This was the first season that I went into the playoffs having watched a pretty solid sampling of most teams, instead of keeping an eye solely on my beloved Toronto Raptors. So when the first round of playoffs started, and my team hadn’t made it, choosing a team to root for was kind of like shopping with no budget. I wanted a team that communicated; a team that was hungry enough and experienced enough to do everything possible to win; a team that played together and carried each other, rather than a team that was carried by one player.
And yet, I couldn’t choose a single team. What ended up happening was that I rooted actively against the Miami Heat. The team didn’t play together, relied too much on their Big 3, seemed to snipe at each other on the court. They were cocky despite having not yet achieved anything, immature and overly dramatic. And yeah, The Decision.
LeBron James was the worst of it all. He strutted around, acting as though his assumed title of ‘champion’ was an eventuality, and not something to be earned. He couldn’t close out a game, couldn’t truly lead, and was definitely not a good sport.
Now, please, pay attention, because this doesn’t happen often, but (and I swallow bile as I write this) I was wrong.
Although, to my credit, he really didn’t show any interest in his own development until this season, so can you really blame me for judging?
Let’s skip back to the reasons why LeBron annoyed me. Friends of mine, loving on LeBron, have accused me of hating him because he’s good. Now, that’s frustrating. I’m a coach. I’ve coached players with an insane amount of natural athletic talent. Players who make people whisper, “Wow!” under their breath. Players who make it look so effortless, it’s a joy just to sit back and watch. Never once have I been even mildly irritated by a talented player. Not even one who was killing my team.
Not only that, but regardless of God-given ability, a player like LeBron does not get to be LeBron without thousands of hours of repetitive work. I’ve stood in a gym with a player for three hours at a time while she goes over the same motion again and again to make it perfect. I’ve had players beg for me to open a gym – any gym – all day, every day, for the slightest chance at one-on-one coaching. I’ve withstood a two month barrage of text messages that read, “Can we go [to the gym] today?” during summer break. Because any player who wants to be the best knows that, as Andrea Bargnani said, “Someone, somewhere, is still shooting.”
I could never spite a player for being good, because I know the work it takes, the hours it requires, the social engagements missed, special diets followed, and constant risk to their bodies. I would never have a knee-jerk reaction to hating a player because they’re good.
For anyone who has read any of my other pieces, it comes as no surprise that the quality that I prize above all others in a player is sportsmanship. I can teach a player to run, dribble, shoot. What is very difficult to train out of a player is a bad attitude. And to be a good player with a poor mindset is a very unfortunate thing indeed. It gets to a point when you’d expect maturity to take over, but when the player is an adult, well, good luck waiting for an attitude change.
Which brings us back to the main root of my disgruntlement: The Decision.
As a Raptors fan, I do have a fair bit of investment in the happenings of summer of 2010. Not that I have ever been a fan of Chris Bosh, but he did good work for Toronto, and it was sad to see him go. But by my recollection, there was no hour-long special on TSN (Canadian sports network); no trashing of his Raptors jersey. His contract was up, and he left for a richer team and a warmer client. Good for him.
But a player of any skill level who refers to himself in the third person, forces an entire organization to bend to his every whim, quits on his team during the playoffs, fails to deliver the championship, and seems to blame the city where he grew up? Not “good for him.”
Tell any person working their hands to the bone for pennies that a sports star is a professional, and you’ll get an eyebrow raise. Describe LeBron’s departure from Cleveland as the behavior of a professional, and brain cells will melt. Imagine a car salesman who cuts off all contact with his bosses, only to announce via radio ad two weeks later that he’s working for the competition. Yeah, good luck ever getting hired again, buddy.
LeBron’s behavior did irreparable damage to his reputation, and tarnished the Miami Heat, maybe forever. No matter how many championship rings that group accumulates, there will always be the bitter aftertaste of a city betrayed.
Moving on, the best for that group was their loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. For their first season together, they played like someone was just going to hand them rings at the end of the playoffs. LeBron talked multiple ‘ships, Dwyane Wade referred to The Big 3 as the best trio to ever play the game of basketball, but they hadn’t yet achieved anything! By the time the playoffs rolled around, they were the same old players: Chris Bosh kind of disappeared, LeBron choked, Wade tried to carry the team. Though, truly, what team? There was no gel, no communication, no brotherhood. They played like The Big 3 against the world, and everyone else seem to accept it.
But then, Christmas 2011 happened. In a Finals rematch, the Heat demolished the reigning NBA champions. It signaled the beginning of a change. They still sniped at each other, disagreed, failed miserably. The athleticism was still there, of course; it always will be, but the negative parts that would forever bar them from becoming champions were still present.
And thus, began the post-season. The same old Heat team from last year would, of course, be doomed to fail against the smarter, more cohesive, Western Conference Champion, whoever that turned out to be. It looked so close to happening, too! It was a close call against Indiana, and then Boston, and they lost Game 1 of the Finals against OKC.
But then, something changed. During the whole playoff run, LeBron seemed quiet (off the court, of course). Gone were the theatrics, the chalk throwing. He showed a chilling focus from the beginning of the game to the end. He didn’t even get into a fight with James Harden!
And he seemed to have finally taken the criticism to heart. He became a clutch player. And make no mistake – those high pressure shots are not luck. For every shot made, there were hundreds just like it in practice. He started leading instead of expecting everyone else to follow him blindly.
And the team! Suddenly, Shane Battier was scoring almost twenty points. Everyone laid off Mario Chalmers long enough for him to perform. Until the last two minutes of the final game, Mike Miller (!) was the high scorer!
This was the team that I’d been looking for! This was a team that communicated and support each other. This was a team that was professional. Mario Chalmers trying to amp up the crowd and getting scolded by LeBron (Pot, meet Kettle) showed a whole new level of maturity that was what clinched the big W for them, more than athleticism or skill.
I don’t think the bitterness of The Decision will ever truly wash away. Dedicated NBA viewers will remember that betrayal forever, no matter how many titles the Heat win. Let a man play where he wants, but there are expectations that we have with regards to civility.
But maybe I’m just a sucker for happiness, because watching The Big 3 bounce like six year old girls getting ponies as the final game wound down, well, I couldn’t help but smile for them.
I’m not a Heat fan. I’m not a LeBron James fan. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to appreciate a player as spoiled as him, or an organization that panders to that. But (please excuse me as I swallow more bile) they really did earn it. And isn’t that all that we ask of our champions?