America is once again laughing at and mocking the pain of LeBron James. Two years’ worth of I-had-to-shut-up fan resentment burst out as if rodeo-bull uncaged the moment James looked vulnerable while spasming and incapacitated in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It was amazing and maybe without precedent, how fast this happened to a reigning king, a Twitter-refreshed blur revealing just how little two championships had bought James in an ecosystem where winning usually forgives all. The Discovery Channel could have done a documentary on this in the wild, the way hungry fans sharpened teeth and pounced on prey at the first scent of possible weakness atop of the NBA’s food chain.
But before addressing this newest noise in the life of the Miami Heat and its biggest star, let us understand the cauldron where this team has lived for four years … and how it can change, shape and harden people in ways that the teeth-sharpening hunters might not have anticipated while circling and howling.
Let us go back a series, to the end of Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers, when Chris Bosh had the season of the hated Indiana Pacers in his hands, and he missed the game-winning shot, disappointing the city of Miami and his teammates. He was trusted with all the season’s work and all the game’s work at the end, and he failed. That kind of thing can be haunting and …
“Haunting?” Bosh spits. “Hell no.”
‘The world is cruel’
Nationally, Bosh is the most-picked-on member of the Heat. He is not fragile at all, but he is viewed that way by America because he is honest and thoughtful and introspective and comfortable with his vulnerabilities, and we figure out ways to turn those strengths into weaknesses in the caveman grunting that sometimes passes for sports analysis these days.
Bosh couldn’t laugh at the idea of this four years ago, couldn’t even understand it, but now he is undeterred and bejeweled, so he says through an easy smile, “I’m easy to pick on. People love hammering me. It hurt at first. It is cruel. The world is cruel. But I grew up quick. Learned a lot real quick. Had to. You either get stronger or you wilt.”
Evolution weeds out weakness, but it also sharpens strength, and Bosh champions in a place that is survival of the fittest, so that shot went up at the end of Game 5 in the Eastern Conference finals, and it bounced away with Indiana celebrating, and you know what Bosh’s reaction was? It was a little weird and a lot surprising. And it was a result of the cauldron where Miami has resided the past four years, lava hardening whatever it touches in time when heat and Heat cools. Bosh didn’t feel huge disappointment or crushing failure or lonely hurt, oddly enough. What he felt afterward was gratitude and acceptance and something pretty damn close to serenity.
“It was the shot I wanted,” he says. “It was the opportunity I wanted. I live with that. I slept like a baby that night. We’ve had so many games where we are successful and not successful. That helps. We’ve been at this awhile. I relished that opportunity. I’ll take the baggage that comes with failing as long as I can be in that situation. No problem. I want that situation. I’ll take the success, and I’ll take the failure. I’ll take what comes because I just wanted to be in that situation, in this situation.”
This is how the strongest survive over time, whether it be in the jungle or on the basketball court, developing something between a numbness and an immunity to the things that might kill a weaker species. Bosh literally shrugs his shoulders now about missing the kind of shot he never even got to take deep in the playoffs his first seven years toiling more quietly in Toronto.
And if Bosh, the most picked-on member of the Heat, the guy who collapsed in a hallway crying after the Finals loss in Year 1 of this experiment, the guy who scored zero points in last year’s Game 7, has developed this particular immunity, can you even imagine the hardening armor that has now grown around the man who scored 37 points in that same Game 7?
America’s howling laughter, once a feared monster, has now shrunk into a fly around an elephant’s tail — not because the noise hasn’t grown but because the elephant has. This angry jealousy and irrational hatred that surrounds Miami today, that surrounds James today, has been around his team for four years in a row without a lot of rest. So now the Heat has been wallowing and marinating in it again for the past three loud days, but this team, as Bosh said, has learned to sleep peacefully in this dangerous neighborhood’s surrounding sirens. They chose to live here, and have grown comfortable with the uncomfortable.
And what you heard after Game 1 was uncomfortable, all right. Twitter was abuzz name-calling and character-smearing James. Female dog. Female body part. No balls. Little girl. Menstrual cramps. Made you wonder who those angry Twitter users hated more — LeBron or women. The whole thing was ugly and foul and odd, given that we usually give a pass to the champion who has disproved us even once, never mind twice, and then we move on to the Tony Romos and Dwight Howards and Carmelo Anthonys because the angry math is always in the bitter critic’s favor with so many more losers than winners in sports every year.
The LeBron rules
But the rules are different for James in 2014. Tony Parker can leave an important playoff game on the road in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals without anyone questioning his toughness (and he’s French!) The league’s MVP gets less noise and hostility for being eliminated from the playoffs than James gets for leaving and losing Game 1 of a Finals that Kevin Durant has played in only once. Consider how much empathy and compassion would have poured forth if poor, unlucky Timmy Duncan — four-time champion, mind you — had gotten those same cramps that short-circuited James at the end of that same game.
James’ peers are not contemporaries but rather ghosts, so people compare him not to Parker and Durant and Duncan but to Michael Jordan. And it is probably worth noting today, despite our revisionist blindness, that we did this to Jordan once, too, saying he was a ball-hogging chucker who couldn’t win the big one until, you know, he did … at which point we soon turned him into a myth no one is allowed to approach without genuflecting. That was before social media, so there was more restraint and less bile than today, when James is covered like a modern-day Roger Maris chasing the legend of Micky Mantle, and with an undercurrent of the hostility we gave Muhammad Ali in a more racist and war-torn America. Those are the only two athletes who have ever known this kind of noise, and one of them is dead, and the other one is no longer able to speak about it.
Two championships and two gold medals have never bought an American sports hero less. James knows it, too, which is why he at once revealed to Michael Wilbon last week that he is the easiest piñata in sports and that he doesn’t much care. Four years he has lived here. Four years. In a noisy world that has strengthened even the Bosh America loves to mock for his fragility. Maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is all mythologizing gibberish about nonsense intangibles. Maybe Duncan is even more immune after all these years, and his team hits a bunch of threes, and Miami spends another offseason surrounded by laughter and mocking. But, win or lose, this is something worth considering for those who love to hate and howl:
For four years now, James has been building these relationships in Miami, through failure and success, through unholy noise and through blessed quiet. He looks to his left, and he looks to his right in that locker room, and those are the only people who have endured and shared and understood the weight of this with him as the noise outside that room has lapped against their locker-room cocoon like ocean waves coming to shore. Us-against-the-world can be an athletic cliché, but it is a very real thing in the Heat’s locker room, and his teammates have been the closest to him in more ways than one. When this is over this season, however it ends, the world’s best basketball player will have a choice.
He can go out into the noise and find new men with whom to fight it.
Or he can stay with the ones with whom he has already conquered it.