Take The Season Back
The Commish on LeBron’s return to Cleveland.
What happened to LeBron? The way he swaggered through the end of the summer and into the season with a boulder on his shoulder, I thought he was going to go “Takeover,” “Ether,” “Hit ‘Em Up,” “Who Shot Ya,” “Second Round Knockout,” AND “No Vaseline” on anybody and everybody.
Remember his ‘list’? Remember his “What Should I Do” Nike commercial where he goaded Charles Barkley with a donut (with pink frosting and sprinkles, no less) and scoffed at haters (“Not listen to my friends???? There my friends.” duhhh)? Nah, wait…remember “Haters Day” on Twitter, where he chuckled at internet louts basically telling him to kill himself? Man. I thought a lot of things about his decision and “The Decision,” but there was nobility in his air of defiance, threats of vengeance and general, middle-fingery disposition. The Heat would come out of the tunnel to friggin “Hate Me Now”!
I loved it. And I was surprised. In the immediate aftermath of Bron’s decision, I mentioned in ESPN and SLAMonline pieces that LeBron hadn’t shown any inclination to enjoy the villain role. The requisite mixture of defiance, steel, haughtiness and audacity of natural villains/provocateurs wasn’t as discernible in LeBron as it was in Reggie Miller or Kobe Bryant. Villains are pricks; they’re the a**holes and d*****bags Kanye West toasts in “Runaway.” Before July 2010, about the only thing overtly villainy from LeBron was his walkoff diss after getting bounced from the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. Other than that, he was largely a fun-loving, good-natured, beloved-by-teammates, slightly goofy, deranged-hooping dynamo.
Of course, as I’ve stated, my thinking changed throughout the summer as Bron kept doing his thing with a twinkle in his eye. By the time he and the Heat ran out the tunnel to “Hate Me Now” with Carl Off’s “O Fortuna” sample inviting all the hate in the world, the dude had suckered me good. This is a new, changed, hardened LeBron, I thought.
But then came the season. After opening up 4-1, pummeling some celly-dwellies and Orlando, the Heat started tripping up, going 5-7 in their next 12. They weren’t the first “super team,” but few started so terrible. The ’03-04 Lakers jumped out the gate 18-3 when Karl Malone and Gary Payton suited up. And I hope no one forgot the 27-2 start from the Celtics a couple years ago.
But, forget about the record and, as we’ve all done in recent weeks, focus on the optics. All that swaggering was gone. Bron was giving us a lot of slumped shoulders and blank stares. He went from barking and posturing in videos from pre-season practices to going mum half the time during regular-season games. He had turned into Joe Johnson.
So, it’s no surprise that, this week, instead of a cockiness and iciness in advance of the most hostile environment he might ever play in, he’s using words and phrases like “difficult” and “emotionally draining” and “going to be tough.”
Sounds like Bron’s sweatin’ it.
In an ideal, moral, noble world, that’s how he should feel. In fact, let’s go ahead give LeBron a “power clap” for not only allowing his visceral reaction to be one of vulnerability, but admitting it, too. I’m not trying to do “ideal” here, though. Selfishly, I was just really looking forward to LeBron strutting into Quicken Loans Arena, throwing on an ice-grill, dropping 50, then saluting the frothy-mouthed Cavs fans as he skipped back to the visitor’s locker room. This isn’t because I’m a LeBron fan or hate Cleveland, it’s because I’m a fan of greatness and I think such a performance would reveal a quality that would help LeBron become a champion.
But, let’s be real, logical and sane. A 35-15-15 virtuoso performance is almost impossible from LeBron under the circumstances he’ll face in Cleveland. Even the ice-cold villains had issues. Remember when Reggie dropped 39 on the Knicks in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden? You know – the game where he rained treys from so far away he may as well have been on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel and machine-gunned a courtside Spike Lee with insults and maniac spit? He was Public Enemy No. 1 in NYC for the next four days. He returned to the Garden facing a seething crowd and went for a relatively modest 25 points. It was Game 7. The Pacers went home for the summer. During Kobe’s “Colorado Trial” season, he went 8-23 in a Lakers’ loss the first time they visited Denver.
I’m not convinced, however, that filling the stat sheet is the true test. Maybe LeBron’s game doesn’t talk the talk, but I want to see if his demeanor, posture and overall aura walks the walk. Will he seem sullen, jittery or rattled? Will he just put his head down and ball or will he bring some flair to this grandiose stage?
LeBron and Co. said they need to get back to having fun. I don’t know about that, though. I think they need to get back to being on a mission of vengeance. That could start in Cleveland. Put on the mean mugs. Woof a little bit. Drain a trey and let the pose hang for a sec. Catch an alley-oop and smile at the floor seat fans. And, by all means, make it rain talcum powder. Let Dan Gilbert know it’s still your house. Get your swagger back. Take the season back.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN, writes the weekly “From The Floor” column and co-hosts the Hang Time Podcast for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.