Is This Really What We Want?
Even in a brilliant Game 6 performance, LeBron James was clearly uncomfortable.
by Allen Powell II
When my oldest son has a personal triumph, be it a made basket on his toy hoop or a cool trick with a toy, he tends to yell out “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” He picked up the phrase from me, as I have a penchant for yelling this out whenever I’m watching basketball, when one of the NBA’s great players does something that only great players can do.
I think most of you can see where this is going.
On Thursday night a great player did what great players tend to do. And as the world celebrates or mourns the amazing display LeBron James put on in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, there is a troubling theme that continues to surface in the discussion.
No, it’s not the idiots still proclaiming that his play wasn’t “clutch,” as if there is anything more clutch than turning in a transcendent performance when your team desperately needs it. It’s not the pundits already questioning whether he can duplicate a feat that only a handful of NBA players have ever accomplished in their careers. What is troubling is how much focus has gone to what should be referred to as “The Look.”
Several sportswriters have focused their attention on LeBron James’ demeanor as he scorched Boston for 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists on an absurd 73 percent shooting. There has been much rejoicing that LeBron finally unleashed the stone-faced visage that always signals dominance. LeBron’s teammates have been asked to discuss how they drew confidence from his demeanor. Boston players were quizzed about how LeBron’s lack of emotion brought fear to their collective souls. And finally, critics have seized this opportunity to crow “I told you so,” because they just knew that if James ever got serious, the world would pay.
It is vaguely reminiscent of the scene from “White Men Can’t Jump” when an angry Billy Hoyle proclaims that Sidney Dean and all black players would rather look good and lose, than look bad and win. There is a feeling that if only LeBron adopted “The Look” more often instead of reveling in the sheer joy of playing the game he loves, well then he would be the player everyone wants to see. If LeBron would just look the part of a stone-cold killer, then it wouldn’t be long before it was undeniably true.
That is complete hogwash. How quickly everyone forgot the dominant meme from earlier this season about how much better LeBron was playing because he had abandoned the “villain” role that defined his first year in Miami and returned to the fun-loving wisecracking, sideline dancer he was in Cleveland. James spoke repeatedly about how he has to tap into his love for the game to perform at his absolute best, and doing anything else was betraying who he has always been as a player. Yet, with one extraterrestrial performance on Thursday, LeBron negated all of those comments, and now his on-court demeanor is again a topic of discussion.
Sadly, this is not surprising. Sports fans are only human. As humans, we tend to assume causation where there is only correlation. The players most revered in NBA history have typically done their damage stoically or with barely subdued aggression. Even the typically effervescent Magic Johnson knew how to unleash “The Look” when it was time to get down to business. History tells many sports fans that “The Look” is essential to success, without it, a player surely lacks the killer instinct so highly valued in professional sports.
As critics and fans constantly clamor for LeBron to change the basketball paradigm, they also want him to fit neatly into the boxes occupied by all those players who have preceded him. His job is to change the game, but only by following the carefully crafted script written by the legacies of all those who have preceded him. His “look” is quite possibly more important than his results because even if he succeeds doing things the wrong way, that success will be viewed skeptically.
Yes, LeBron destroyed Boston while gazing calmly into the distance, but was that really an improvement over the times he’s destroyed teams with a smile on his lips? Why do fans need him to adopt a persona that is so ill-fitting in order to appreciate what he is accomplishing? How does it benefit the game to have its best player try to be something he is so obviously not?
It was obvious LeBron James was wearing a mask last night. There was a weariness about him that did not come from playing 44 consecutive minutes to start the game, but instead seemed to come from having to wear such an uncomfortable disguise while he dominated. His every economical and amazing move seemed to be tinged with a sense of “Is this what you want from me?” It was outstanding, it was breathtaking and it was unbelievable.
It also was incredibly sad.