The Pain Game
The Commish weighs in on LeBron’s Finals disappearance.
This season, Chris Bosh grabbed the torch from Dirk as the League’s most vehemently disrespected player. No NBA player—or professional athlete, period—has ever been as flippantly disregarded and routinely disparaged as Bosh.
In 2009, after Shaq dropped 45 on him, Bosh complained that Shaq was allowed an eternity in the lane. This was Shaq’s response: “I heard what Chris Bosh said, and that’s strong words coming from the RuPaul of big men. I’m going to do the same thing (in their next meeting) I did before—make him quit. Make ‘em quit and complain. It’s what I do.” Translation: Shut up, you tranny. Next time we meet I’ll make you quit like a sissy, as usual.
Bosh rhetoric always simmered somewhat below public radar because he played for the Raptors, which few people outside of Ontario care about. But then the summer of 2010 hit and Bosh-dissing rose to a boil. Under the Heat microscope, he became the go-to whipping boy.
Stan Van Gundy, an opposing coach, called him Dwyane Wade’s “lapdog.” Translation: He’s a sackless cornball. Kevin Durant called him a “fake tough guy.” Carlos Boozer felt emboldened enough to say Miami only had two stars, even though Bosh had clearly outplayed him for the series. Fans and comedians clowned him relentlessly, with much of the vitriol and jokes calling his manhood – and often his sexual orientation – into question. His nickname, Bosh Spice—meaning he’s a woman—had its own hashtag and it trends on Twitter. The level, frequency and degree of the contempt thrown Bosh’s way has truly been historic. Dirk and Pau Gasol combined never got it this bad.
My thinking was that if the Heat were to lose the series, it would probably be because LeBron and Wade weren’t able to match Dirk and the Mavs Shotmakers, left in the lurch by a shrinking Bosh. This would have inspired such mean-spirited, schoolyard rancor that Commissioner Stern, GLAAD and President Obama might have gotten involved. Something downright outrageous would have had to happen for anyone other than Bosh to get the brunt of the ridicule (not blame) if the Heat came up short of the trophy.
Well, the Heat got bounced from the Finals, on their own floor. It made Bosh collapse into heap in the tunnel, which, of course, attracted the requisite ridicule. But Bosh is going to escape scapegoat status this offseason because LeBron James turned in the most puzzling performance of any superstar in this game’s history.
Superstar Hall-of-Famers have played badly in the Finals before (Kobe in ’04 and ’08, Magic “Tragic” Johnson in ’84). LeBron, however, played Games 4, 5 and 6 like an apathetic, disengaged mannequin. He was a zombie auditioning for Walking Dead. How could the player we saw against Boston and Chicago—a man who seemed destined to join that strata of NBA greats that you can hold in two hands—turn into the slug of the past 10 days? We don’t know. But I know that “The Decision” and “The Welcome Party” coupled with LeBron’s Finals disappearance that he bookended with a classy “all you haters return to your pitiful lives” parting shot have ensured that the Summer of 2011 will be the longest of his life. Bosh should send him a “thank you” text.
The kind of offseason LeBron just began can be the stuff that shows up in biographies and profiles as the genesis of future greatness. Part of me wanted the Heat to lose, not because I dislike the team, but because I subscribe to that notion of pain before gain. I spoke with a lot of the Bulls from the ’91 championship squad and each of them talked about the pain of the previous postseason’s loss to the Pistons as the main motivation for the title run. They were called mentally weak, soft, MJ’s unfit supporting cast—they used it as fuel. Larry Bird’s loss to Magic’s Spartans in the ’79 NCAA Finals drove him for the rest of his career.
So, I liked what happened in Game 2, how the Mavs knocked Miami’s teeth out with a historic fourth quarter comeback after Wade and Bron styled on them for the first three quarters. That loss hurt them. Good. Wade and Bron both came up small in the deciding game. Dallas celebrated on Miami’s court. Great. I wanted the Heat to hurt this summer. Pain, I figured, would make this squad and these players truly great. But I’m no longer so sure.
At this point, if we know anything about LeBron, we now know that he might inexplicably stop playing aggressive on the court, but he will continue to remain aggressively delusional off the court. LeBron World is an alternate reality.
After his No. 1 seed Cavs were upset by the Magic in the 2009 Finals, dude skulked off the court without acknowledging his opponent and then later said he did so because he’s “a winner.” Huh?
He wore a Yankees cap to a Yankees-Indians game in Cleveland. He thought The Decision was a good idea.
You might think that LeBron will come back next season with a postgame, but his behavior says otherwise.
What did you say before Game 5? It was probably some version of “There’s no way LeBron follows up that Game 4 debacle with another zombie performance.” But what happened? He turned in a slumped-shoulder triple double and 48 minutes of blank stares. But there was no way—with the season in the balance and the series shifted back to Miami—he would sleepwalk through an elimination game, right? Well he did. And it’s troubling because, in LeBron World, he probably didn’t think there was anything peculiar about his play. He probably doesn’t think he needs a jump hook or a drop step or a turnaround.
What motivates LeBron? That’s a question that we’ve yet to answer. Vindication and payback motivated many of sports greatest winners. Jordan called the various slights he endured “logs on his fire.” Dirk has been on a five-year journey to get rid of that ‘06-07 stench. The 1984 Finals loss to Boston was Magic’s career low point. He came back the next season on a mission and Pat Riley (then the Lakers coach) noticed it. “Those wounds from last June stayed open all summer,” said Riley, as the Lakers entered the Finals for a rematch with the Celtics. “Now the misery has subsided, but it never leaves your mind completely. Magic is very sensitive to what people think about him, and in his own mind I think he heard those questions over and over again to the point where he began to rationalize and say, ‘Maybe I do have to concentrate more.’ I think the whole experience has made him grow up in a lot of ways.”
Riley can only hope that LeBron handles the summer of 2011 similar to how Magic handled the summer of 1984. The problem is, LeBron doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Chances are, this summer—as difficult as it’ll be—won’t have the effect it usually has on future champions. In fact, it’s likely that we’ll see the same LeBron in 2012. LeBron is at a crossroad. I wonder if he knows it.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. You can email him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.