy Hibbert because he feared James passing to an open Chris Bosh, who couldn’t be guarded correctly by Hibbert if Hibbert was also trying to protect the rim from James.