One of the odder aspects of my life is how, although I love sports and have written about them for money over the past 7–8 years, I watch a lot less sports than I used to. I still watch a lot of football and basketball, but significantly less than I did a decade ago. I watch/listen to probably 80% of Royals games. But I almost never watch the NBA or golf anymore. So a bit of an odd day yesterday when I watched some of both.
First, the NBA finals. I’ve never been a LeBron hater, but I’ve also never really loved him. Admired him? Yes. Appreciated his game? Yep. Defended him against the doubters? Absolutely. But he’s never been my favorite NBA player, either. While I was pleased when he chose to go back to Cleveland two summers ago, I also fell in love with how the Golden State Warriors played ball. The game had long moved toward the perimeter – witness large, rare talents like LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony who were slashers and jump-shooters, not low-post guys – but the Warriors took that idea to a whole other level. So each of the past two Finals I’ve been pulling for the Dubs to win.
Last night’s finish, though, was the capper on LeBron’s career. It wasn’t always pretty; the last 3–4 minutes were ugly all around. But his three-straight massive games, topped off by his iconic block of an Andre Iguodala layup attempt, should end any doubts about LeBron’s place in history. He won a title without Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh next to him. Yeah, Kyrie Irving is pretty incredible at times, and Kevin Love has his moments. But there’s no way you can say LBJ’s supporting cast in Cleveland was superior to what he had in Miami.
For years the haters have ranted about LeBron not being cold blooded enough to be great on his own. You have to chalk some of that up to the Hot Take era we live in. People deliberately say stupid stuff to get airtime, page clicks, and occasionally even sell a paper. I’m not convinced all the idiots who have railed on LeBron for over a decade really believe their shtick.
What this year did was both prove that he can be as cold-blooded and single-minded as any other all-time great in leading a team to a title, and also show just how unique he is.
This series was over, and LeBron, through the sheer force of his personality and immense talents, somehow pulled the Cavs to three-straight wins against the best regular season team in NBA history. A team that had just pulled off its own epic 1–3 comeback in the conference finals. It was Jordonesque, Kobe-like, Bird-ish. The best player both raised his game and took everyone around him up enough notches to change history.
The uniqueness comes in how he has always been willing to share the spotlight. He’s not egoless; no professional athlete is. But I don’t think there’s ever been an all-timer like him willing to set teammates up, to do the dirty work, to play the occasional supporting role, if it meant his team won. Bird, Magic, Jordan, and Kobe were all taking the biggest shot of the game in their primes. LeBron always seemed comfortable letting someone else take that shot, not because he was afraid of the moment, but because SOMEONE ELSE HAD A BETTER SHOT. It was the ultimate good fundamental basketball view of the game, and people have shit on him for it his entire career. Besides, when LeBron wasn’t taking the game’s biggest shot, he was often setting it up, or making the steal/block/rebound that made the shot possible.
The most impressive aspect of the Cavs win, to me, was the emotion LeBron displayed after the game. I think that was a very genuine display, all the frustrations and baggage of every moment since his infamous “Taking my talents to South Beach” coming out at once. Despite being a long-suffering Royals fan who just unloaded 30 years of angst, I have no special affinity for Cleveland fans. It sucks they waited so long, but I would never pull for a Cleveland team to win just because of some shared, Midwestern, inferiority complex. But I thought LeBron’s reaction was great.
Now I did have a problem with him saying that he always gets the toughest path. They were the #1 seed in the East! They roared through the Eastern Conference bracket! Yes, they fell down three games to one in the Finals. But it’s not like they were the eight seed and had to win a bunch of game sevens on the road just to get to the Finals. And let’s not ignore how he has maneuvered to have the roster built to his liking and had a coach he didn’t like fired.
I still don’t really love LeBron. But I admire him more than I already did after his performance over the last week. I’m sure he has some skeletons that his handlers have kept from going public. But, for the most part, he seems like a pretty solid guy. He cares about winning, but also cares about his teammates and the image he displays. He’s taken some strong social stands where other great players refused to. Of all the great players of my lifetime, I’d probably want my kids to most emulate him simply because I think he understands the need for balance in life, and that as important as winning games can be, there are things beyond that.
And a quick note about LeBron’s coach, one of the few athletes from my high school to go on and do great things at the professional level. Tyronn Lue did not have a great series: the latter part of game four in particular was embarrassing. But he adjusted and did what LeBron said, errrrrrrrrr, empowered his players to believe in themselves to make an epic comeback. My only complaint was that he gave his hometown, Mexico, MO, two shout outs in his postgame interview and had none for good, ol’ Raytown High School.
As for the Warriors, that was an epic collapse. Whether it was panic, the Cavs pressure, or just the grind of the last two seasons, they were often awful in the last three games. To use a tennis term, they had the game seven on their racket late and could not close it out. That happens, though. Especially when you’re facing a force of nature like LeBron. I still love their style and hope we have a few more years of the Splash Brothers inspiring awe.
On to golf. I only casually follow the game anymore. I’ll watch some of the Master’s, Sunday of the US Open, and then bits of the British Open. I read enough to know Dustin Johnson’s story, though. I was watching when he pissed away the US Open last year. I like his outwardly languid approach to the game. He looks like a guy who doesn’t get rattled easily based on the way he carries himself. I hate the whole “Best to never win a major” stamp, because it’s not always up to you whether you win or not. You can go out and shoot five under for the weekend at a major, but if someone else goes –8, that doesn’t matter. But I did think it was cool that Johnson shut his critics up.
Even more, it made the current Golden Era of golf, which is just getting going, even more interesting. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Johnson are a pretty good core. Then there are 5–6 guys right behind them that could bust in with their own win at a major. Not sure I’ll watch much more golf, but at least there are plenty of storylines when I do. And they are proving golf can still be interesting, exciting, and entertaining in the post-Tiger age.