In the most meaningful ways, the human ways, LeBron James has more than passed the flaw test. Since that week in 2002, when Sports Illustrated propped him on its cover as “The Chosen One,’’ not once has he failed himself or his legacy in the searing public eye. His tactical mistake in participating in ESPN’s televised debacle, The Decision, wasn’t a case of immoral behavior or a criminal conviction as much as a public-relations stupor.
Never in a dozen years has he been scandalized, bimboized or TMZized. If LeBron’s image is fake, he has guarded his secrets well enough that Edward Snowden couldn’t expose them.
So keep that in mind when I say James, as the preeminent American athlete of the moment, has stumbled more than once professionally and dearly needs to win a third straight NBA championship to remove some lingering tarnish. I was there in 2010 when he literally quit in his final postseason series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, allowing internal team unrest to get the best of him and seemingly validating the never-confirmed innuendo that his subsequent signing with the Miami Heat had been orchestrated months before by Creative Artists Agency. And you know what happened a year later — after James had made his daunting “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six …’’ declaration — when he disappeared in the clutch and generally flat-lined in an abysmal loss to Dallas in the Finals. Even if we give James a pass for his previous washout against the Spurs in the 2007 Finals — are we absolutely certain the Cavaliers ever laced up sneakers for that series? — it means he has failed more than once in history-defining arenas.
LeBron is more Peyton Manning than Michael Jordan, OK?
Therefore, he has more at stake than Tim Duncan and the Spurs in what should be a memorable seven-game series. If San Antonio wins a fifth title since 1999, sure, it further validates Gregg Popovich’s methodology as championship-sustainable into a third decade, which should be an impossibility amid the opt-outs, tax restrictions and dizzying business structure of the 21st century. But whether the Spurs win or fall short doesn’t impact their place in basketball lore. Popovich, Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and a recently cultivated cast of snap-on parts — international in scope — really have nothing to prove except revenge for an uncharacteristically botched Finals opportunity last June against the Heat. Another loss will make them ache, but we won’t think less of them.
If James loses? That will be three Finals losses, and while his supporters will find fault with his unreliable supporting cast, the all-time greats find ways of overcoming such weaknesses — particularly when the Spurs have their own issues with age and injuries. Duncan is 38, Ginobili is 36, and breakout playoff star Boris Diaw joins Parker at 32. Parker also is dealing with a left ankle injury that won’t keep him out of Game 1 but will become a constant focal point throughout the series. If James is the Michael Jordan of his era and the Heat are the Jordan Bulls of their era, as Indiana coach Frank Vogel blathered in trying to justify another failure by his knuckleheads in the Eastern Conference finals, then they will find a way to win another title as they did last year.
His legacy will pivot on what happens these next two weeks. Win, and LeBron soars into conversation with Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and all the rest. Lose, and James still has two rings — nothing to be ashamed of, but making him 2 for 5 in Finals batting average. The three-peat would set him apart. On Finals eve, James isn’t shying from the Jordan comparisons, but deep down, he knows such thoughts will end without another South Beach partner. You can’t say “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …’’ and stop at two.
“Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it’s so humbling, man,” James said. “Me and (Dwyane Wade) grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls team and the great Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys. To be able to play the game that we love at a high level for one another, for our teammates, it’s the ultimate. When you hear the comparisons, you respect it. You’re humbled by it. You just feel like while you’re in the moment hopefully, while you’re playing the game, that you can make an impact enough to where you move on and people will start comparing you to ones that’s in the game at the present time.”
But as Heat owner Micky Arison said during the Eastern Conference title bash, there is still work to do for the comparisons to have staying power. Two titles don’t distinguish a team in history, despite this from Wade: “Whenever it’s all said and done, the legacy of this team, it’s going to be a great team. It’s going to go down in history as an unbelievable team not only in South Florida but in NBA history.” Winning three straight titles qualifies as greatness. Going 2 for 4 does not.
We’ve never thought of Duncan, the most private superstar of sport’s self-indulgent era, as someone who spends time on personal legacies. But he did hint at how much he has ached since last year’s Finals with his shocking, refreshing proclamation that the Spurs will win. “It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year. But we’re back here. We’re excited about it. We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time. We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still,’’ he said, on live television no less.
“People keep talking like we weren’t close to winning,’’ said Swaggy T, still chirping, “but we were ready to win last year.’’
Popovich, typically, wasn’t interested in elaborating. “I have no idea what Timmy said. I never pay attention to what anybody says. I don’t care what people say,’’ he said.
James did care. “They don’t like us, they don’t. I can sense it from Timmy’s comments over the last couple of days,” he said. “They wanted this, they wanted us and we’ll be ready for the challenge.”
With a four-day lead up to the Finals, you knew someone would run those comments past Popovich. “Personally? People can say whatever they want. I like everybody,’’ he said, his annoyed shtick in full bloom. “You’re really gonna ask me that? So somebody will say, `I don’t like him.’ And then they’ll go, `So and so said they don’t like you.’ `Well, I don’t like you, either.’
“Come on. This is silly.’’
But hasn’t Popovich admitted, in quieter moments, that he has burned inside since last year’s collapse? “I don’t care. This is this year,’’ he growled. “I don’t care what anybody thought last year, whatever happened. It doesn’t have any effect on what we do this year.’’
The reason James cares about Duncan’s comments is that he needs to be at his supreme best as a leader and a performer, from the first minute of Game 1 to the final buzzer of Game 7. At times, he has mysteriously faded in big moments, subjecting himself to criticism for not wanting the last shot on occasion. He can’t afford fadeouts like his no-show in Game 5 against the Pacers, when he found instant foul trouble and had his worst-ever postseason game. We must see the best of LeBron James for two weeks, no respites or dinner breaks allowed.
“Once you get on the floor, you’ve got to play. We’re confident. We’re not shying away from them. We want them, too,” James said. “I don’t think it’s personal. Like they said, we left a sour taste in their mouth. They’ve been preparing for this moment, we have as well. No one is entitled. This is no one’s championship. It isn’t ours, it isn’t theirs, it’s two teams fighting for it.”
The Spurs want it.
LeBron needs it.