There is still so much infernal noise all around LeBron James. Sirens. Howling. Nonsense. Tony Parker makes one lucky shot, one-tenth of a second the difference between stumbling fool and Game 1 hero, and this is supposed to mean something outside of randomness.
This coach is dumb, and that player is done, and blah, blah, blah, sirens-howling-nonsense, rinse and repeat after the next game, results pending. The instant overreaction is so loud and so knee-jerk and so emotional, the Heat a microcosm for too much of what passes for sports analysis these days, and you’ll find James at the very center of all this looking like a Buddhist basketball monk trying to do his daily prayers as the fire alarms wail and the roof sprinklers rain.
Confidence and conviction — in other words, his faith and his religion — are not going to be shaken by aberrant, outlier bounces that are like flies around an elephant’s tail. There is a certain noisy and national delight when the Heat looks like it is in trouble, the howling growing larger and the perspective growing smaller, but have you noticed how perfectly serene James is after the losses? Not down. Tranquil. Soothing, really. He isn’t acting or faking in the name of leadership. This is him now.
He talks about perspective, and how it is just basketball, this as fans fear and critics pounce/party, and the entire environment around him is polluted with the very opposite of the purity he is preaching, the Buddhist basketball monk mmmmmmeditating at news conferences in serenity’s search as those alarms wail and sprinklers rain.
It is like he knows or understands something the rest of us don’t, and he knows and understands it so surely and deeply that he isn’t going to be shaken by our sky-is-falling questioning. The sky probably isn’t going to fall, you know? This is how confidence talks, and it has been amazing to see his grow over just the past few years, but it isn’t quite as simple as the validation that comes with a king being crowned, either.
You remember what this guy was doing as feces rained down upon him before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last year, blueprint on the brink? He sat in the locker room reading a book, then produced a game that will echo through the ages, one of the best we’ve ever seen at the most preposterous and pressurized time.
People forget this now, sports mythologizing changing historical facts with selective and convenient amnesia, but Michael Jordan was doubted with every springing step he took, from selfish ball-hog who didn’t know how to win the big one to all the Patrick Ewings, Reggie Millers, Charles Barkleys, Clyde Drexlers, Gary Paytons and Karl Malones who came to this time to conquer.
James knows, man. He knows. We’ve known for years that he’s the best basketball player in the world, but now he knows it, too, and he carries that with him as he tries to climb the escalating mountain of stakes, not as a weight but as a weapon. And that weapon, sculpted and sharpened over so many years amid this noise, is about as immune to the noise, and doubt, as any carried by humans can be. You are good, Spurs, but I am not merely better; no, I am the very best.
One bad bounce or one bad game or one-tenth of a second isn’t going to change his perspective on this because his perspective on this is not emotional. It is known, as close as something subjective can ever come to being fact. So it wasn’t emotional when he won Game 1 against the Pacers with 2.2 seconds left, and it won’t be emotional now as the fans leave his arena crushed at the end of Game 1 against the Spurs. One game. One game. Miami has won more “one games” in the playoffs the past three years than any other team in the sport — and by a lot (as TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott points out, Miami has won 42; nobody else has won even 28 over that span).
Generation #RightNow has a way of belching out emotional sports analysis the moment any one result is in, waving it around as proof of something after a loss, but James has arrived in a more clear-eyed place. He knows that prisoner-of-the-moment hysteria is like asking a mother to calmly address how she feels about parenthood while she’s screaming in the middle of giving birth.
Animals adapt. And we, as the top of the food chain, adapt the most and best. Basketball is almost literally a survival-of-the-fittest ecosystem, and James, child star, has lived in this noisy bubble so long that he has evolved into something with immunity to this particular infection at the top of his food chain. He is better equipped to stave off hysteria because he has dealt with more of it for so much longer than anyone else around him in basketball that it has ceased to be experienced like hysteria and merely morphed into his new normal. It is like the smell in a bathroom that slowly starts to disappear or not be noticed the more time you spend acclimating amid an unpleasant scent, and Miami is armed with the most evolved air freshener in the history of the sport.
James has been engulfed by this up-and-down-waves-crashing-into-the-console seasickness for the better part of a decade, so he now has the legs of a veteran captain who knows his vessel is the biggest and best. We’ll see soon enough how the young man in charge of guarding him, Kawhi Leonard, deals with that as the capsizing seas start to really roil and weaker stomachs start to vomit.
Once upon a time, when he had a youngster’s sensibilities, James got a “Chosen One” tattoo, feeling a need for the outside world to see, bravado not the same as bravery. But now he carries that imprint within, as someone who has mastered this game, as someone who has more ways to beat you at basketball than anyone in the history of this planet, and serious, seasoned basketball men such as Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich blabber like teens in love when talking about his basketball intellect. Krzyzewski calls James brilliant and a genius even though he hates using those words for anybody in any line of work. So James is the smartest, the most confident, and the best. Game 1 losses at home in the Finals are big, but not big enough to shake something like that.
One of the things that is so great and fun about this series, though, and has a way of evening things up, is the following: Dwyane Wade is not physically right, and Chris Bosh keeps getting farther from the rim, and nobody recognizes Shane Battier and, oh yeah, the San Antonio Spurs believe in their system, their coach and each other in much the same way that James believes in himself. Healthy Miami is by-consensus better than everybody in this league, but doubt creeps in with the limits of pain and health, closing that talent gap between the teams and creating the kind of questions and drama you need to stay with all the best stories as they come to conclusion.
The best thing about Game 1 that felt lost in the need to blame Bosh or question the coaching was those amazing seconds tick-tick-ticking away at the end, Parker dribbling over the half-court line with James spread out before him in the pouncing stance of something that preys. Parker careened and pin-balled and looked totally lost in a panic all over the floor, searching for an opening against this champion desperation, any opening. He’s a champion, too, though, and in that late-game frenzy, less than one-tenth of a second is what separated one champion from another, Miami playing extraordinary, champion defense and Parker simply making a more extraordinary, champion shot that he’d have no chance of repeating four times in seven tries. In this one-tenth of a second, Parker was better, but James knows at his core that there are so many more seconds remaining for him to provide something that feels a little more like echoing and historic proof.
That’s what will make what is coming next so breathtaking. Miami feels like it is somehow playing for its blueprint again. This is absurd, of course. Three consecutive Finals is a spectacular success. The bejeweled Spurs have never even gone to the Finals in consecutive years. But this particular man and this particular Miami team have put the bar in a different place, and one title in three years will be viewed as something between a disappointment and a failure in the noisy world where James has lived for so long. The more losses like this there are in the next two weeks, the closer we get to a random-ball scenario where one game or even one shot like Parker’s can be used to either validate the blueprint or tear it to shreds.
But here’s the thing that ought to soothe the upset stomachs of Heat fans entering a terrifying Game 2 on Sunday:
That blueprint literally could not be in better hands.
That blueprint is in the very best hands in the entire world.
And the man holding everything in those hands knows it, too.