Cameras and microphones are spread all over, and Dwyane Wade is before them now, talking about the Heat’s bench and Erik Spoelstra and what it is like to be a father. LeBron James, alone and tucked behind the curtains nearby, waiting his turn to feed the media beast Saturday afternoon, is bored and tired. Tired of these questions. Tired of this noise. Tired, period. He spreads his body stiffly across five uncomfortable chairs, on his back, closes his eyes and waits for his chance to make all the questions go away. Three more victories. That’s all it’ll take now. Win three more games, and everything changes. It doesn’t much matter what he says after that, or what anyone else does. Three more victories.
What has your life been like the past two years, LeBron?
He laughs at the question. He is walking back to the locker room now, having cut short his bored media responsibility when asked what part of his game needs improvement in this series. “Everything,” he said. “Appreciate it.” Then he got up and walked off. But now, in the bowels of the arena, he gives a head nod and a “What’s up, KD?” to Kevin Durant as he passes him in the hallway, and he laughs at the very idea of what his life has been like these past two years.
“You ever been to an amusement park?” he says. “That’s what my life has been like. Twists and turns. Up and down. Uh-oh, here we go, the roller-coaster is going into the dark hole again. Where’s the light? There’s the light. Up and down. Back into the dark hole. Back in the light. That’s what my life has been like.”
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He can see the light again from here. Only Durant, three-time scoring champion at the age of 23, stands between LeBron and the light.
Are you tougher, LeBron, given the past two years? He won’t bite on that. He shrugs his giant shoulders and makes a face like he’s chewing something sour. The easy answer would be, yes, I’m tougher. That’s not the route LeBron goes.
“The best teacher in life is experience,” he says. “What I am, more than anything, is comfortable and prepared. I’m more prepared. I’ve been through everything. There is nothing I can see that is going to surprise me. I’m more prepared. Mentally and physically.”
This is what confidence sounds like — a great student who has studied for even the biggest test does not fear surprises — but it isn’t what we saw from him last time he was in this spot, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, a sports giant shrinking before everyone’s eyes. It is the reason Miami lost at the very end last year … because LeBron James, not trusting himself, not trusting his excellence, not trusting the unfamiliar nature of this new team and new experience and new test, didn’t play to his averages. That’s all Miami needed, his average performance, but he didn’t provide it, and America spent the summer laughing at him. But he announced at the start of these playoffs, after the very first game, that he is a different player and person this year, and then he has gone out and proved it every game since in a way that left at least one Boston Celtics player awed.
“Our team was built to last,” Celtics guard Keyon Dooling says. “Experience, togetherness, will, drive. We peaked at the right time. We had the right group of guys together …”
“We fell short to pure talent,” Dooling says. “LeBron, when he’s on the court, he’s just more talented than everybody.”
For or against?
Dooling finds himself rooting for James to hold up the trophy.
“I just like him,” he says. “He’s our greatest player in our game. He gives back tremendously in the community. He’s great with his sons. He’s empowered his friends. He’s the most athletic player in our game, and the most unselfish superstar in our game. We should appreciate and embrace it instead of trying to tear him down.”
Ah, yes, that. James, still being punished for alleged crimes against sports committed two years ago, even though everyone knows he isn’t really a bad guy, even though his mother has had more public incidents in Miami than he has, even though the very worst thing he did resulted in a multimillion dollar donation to the Boys and Girls Club, is still carrying around that perception problem. It is how James’ 32 points in Game 2 aren’t worth as much as Durant’s 32. Durant bought himself more awe and respect with his performance, even though he lost at home, and even though he missed the potential game-winner at the end, because of expectations and double standards and because, unlike Dooling, most of America is not rooting for James. Broadcaster Dan Patrick asked his national radio audience an interesting question the other day: Who are you rooting for — Tiger Woods or LeBron James? Of those who responded to the poll, 70 percent said Tiger.
Tiger, evidently, has been humbled enough, after losses and confessions and apologies. Arrogance is the greatest blasphemy an athlete can commit in the church we’ve constructed of sports. The most unpopular/polarizing athletes are not the wife-beaters or felons but rather the guys who don’t hide behind humility while genuflecting before the worshippers in this particular church. Fans and media prefer modesty, even if it is false, to arrogance, even if it is truth. This ignores that there must be substantive ego to survive in a world as competitive as sports, and that all great athletes believe themselves to be great. Our heroes are just a lot better at concealing it. James isn’t exactly Chad Ochocinco or Metta World Peace, but he did that TV special a long time ago — there haven’t been a lot things in the history of sports more look-at-me than that — and it hasn’t been as forgiven as quickly as Tiger’s infidelities and lies. And he hasn’t won a title, which leaves him open to the claim that the perceived arrogance hasn’t even been earned, and it places him in such a strange and maybe even unprecedented position.
In order to keep mocking him, you have to root for him to keep losing. So he might be the most rooted against athlete since Muhammad Ali — Jim Brown loves to point out that Ali didn’t go from America’s most hated athlete to its most beloved until he lost his ability to speak — and here’s what makes that so odd: Of all the Hall of Fame athletes we’ve character-smeared throughout sports for being ringless (Charles Barkley, Dan Marino, Barry Bonds), do you ever remember the country actively rooting against any of them to get that ring while they were chasing it in their prime? Even Barkley, polarizing as he was, was rooted for when he got old because people who love sports usually love to see greatness rewarded, no matter how unlikeable the personality packaging. Even the jerks — Bonds, Terrell Owens, Roger Clemens — weren’t rooted against this way when on the big stage.
“There are so many people who root against him, it really pisses me off,” Barkley says now. “By the time he’s finished, he’s going to be one of the best 10 players ever. But you hear some of these reporters and fans, many are just haters. I’m not big on using the word ‘hater,’ but how can you hate someone who is that successful — that great at his job? But that’s what we have created with fame now. If you are great at something, people just dislike you. When someone takes shots at you, you have to realize what they’re really trying to say. They’re really trying to say, ‘Your life is great. Mine sucks. Let me bring you down to my level.’ ”
Barkley finishes his rant with this:
“It’s all led by old [punk] Skip Bayless.”
Barkley, so very loudly anti-Heat for two years, has come to James’ side? A Boston Celtic, too?
Three more victories, LeBron, and your amusement park is bathed only in light.