Somewhere in the next plane of existence, Wilt Chamberlain shakes his head in sympathy for LeBron James. Then Wilt shows it Wilt-style, by roaring statistics that remind all the spirits around that he ruled the NBA individually while Boston kept walking off with the championship crowns.
The parallels run strong between the two men separated by generations yet related in a reboot way. Chamberlain could never win enough championships to satisfy the masses. LeBron won’t either. He might end his career with his two from the Heat years, the same number Wilt took into retirement.
Should James get No. 3 this year with this Cleveland team, tied 2-2 with Golden State going into Sunday’s Game 5, it would be the most Promethean individual NBA feat since … well, probably something Wilt did.
OK, get the wailing out of the way, the invoking of Michael Jordan, the resentment over how James behaved toward Heat godfather Pat Riley. Go on, I’m going to get more caffeinated.
I’m back. You done? Now, take a look at the comedy troupe surrounding James against the No. 1 overall seed, a team built for the modern space-and-shoot NBA.
Kevin Love, gone. Kyrie Irving, gone. Who plucked 7-1 Russian robot center Timofey Mozgov out of a 1980s Sylvester Stallone Cold War flick? Head coach David Blatt, who looks like he could be kin to Vladimir Putin? Cleveland needs consistent offense from Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, a defender and an ever-gunning streak shooter they traded for from the Knicks.
Need I say more? Oh, yeah, Delly. Matthew Dellavedova, every man hero of Game 3. He’s 6-4, but his floorburns and defense gathered compliments as if he’s 5-4. When I first heard his name, I thought the Cavs signed Elena Delle Donne.
They’d have been better off with the sixth-highest scoring player in NCAA women’s hoops history in Thursday’s Game 4. The Warriors all but put vegemite on the Dellavedova shots they slapped back down his throat and embarrassed his defensive game. You could almost hear the implied, “Don’t start feeling yourself too much, Scrappy Doo.”
Michael Jordan left the Bulls one month before the 1993-94 season started. The Bulls still won 55 games and remained the third- or fourth-best team in the league. Remove Kobe Bryant from the 2009 and 2010 Lakers championship teams and they’re fighting to get into the playoffs.
If LeBron left these Cavs one month before the season, they’d get relegated to the NBA D-League by the first opening tap. Or, they might just wander lost in the bowls of Quicken Arena as Spinal Tap did in looking for the concert stage in Cleveland.
Of course, that doesn’t matter in the public perception. As Chamberlain lamented, nobody roots for Goliath. Being a juggernaut physical mutant qualifies James as a Goliath, even at 6-9.
Though being 7-1 remained his signature physical feature, Chamberlain also possessed legendary strength and leaping ability. Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier, a massive 6-11 man with gargantuan foot foundations, oft tells of the time Chamberlain picked him up here and put him down over there to get position on an inbounds play.
Chamberlain played center, while James plays whatever his team needs, especially defensively. Chamberlain’s scoring numbers define ridiculous (top three individual seasons ever, four of the top five), but the list of centers to lead the NBA in assists starts and ends with “Wilt.” James can score at will, but prefers to spend the first quarter using his uncanny passing to get everyone else in the groove.
Yet, it’s not just in South Florida that James gets cast as the NBA’s Big Bad. A common refrain I’ve heard about James from people of various locales is, “I just don’t like him.”
Which was kind of the prevailing vague feeling about Chamberlain. Ironically, few athletic giants desired likeability more than these two.
So we get James fouled into a working cameraman during Thursday’s Game 4, emerging with a head wound and accused by some fans of flopping. Because players often throw themselves onto a guy holding expensive, sturdy electronic equipment with sharp edges to get a second-quarter foul call.
And if Golden State, the better team, does what better teams tend to do in the Finals, all permutations of the “loser” tag will get poured on James like champagne on Steph Curry.
Revoke my Miami Beach residency for feeling bad that the one guy who can say to James with greatest truth “been there, heard that” died in 1999.