For a good portion of youth, I was a basketball fan. More specifically, I was a diehard Lakers fan. I would watch any Laker game, reveling in blowouts (the better to check out the bench players), and screaming at the television while Chick Hearn, in his rapid-fire style, berated the Lakers players for doing something stupid. I was a member of Lakers' nation.
That changed in a short time span when the team traded Shaq, Kobe had nonconsentual sex with, as it turns out, the sister of some friends of my brothers, and Phil Jackson left. Ever since, I have been an ex-Lakers fan. I still watch NBA games, even Lakers' games, on occasion, but the passion is gone.
With that said, I still follow the NBA, and Bill Simmons is one of my favorite sports writers. Actually, he is my favorite. And Bill Simmons is a NBA fan. He's such a big NBA fan that he wrote a 1200 page book on the NBA, and I read ever word of it. With his help, I feel like I'm slowly being pulled back into the fold as a basketball fan.
So, contrary to the past few years, I've been following the NBA finals much more than ever. It certainly helps to have a team like the Dallas Mavericks pull off one impressive run after another. But more than that, the play of Lebron James has been fascinating to watch.
Lebron James, if you have never seen him, is the single most impressive athlete ever to grace the NBA. He is 6'8" - classic small forward size - 260(ish) lbs, and probably 2% body fat. He is, by most accounts, the fastest player in the NBA, is blessed with lightning quickness, and because of his size, weight and speed, can play any position on the court. Not only is he blessed with tremendous athletic ability, but he has incredible "court vision" - he's able to see, and comprehend where everyone on the basketball court is, and where they will be. As a result, he can pass the ball with amazing skill. He is, as advertised, a basketball player who can score like Jordan, and pass like Magic Johnson. Oh, and he can defend every position on the floor - from a 6'0" point guard to a 7'0" center, and does so with striking aplomb.
No other player in the NBA finals can come close to James' ability. Dwyane Wade, James' teammate, and a great player in his own right, for instance, is a 6'4" guard who plays with absolute abandon and will do whatever it takes to win. But he cannot guard a much taller player, nor can he post up a larger player inside. Dirk Nowitiski, the great Mavericks player, is a freakish 7'0" forward who can shoot with absolutely deadly accuracy doesn't have the quickness to guard players outside. Similarly, all the other players on the court have deficiencies in one area or another. None have the ability of Lebron James.
Yet, with all that talent, Lebron James is fading on the world stage. Last night, he scored 17 points, had 10 assists and 10 rebounds (a triple-double), which was good, but not good enough. In the last quarter, he scored a mere 2 points. The game before, James scored only 8 points. And his numbers for the other three games weren't spectacular either. In the meantime, Nowitiski has been a man possessed, scoring nearly 30 points per game for the series. While some would attribute James' disappearing act on his heart or his manhood, I wonder if it is something else.
Specifically, what if James' athletic ability is hampering him on the world stage. For his entire life, James has played basketball better than everyone else, based purely on his ability. Whatever he wanted to do, he could do, almost as well as anyone else. Almost. And that's the problem - James never specialized, never developed a "move" that he could use when all chips were down, because with the exception of the NBA Finals, he doesn't need a move because his talent is limitless.
That's a problem because our limits lead us down the path of our lives. When I was a child, I wanted to be a physicist like my father, a fighter pilot (I grew up in the shadow of Top Gun - both the movie and the actual place), an astronaut and the President of the United States. As a I grew up, I discovered I didn't especially like math (sorry Mom), and that knocked out physics. My eyesight and reflexes aren't good, and that knocked out being a fighter pilot and an astronaut. So, I followed my talents to where they lead me - into the law.
In the NBA Finals, when the chips are down, and the team needs to score, specialists are needed. That's why the great ones all had moves. Hakeem had his Dream Shake, Jordan started with his drive to the basket, and then moved to the fadeaway, Shaq had his dunk, and Kareem had the absolutely deadly Sky Hook. Because each practiced his moves over and over and over again, when it was time for a score, the ball went to them, and more often than not, they scored. These moves, mind you, weren't developed because these players wanted to have a move, they developed out of their own limitations. Kareem developed the Sky Hook because he was tall and lanky and couldn't score inside. Jordan couldn't take the beating from driving to the basket anymore, so he developed the fadeaway. It was their limitations that created their moves. The fact that James has no limitations, can play any position almost as well as anyone else, means that during crunch time, he can't be counted on. And that's why we see the fade.