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Jun
19
2013

Nightmares

Kyle Fitzsimmons, an unabashed LeBron James fan, weighs in on an epic Game 6 between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Nightmares that wake children up screaming, sweaty, and terrified rarely occur just once. They almost always come back, scarier than before. Only two things can stop a reoccurring nightmare. Action or time. Sometimes, children actively work to overcome a specific fear, like I did with those stupid flying monkeys from Oz when I was four. Result? Hard worked paid off – no more monkeys.

When children don’t take action, time does. Eventually, nightmares are caught in time’s filter. Those nightmares go away. But nightmares in general? They never go away.

In 2011, practically everyone hated LeBron James. Fresh off his “Decision,” LBJ and his superteam were in their first NBA Finals together. I’m sure after overwhelming criticism of his baseless proclamations, LeBron felt relieved to be in the Finals in year 1, because they had a lot of winning to do, and Dwyane Wade wasn’t getting any younger. 5 games in, LeBron was averaging 17.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 7 APG. The Heat were down 3-2 to Dallas heading back to Miami, and despite their excessive hatred for the King, the media still believed that LBJ would have a breakout game 6. He played ok – 17/10/10 with a +/- of -11. The story wasn’t LeBron though. It was LeBron’s nightmare.

Dirk Nowitzki, 33 at the time, came into LeBron’s arena and outplayed him. He was efficient. He wanted the ball. He out-hustled Heat bigs for rebounds. And he made clutch shots. Meanwhile, LBJ was throwing softballs to the media elite who called him a “choke artist”, “not clutch”, and “not made for the moment.” The Heat lost game 6 by 9, and the title.

2012 was different. You all know what happened. It was dubbed “The Year of LeBron.” He won his 3rd MVP, his 1st NBA championship, his 1st Finals MVP, and willed Team USA to a Gold Medal. Folks seemed to credit LeBron’s off-season preparation to his ultimate success; particularly his much-improved post game. Others put it simply – “It was LeBron’s time.”

No matter how you slice it, that nightmare of getting beat by an aging superstar on your home court in game 6 of the NBA finals was gone.

Finally, discussions about LeBron’s legacy didn’t feel like this.

My least favorite sports cliche is that there’s nothing harder than defending a title. Bullshit. Assuming you didn’t blow up your team like Cuban blew up the 2011 Mavs post-title, there’s almost nothing easier. Because you’re team is one of the best, if not the best in the league. Hard? I don’t know…playing for the Bobcats, watching Ron Artpeace host the weather report, being a Cleveland fan. Whatever.

The point is, as much as I hate that cliche, it has some truth to it. Teams like the 2013 Miami Heat often became complacent. They’re accustomed to success, and felt entitled. They lost that “eye of the tiger” like Rocky when he gets whooped by Clubber Lang at the beginning of Rocky III. The Heat have gone 13 playoff games now without winning two consecutively. Their inconsistency is a product of entitlement and fatigue.

Individually, LeBron has been inconsistently dominant, especially in these finals. 5 games in, LBJ’s stats were solid – 21.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 6.8 APG. They weren’t exactly pedestrian like they were after 5 games in 2011 against the Mavs. Experience has allowed him to grow on the biggest stage. Fine. But whether or not it was dissected as closely as it was in 2011, the Heat returned to Miami for game 6 yesterday, down 3-2, with an aging superstar waiting quietly, as Duncan always does, to pounce on a vulnerable, entitled group. And what did he do? Classic old-school Duncan shit. 25 and 8 in the first half, on 84% shooting.

LeBron’s nightmare was back. And more terrifying than ever.

Sidebar:

Was being down 3-2 unexpected? Well, the Heat were 66-16 this season, and had the second best winning streak in the history of the NBA during it. They were coming off a title and visibly gelling even better than last year. But then Dwyane Wade’s body started breaking down, Bosh started mailing in games, Battier fell out of the rotation because his shooting slump grew so severe, and LeBron appeared to abandon the post game he had worked so tirelessly to develop. Oh, and they got matched up against the Spurs in the Finals – you know the team that’s won four titles since ’99, has one of the best 10 players of all time (who’s actually a good teammate, not just an individual superstar…cough…cough…Kobe), and is coached by the best coach of the past two decades besides Phil Jackson. And they have arguably the best point guard in the NBA. Yikes.

Big time nightmare Bron Bron.

So there they were. Down 75-65 at the end of the 3rd. 12 minutes left to turn the tides and prove that, in the words of Chris Bosh at that heinous coming out party, “they are a team that can win multiple championships.”  LBJ had 14 points, but literally looked identical to the LeBron playing hot potato in the 2011 Finals. 37 year old Tim Duncan had outplayed LeBron on his home court, just like Dirk had. The title was slipping out in game 6 at home for Miami, just like in 2011.

Earlier, I talked about nightmares. The concept and coping mechanisms associated are easier to grasp, contextually, when talking about children. Children are probably the most deeply affected by nightmares. In a lot of ways, until last night, LeBron was a child. Let’s look at the facts:

  • He came into the league a self-proclaimed “King” at 18 years old (can’t totally blame the guy, he was an unbelievable talet who was treated like a God throughout adolescence)
  • He had a secret handshake with every teammate in Cleveland, and danced around the court during pre game smiling and giggling with his buddies (like frat guys do when they’re drunk during intramurals in college)
  • During free agency in 2010, he prioritized publicizing his “Decision” in the most dramatic, egotistical manner over maintaining professionalism and pretending he gave a flying (    ) about the loyal Cleveland fans
  • He sat in his Heat jersey as guaranteed not 2, not 3…not 7 championships when had NEVER WON ANYTHING
  • He smiled and danced around during the closing minutes of game 6 against OKC when we finally realized he was a champion (not faulting him for being excited, but his youth was exposed in this moment)

About a two minutes into the 4th quarter, after an exciting stretch for LeBron including an assist to Chalmers for a 3, a beautiful drive and bucket and an emphatic dunk off a pick & roll, James went up for a missed jumper, caught it and threw it down as if it were an alley oop. His headband was knocked of in the process. I’ve seen this happen several times to LeBron. Every time in the past, he frantically searched the court and secured his headband back on his balding head. Speculation leads me (and about everyone else in the world) to think that he’s embarrassed about his receding hairline.

He didn’t pick it up though. He just kept playing. And he absolutely dominated the 4th quarter until Dwyane Wade reentered the game with about 3 minutes left. Coincidence? You decide. Regardless, LeBron showed us exactly why he’s considered the best player in 20 years. He dominated on both sides of the ball on the biggest stage, in the 4th quarter of a potentially title-losing game for his team. And all the while, LeBron was exposed. He seemed oddly vulnerable without the headband. I liked him ten times more without it. I felt like I was watching the true MVP – the undisputed best player on the planet – the real LeBron James.

It was as if he spent his entire life up to this point fighting nightmares, and finally found the perfect blend of action and time. He went in a child terrified of experiencing the same nightmare again – one that would surely tarnish his future. But he fought through it, lead his team to arguably one of the most improbably victories in NBA history, and emerged a man.The fact that he almost needed help standing up from the podium after his post game interview was just icing on the cake. He’s a veteran, with experience, and a man who shows his age when he’s willing to accept it.

LeBron James has nightmares that wake him up screaming, sweaty and terrified too. But when he wakes up, the whole world is watching.

I used to daydream about playing in the NBA, performing in the limelight, and experiencing true glory. I also used to judge athletes for underperforming under pressure. What these guys go through because of people like you and me is a nightmare.

I don’t know much, but I know that.

Game 7 should be a classic.


 

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