"Sip the juice, 'cause I got enough to go around..." - Rakim, Know The Ledge
The narrative coming into Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals looked into the psyche and legacy of LeBron James. The Chosen One had been feted during his high school days in Akron, Ohio. He was celebrated and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
With All-Star status immediately attained after entering the league in 2003, he was given a pass for being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, a mere four years into the league.
He was also playing with a Cavaliers team most considered to be filled with vagabonds as his most potent sidekick, Larry Hughes, had been lost to injury.
I was there, but otherwise occupied with the smell of cigars and champagne in the victorious locker room, talking to the series MVP, Tony Parker. I was there (well in the building) when Tim Duncan whispered to LeBron that the league would soon be his.
That offseason, things fell apart.
Cleveland pretty much stood still, save a midseason trade of Hughes and Drew Gooden for Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. But that previous summer, former Celtic and then Minnesota Timberwolves’ executive Kevin McHale gifted Kevin Garnett to his former teammate, and Boston Celtic’s President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge.
Along with another offseason acquisition of the Seattle Supersonics’ Ray Allen, the first microwaveable Big 3 formed and changed the modern day NBA championship landscape as if it were hit by a seismic tremor.
In Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics, LeBron dropped 45 - almost half of his team’s 92 total points. The man who is now part of the crew covering the series for ABC, Paul Pierce, had a little more help with KG, Ray, Rajon Rondo and others, scoring 41 in the Celtics’ 97-92 victory.
Two seasons later, LeBron helped in altering the playing field, taking his talents to South Beach. He tried to reconfigure it to his favor again by going back to Cleveland. However, the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors emerged almost out of nowhere.
Only a few predicted promise for a long-dormant franchise that would be energized by the head coach hiring of Mark Jackson. Hmmm…didn’t Tony Dungy do the same for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and ended up winning a title in another city?
The point is that the lack of this so called killer gene is way, way over-blown in factoring who wins an NBA championship.
Despite being a four-time MVP, and two-time champion the clamor and calls for him to be like Mike continue. The cacophony of Jordan jock riders still rise like some anti-poetic lines of Maya Angelou.
But I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, like Fannie Lou Hamer, of this LeBron ledger.
“I think for me to go out and be who I am and play as true to the game and as hard as I can and try to lead this team, that’s who I am. Not anybody else,” LeBron told reporters Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s Game 3 in Cleveland.
“I’m not Michael (Jordan). I’m not (Muhammad) Ali. I’m not nobody else that’s done so many great things for sport. I am who I am, and if I’m able to go out and put together a game like that, it wasn’t because I was possessed. It’s because I worked on my craft all season long and that’s the result of it.”
Certainly, the recent death of Ali is, like for others, immediate and heavy on LeBron’s mind. There is a mine of irony in that over the next few days, the world will mourn the passing of the Greatest on Friday and then Saturday become perhaps enmeshed in the broadcasting of the prolific documentary OJ: Made in America.
Any black or brown boy, like me, who grew up in the ‘70s had one or all these three men as their sports hero; Ali, OJ or Dr. J. In retrospect, Ali and OJ are almost antithetical. Like a fallen angel that became Satan, the two emerged from the same primordial soup. Although their life’s arc took them to polar opposites, they share so many similar qualities. Man, it’s a thin line between greatness and grotesque.
With another legend though - the immutable Jim Brown - in the Quicken Loans Arena crowd whose LeBron’s style actually resembles, he did not take the bait. As he calculated, LeBron did not play possessed yet ended up with 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists as the Cavs defeated the Warriors 110-90. I’m almost certain LeBron has done the math and ascertained that he could drop 45 but his best chance to win is having his teammates prosper.
Surely, some cats in our ABC (Alleyway, Barbershop and Church) would give him props for going down guns a-blazing. But as far as winning the ‘chip, it’s dangerous to follow the wisdom of the fundamentalists you find in the ABC.
All of the greatest NBA players have been critiqued fairly and unfairly. I even hear the rumblings mount as Curry has played a third consecutive less-than-stellar Finals game. Although Klay Thompson is not in the category of all time great players just yet, more is expected of him than his lackluster play since Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
Thompson scored 21 and 34 points in Games 1 & 2 last year. Since then, here is what he has scored in the seven subsequent Finals games: 14, 9, 12, 5, 9, 17 and 10.
But Kyrie Irving is and will be the key in this series. Irving unlocked his inner Uncle Drew and finished with 30 points and eight assists. J.R. Smith found his stroke in the familiar environments of home.
Richard Jefferson, who once told me way back in his Nets days that he runs the floor like blood through a body, chipped in with his energy despite his 35 year-old bones. All that and with Tristan Thompson banging the boards for 13 rebounds and 7 on the offensive glass, the Cavs have their best and only chance.