I don’t know if LeBron James matured or conquered his fear or eureka-epiphany figured something out in the last game – one of the best we’ve ever seen, any sport, any time. Maybe he just made a lot of his jump shots. But I do know this: That is how you change the contaminated and unrelenting narrative surrounding you.
The mocking? The criticism? All the poison? That is how you silence it, in the quietest Boston you’ve never heard. That’s what respect sounds like, that silence, and you don’t ask for it politely or by trying very hard to be liked. You take it, against everyone’s will if necessary, and you stare dead-eyed and unsmiling straight ahead as those laughing mouths around you close one by one in a mixture of fear and awe, and you keep that look as you leave the silenced arena and someone throws a beer on your head, knowing that there is a little more work on your legacy yet to be done.
Witness was Nike’s advertising campaign for him, at once grandiose and religious, so think about what you just Witnessed, sports worshipper. It is something that must be respected, if you care at all about games, even if you hate James for his alleged personality crimes in the cathedral we’ve made of sports. There is no one in sports covered like him. That awful 4-for-18 game Paul Pierce had Thursday night? Can you imagine what would have fallen out of the sky if James had done that in that game? Can you imagine if James had even the game Dwyane Wade (6 for 17) had? Even Hall of Famers get to fail quietly sometimes, but the bar is set beyond even the stars for only James now, and Thursday night he still somehow leaped over it to dunk on the head of a 6-11 extraterrestrial named Kevin Garnett.
If James had the game Pierce or Wade had Thursday night, maybe he gets his coach fired and his friend gets traded. And, under those circumstances, amid hostility inside and outside the arena, with so many people rooting for him to shrink and fail and wither under the laughter, the alleged choker does that? It was, given the weight of the circumstances, the best game he has ever played. Forty-five points and 15 rebounds, for forever.
No one anywhere in athletics plays under the daily pressure and scrutiny James does. And there was more of it Thursday night, more of it than even his usual, more than any normal human would find bearable, the Heat’s entire blueprint and experiment pushed to the brink, an offseason of echoing mockery calling if his hands began to tremble. This as Chris Bosh was still hurt and a gimpy Wade might as well have spent the first half playing defense against LeBron, too. Standing in the way: The proud, rugged Celtics featured three Hall of Famers, a three-time All-Star, a champion coach whose specialty is defense and a hostile gladiator crowd demanding a kill. And James does that?
James came to Miami to share the burden – it is why he left his image in tatters to join Miami, to get past these very Celtics – but there hasn’t been anything shared about his burden for two straight years. Wade, bejeweled forever, misses the last shot, he doesn’t get blamed. The conversation becomes, “Why didn’t LeBron take it?” James has been accused of mental frailty, of cowardice, daily and nationally for two years. And that either breaks a lesser man or hardens a stronger one.
Last time we saw him in this position, feeling all alone, carrying an unbearable burden unlike anyone else in sports, season on the brink, he collapsed under the weight of it, looking scared for all to see. Game 6 of The Finals, getting help from the refs, at home, Dirk Nowitzki missing all his first-half shots, Miami still got smoked, the season crashing to the ground not unlike a broken Bosh did on the walk back to the locker room. One of the things about LeBron’s personal life that everyone notices is that he is never alone. He is always surrounded by people, so much so all of last year that he always did interviews with Wade at his side. And in The Finals, as the weight came crashing down, and even this offseason, as his mother and girlfriend tried to console him and he told Sports Illustrated he became a recluse who looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, James had to feel so very, very alone, even while standing in an arena full of people and having an uncommon kind of fame and infamy.
He could have felt alone Thursday, too, given what was closing in, given how little his teammates were giving him, so many of Wade’s misses turning into easy baskets in transition before Miami’s defense could be set. We can’t know if this was just a one-game statistical outlier on the night all his shots went in, but we do know that this time, alone with his excellence, alone with his confidence, alone on the brink, what he produced didn’t feel a hell of a lot like doubt or laughter. He looked every bit as comfortable alone, confronted with all those people rooting against him, as he does in front of his locker before big games, where you will find him this postseason always reading a book.
There was this moment back at the end of Game 5, when all the hostile noise flooded back into James’ world. Pierce made a huge three-pointer right in James’ face, and Pierce swaggered back to his huddle shouting about how he was cold-blooded. And he was. But Pierce does not play with James’ daily burden. His team has already overachieved. He has already won. No one is going to get fired if he misses. America isn’t going to laugh and rejoice if he fails. So, yes, for one shot, Pierce was cold-blooded, but what does that make what James was for the entirety of Thursday’s game, doing all that and forcing Pierce on the other end into that 4 for 18? James did not shout about how he was cold-blooded, but that silent arena spoke pretty eloquently on his behalf.
The entire blueprint gets pushed to the brink again Saturday night, this time at home. Game 7, the best thing in sports. Win or the season is over and America’s laughter begins anew. Only one way to keep this team and this feeling and this confidence exactly where it is, LeBron.
You have to go do it again.