Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LeBron's Legacy

I am a nearly lifelong, diehard Miami Heat fan and I couldn't be happier for LeBron James this morning. Though I'd undeniably prefer to be rooting for my favorite team in the NBA Finals, I'm content to root for LeBron and will be pulling hard for him to bring a title to Cleveland. In a perverse way, it's almost better that it's the Cavs and not the Heat vying for this year's title; the response to LeBron's departure by a number of Heat fans was not only inexcusable but mortifying as well. The behavior exhibited by a slew of South Beach knuckleheads served only to worsen the opinion of the general public towards a fan base that's already derided for being fair weather and only cursorily interested in their team's games. Way to go, clowns.

My rooting for LeBron in no way lessens my Heat loyalty; if anything, it is deepening the respect that I have for one of sports' most polarizing figures. I wasn't a LeBron fan during his first stint in Cleveland but I didn't hold his reputation against him either. He was thrilling to watch but there was nothing in his game or his mien that made me want to include him in my very small group of favorite athletes.

Truth-be-told, when he announced with the Decision I was initially more excited by the fact that he wasn't going to the Knicks than I was with the fact that he signed with the Heat. I had zero expectations in terms of what sort of impact he would have on my all-time favorite sports franchise but the disappointment that his selection rendered in Knicks fans brought me almost as much joy as a championship. The New York Knicks have the single most schizophrenic fan base in all of sports: they are at once fair weather (the Garden is a ghost town when the Knicks are irrelevant) but incredibly pompous and high-flown in their opinion of their preferred team. Basically, they have the overblown self-confidence of Yankees fans only with about 1/14th the number of titles.

See, people seem to forget that about the Knicks: they're as mediocre as they get when it comes to sports franchises. I constantly hear the Garden referenced as "The Mecca" of sports. Really? If so then it's for a) events unrelated to the Knicks or b) events that happened to the Knicks (remember that season where LeBron and Kobe each dropped 50+ on them? Mecca indeed). As referenced in a post from a few years ago, the Knicks, Rangers, and Mets are almost exactly even across the board in terms of championships, championship round appearances, overall records, number of winning seasons, and number of playoff seasons. The Mets are the laughable, loveable losers of the sports world and the Knicks with nearly identical statistics are somehow the creme de la creme of franchises? Give me a break.

Thus LeBron's flight to Miami. It was a humbling moment for the Knicks and their fans--the first in a number of much needed doses of reality. It was a huge, "Thanks but no thanks moment"--and the first since Pat Riley's departure nearly a decade and a half earlier. Of course, in true Knicks fashion, they wind up getting Carmelo Anthony midway through the 2010-2011 season and Knicks fans rejoiced. Using their superpowers of delusion they managed to convince themselves somehow that 'Melo was just as good--no, wait--even BETTER than LeBron and that he was their ticket to Title Town.

How's that working out for you guys?

The differences between LeBron and Carmelo are legion but the only one that matters is this: LeBron has a sense of where he came from and players like 'Melo don't. Sure Carmelo "grew up" in New York (he spent his first eight years here before actually growing up in Baltimore) but he didn't re-sign with the Knicks to bring a championship to a title starved city--he did it to line the Carmelo coffers. Sure he could've bolted to another city that would give him a much better chance to win...but he didn't. Instead, he took more cash while simultaneously using the opportunity to run a ruse on Knicks fans. Ironically, the fact that he all but ensured that he wouldn't be winning proved to be a win-win for him: he got the most money he could AND he was able to avoid taking a public heat by returning to the Knicks.

Classic 'Melo.

I bring all of this up not to rub salt into the wounds but rather to provide a counterpoint to LeBron's experience. LeBron did exactly what Carmelo Anthony didn't have the stones or the ambition to: he chased championships instead of money and exposed himself to the most heated hatred perhaps ever levied upon a professional athlete. That's not to say that LeBron wasn't compensated for that decision but more to highlight the fact that, for all that he gained, something was indelibly lost in the process--something that money and even titles couldn't buy.

I remember going to the bagel store last year while wearing my White Hot Heat LeBron jersey. The guy behind the counter asked me if I thought that LeBron was going to leave Miami to go to Cleveland. I scoffed at the idea and said that if he wanted more titles that he'd be crazy to do so, asserting that he would stay in Miami at least until his contract was up and then potentially re-sign for a year or two before going back to Cleveland; I was wrong on both counts. What I underestimated was how much value he placed on what was lost--that ineffable sense of self that would forever be tied up in the wine and gold of the Cavaliers and not the similar but undeniably different shades of the Heat.

When LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh got on stage shortly after The Decision and pranced around like it was a rock show, I realized that something big was happening. After a lifetime of disappointment as a sports fan, I felt the nascent stirrings of excitement and, worse, hope beginning to build. I was 3 when the Mets won the title in '86, I endured all of those awful losses to the Knicks as a Heat fan and the Giants as a Vikings fan in the '90s and early '00s, I watched John Kasay kick the Panthers' chance of a Super Bowl victory literally out of bounds, and I watched Brett Favre literally throw the Vikings' chance of a Super Bowl berth into the hands of Tracy Porter. The lone meaningful championships came in '06 when the Heat beat the Mavericks and in '07 when the Ducks beat Ottawa but I was on a road trip and missed the Miami victory and didn't manage to watch most of the Ducks' victories as I was gearing up for my wedding in 2007. If LeBron managed to make good on his promise then this would shape up to be something special.

During that first season in Miami, I experienced a lot of theretofore unknown things as a sports fans--things that became apparent rather quickly. I became a Heat fan because of the Knicks (when I was little I had read about Muggsy Bogues in some magazine and I happened to be the same height as him. It sparked my hoop dreams and gave me hope that if he could make it in the league then perhaps someday I could too. It caused me to root for the Hornets for a few years. They made the playoffs with high expectations only to be taken down by the Knicks. My heart had been ripped out of my chest and I vowed that whoever played the Knicks next would have my undying support. It wound up being Miami and the rest is history) and I suffered most of my most agonizing moments as a sports fan because of them (::cough:: Allan Houston ::cough::).

I was never really paid any mind for being a Miami fan in Brooklyn because the Knicks were still relevant and the Heat basically weren't; we were the kid brother trying to be admired to the same degree as our big brother. No one ever really talked about Miami and most people, if anything, were bemused or confused by my fandom. As a result (and outside of the few epic playoffs clashes between the Heat and Knicks), I never really dealt with taking any flak from people for being a Heat fan.

That all changed in 2010.

All of a sudden, EVERYONE had an opinion on the Heat. Suddenly there were bandwagon fans everywhere rocking gear that, to that point, I saw only myself wearing. On the flip side, there were people who vehemently hated not just LeBron but the Heat as well. Conversations abounded that were constantly putting me on the defensive; suddenly, I felt like I was on trial simply for rooting for my favorite sports franchise. It pissed me off that I was thought to be another newfound fan when, for all intents and purposes, they were the first team that I really genuinely thought of as "my team"--a moment that came almost fifteen years before LeBron's arrival.

As pathetic as it sounds, I willingly lost friendships over the vitriol that spewed forth locally from jealous Knicks fans who were at once spurned and out for blood. They didn't just want LeBron to fail but Miami as a whole. Suddenly the Knicks' dominance over the Heat from the late '90s was everywhere as the scabs from the Pat Riley-inflicted wounds were picked off. Every misstep by Miami was mocked--every failure put on display. Friends that never spoke a word to me about Miami were riding me over every little thing and, unsurprisingly, few had the maturity to handle my retorts (Knicks fans are notoriously soft-skinned in that regard). I drew a line in the sand and prepared for all that was to come.

All of the hatred served only to solidify further my connection to and appreciation for the Heat. Basketball has always been my outlet--the court my safe-haven. There were some years where rooting for Miami got me through some awful times, as pathetic as that is. There's an inexplicable bond that I have both with the sport of basketball and Miami as a team that will not only never be broken--it will serve always to define me. I was an outsider in my own hometown--a situation that I've faced and felt in many other aspects of my life as well. With this circumstance though there was the chance of a positive, fulfilling outcome: a championship and all that came with it.

The hate worsened throughout the 2010-2011 season and I dug my heels in. I still wasn't a LeBron fan but seeing all of the absolutely mind-blowing level of contempt that even the most casual sports follower had for him made me want to root for him. I was obviously thrilled when they made the Finals that year but part of me wasn't entirely unhappy that they lost; LeBron's cocksure attitude made it hard for me to root for him. His words made it seem like he felt not just entitled to a championship but that it would be hand-delivered to him. I didn't appreciate that as a Heat fan--not with all of the work Dwyane Wade had put in through the years--the ups and downs that he endured. I knew that he "got it" but LeBron? I wasn't so sure.

The ensuing two seasons are the ones that ultimately sold me on LeBron. What he did and how he changed not only his game but his entire mental attitude made me root for him big time. I was elated when they won the first one because it finally silenced the haters and then the second one managed finally to quell the talk about legacy. I thought for sure that they would get the three peat but they didn't and I think fate had a lot to do with that.

Professional wrestling offers the best analogue to what LeBron experienced. There are the good guys (faces) and the bad guys (heels). Which performers fall into which category is obviously scripted but there's an undeniable personal element to the level of success they attain in their given roles. Essentially, certain guys are born to be bad while others will never be as popular as when they're the good guy. I think of Bret Hart and the Rock as two guys who could jump the fence on a moment's notice--effortlessly going from the people's champion to the villain and back. Others, however, are incapable of doing so: they thrive in one role but simply can't handle the other.

LeBron James is one of those guys.

I noticed it during his second season with the Heat. It was obvious not just that he didn't anticipate the level of venom that would be directed at him following the Decision but that he wasn't prepared to handle it. He tried to embrace his role as a villain but it just wasn't him--it didn't fit. Sure he absolutely destroyed opposing teams but that's because he took as constructive approach as possible to solving the situation. He used the negativity as motivation to get better figuring that, by improving, he would silence his critics with his play. Essentially, that's exactly what happened but it was clear by the end of the 2012-2013 season that LeBron simply wasn't comfortable or as happy as he thought he would be: he had gotten what he wanted in the titles but it wasn't everything he thought it would be. Something was missing and it wasn't until last year that he seemingly figured it out.

He needed to win a title back home.

I'm a big believer in soul mates--the idea of "the one." I'm fortunate to feel like I have found mine and I know what such a bond and a relationship means; it's indescribable to anyone else who hasn't experienced it. In part though it makes everything that you do that much better--all of the positive moments that much sweeter. For LeBron, his soul is in Cleveland. He thought that he wanted the legacy--the chance to win not five, not six, not seven championships--but what he really wanted was to do that for his city--something that Miami would never be. South Beach is the place that Wade built and it will forever belong to #3; in order for LeBron to etch out his own immortality, he would have to head back to Northeast Ohio.

And so, last year, when he released the letter saying that he was going home I was stunned and stung but not angry. I felt hurt as a Heat fan; it was as if I had just been broken up with, asking and wondering what went wrong--what was it about me that wasn't good enough for him anymore. But then I realized that it had nothing to do with the Heat or the city of Miami; it was always about Cleveland.

Legacy has a lot to do with it too. I'm sure LeBron wants to be considered the best ever but that's an unwinnable argument. For one, there is no surefire, clear-cut winner in that department. Essentially, it all comes down to what criteria you're using: if it's number of championships then Bill Russell is the greatest of all time--if it's points scored then it's Kareem. Those two rarely come up in the conversation of the best ever though so there must be some other definable quality that makes a player "the best." I think that dominance has a lot to do with it but it's not the endgame either. Wilt was the most dominant player of all time but the competition wasn't up to his level both figuratively and anatomically and so that hurts him. Shaq, by comparison, was the biggest guy on the court pretty much all the time and he won four titles with two different teams including three in a row with the Lakers...but he had "help," which, again, hurts his claim. I would argue that he was the most dominant player on his team but he had Kobe and later Dwyane Wade backing him up.

We've got a few ingredients laid out with utter certainty though: in order to be the absolute greatest of all time you have to be dominant, statistically exclusive, and have championships. I think that the solution to the rings argument is simply that a player has to have, among several other things, an above average number of titles. I'd say at least three but probably four to be considered for GOAT status. Jordan is the one that everyone seems to judge others by and his number is six. Kobe has five and so does Duncan so they're close but not close enough for most. The thing with MJ though is that his greatness transcends his dominance, his statistics, and his championships. Michael Jordan never made it to a fourth consecutive Finals but that's because he retired twice after the three peats; who knows what would have happened had he stayed for those two middle seasons?

To me, and many others, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game. He was the most dominant player of his time (think about how many other phenomenal all-time greats failed to win a title because of MJ!) going to six NBA Finals, winning all six NBA titles, and being awarded all six NBA Finals MVPs. Yes Russell won more championships (eleven in total including eight straight) but he did so at a time when the competition, again, wasn't up to snuff. Jordan is at or near the top of many offensive statistical categories and was an impressive defender in his own right. Sure Wilt and Oscar Robertson had better career stats but there is an intangible aspect to MJ that puts him head and shoulders above them. To me, THAT'S the defining quality of the Greatest of All Time: legacy.

Michael Jordan's legacy is unsurpassed in all of sports. He became the face of his sport and helped it to transcend globally. He's arguably the single most recognizable figure in the history of sports (I'd wager that more people from other countries would recognize Jordan as the Jordan logo than they would Jerry West as the NBA logo). He engendered interest in basketball on an incomprehensible level and spawned entire generations of future hall of famers simply because of his own renown (LeBron being included among them). Michael Jordan is synonymous with basketball the way that Wayne Gretzky is with hockey and Pele with soccer; those guys aren't merely the faces of their respective sports--they are the embodiments of them.

And so on to LeBron's legacy. His dominance is beginning to reach Jordanian levels. He's going to his fifth consecutive NBA Finals and in the process has prevented a number of future all-time-greats from getting rings while owning particularly successful franchises in the process (the Bulls and the Pacers among them). He's a far more diversely skilled player than Jordan was combining Michael's scoring prowess with Magic's passing ability and possibly surpassing Wilt's defensive capabilities. He can play and can defend all five positions on the floor at an elite level--something that very few players can claim and something that, I believe, Michael Jordan cannot. A win this season would give him what I consider an above average number of championships but it would be this one that I believe will define him.

See, right now, he's the John Elway of basketball. Elway went 2-3 in five Super Bowls--LeBron is presently 2-3 in five NBA Finals appearances. Michael Jordan and Joe Montana line up and, naturally, are considered the respective bests in their sports (Montana won four Super Bowls with three Super Bowl MVPs) but the ones that Elway won meant more. If Elway's titles came at the beginning of his career a la Tom Brady then they wouldn't have meant nearly as much. He and the city of Denver suffered collectively for them finally winning them back to back before Elway marched off into the sunset; LeBron is now trying to do the same for his hometown.

It's easy to overestimate the importance of sports (after all--we refer to athletes as warriors and the sports arena as war when they are both anything but) but its importance shouldn't be devalued either. I can speak first hand about what it meant for "my team" to win it all. Oddly enough, LeBron's years in Miami coincided with the best years thus far of my personal life and I associate so many good memories with what was going on in basketball at the time. I watched the Heat win their second title but LeBron's first in 2012 and then, early the next afternoon, I went with my wife to close on our first house. The very next year I sat outside in our yard with a glass of Jack in my hand at 3:30 in the morning too amped up to sleep celebrating the second title back-to-back. And though they didn't win it all last year, I enjoyed an early Father's Day present when I flew down to Miami for Game 3 of the Finals; it was the first time in my life I got to root for my favorite team in an environment where the support was almost unanimously geared towards them.

I remember all of those things that happened around the time of the championships but I also remember exactly how it felt; it's one of those things that I'll hopefully someday tell my grandkids about. It was an exhilarating concoction of excitement and vindication--pride and giddy glee. I'll never forgot how much it meant to me--how much it still means today--and because of that fact I understood why LeBron decided to return home. It's also why I didn't fault him for a second and why I was so livid and disappointed in the Heat fans who were burning his jersey and t-shirts. There is exactly one thing that Miami Heat fans should be towards LeBron James and it's appreciative. The four years that we had with him on our team are likely the best we'll ever enjoy. He didn't rip our collective hearts out like he did with Cleveland and he didn't fail us in his quest for a championship--quite the opposite, in fact. Because of him we were thrust into the limelight for nearly a half decade--a perpetual ride of attention and conjecture. There's also the four consecutive Finals' berths and two titles back-to-back. You don't burn that man's jersey--you hang it on your wall if you're a Heat fan.

Knowing how much those four years meant to me, I can only imagine how much more it would mean to the people of Cleveland for LeBron to win them a title. LeBron certainly understands it though because he is one of them. Being a Heat fan transcended the sports arena and entered my personal life--hell, it helped to form my very identity. My first-born son is named after my all-time favorite Heat player and my third born will be having a Miami Heat birthday party when he turns one later this summer. I bought my daughter a pink Heat jersey at Game 3 of the Finals that she wears with pride often for days on end. It doesn't matter to her that Miami isn't playing right now: she's just excited to root for her "Hot Hot Heat."

It's all about legacy. I hope that my kids will be lifelong Heat fans but I won't stand in their respective ways of rooting for whatever teams capture their hearts. My oldest son is still a Heat fan but he's a LeBron fan first. He hounded me for months to buy him a Cavs jersey beginning almost immediately after LeBron announced he was going home. He was bummed at first that he left the Heat but, in his mind, there was only one thing to do: cheer for the Cavs.

And that's what I'm doing too. I'll never consider myself a Cleveland Cavaliers fan but I'm "All In" for #23.

Thanks for the memories in Miami, LeBron, and good luck in the Finals.