In sports, as in life, there are often small ironies that signify larger truths. And In the celebrated NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, there was plenty of irony to go around.
For the uninitiated, the 2011 Finals, the league’s showcase playoff series, was a rematch of the 2006 series, which Miami won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Dallas. This year, Dallas won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Miami. The two biggest stars from that series, Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Dwyane Wade of Miami, were again pitted against one another, and both of them put together another string of impressive performances. Whereas Wade had been the bigger star in 2006, Nowitzki’s star shone brighter in 2011.
But Miami had been heavily favored going in, because of last year’s offseason signing of megastar LeBron James, widely considered the best player in the NBA. The Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh was supposed to trump the Mavericks’ lone star Nowitzki in both talent and star power. Conventional thinking in the NBA says that when the stakes are highest, the margin between winning and losing is usually measured by great players imposing their will over good players.
Yet, the overwhelming story of the series, aside from the rich sense of redemption and quality team basketball shown by the Mavericks, was the virtual disappearance of the Heat’s supposedly best player, LeBron James. In the fourth quarters of close games, when his team needed him most, LeBron played his worst basketball. When the situation demanded greatness, he was hardly adequate.
As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.
With this latest loss, LeBron James has become the most criticized and scrutinized player not only in professional basketball, but in all of American sports. The waves of criticism and scrutiny James receives on a daily basis have, with this loss, been amplified into an exponential tsunami.
And most of the vitriol is tied to his decision last summer to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami, a process that resulted in a one-hour television special on ESPN entitled The Decision. It was a calculated attempt at warmth and authenticity that instead came off looking vain, self-promoting, and ungracious. While popular opinion was split about whether or not he should have stayed in Cleveland, almost everyone agrees that it wasn’t so much the fact that he left, but the way that he left that rubbed people the wrong way.
So perhaps the greatest irony here (besides Bill Simmons’ nugget about LeBron’s primary agent and marketing partner being named Maverick Carter) is this:
Despite the jeers he’s received over The Decision, LeBron James’ current predicament is not the result of one particular decision, but rather of many decisions over time.
Our decisions, over time, become our character. And LeBron’s biggest point of weakness is not in his strategy or physicality, but in his character. He has exhibited a significant deficit in the areas of self-awareness and humility. And if he wants to take his game to the next level, in addition to working on his post moves and shooting, he needs to make investments into his character.
If he were a believer in Christ, he might want to try looking in the Bible.
In particular, he might look at the story of Samson.
Samson was an absolute beast of a man. We see in Judges 13-16 that he was blessed with not only incredible physical strength and stature, but he also possessed considerable cunning, a combination that made him quite attractive to the opposite sex. And the circumstances surrounding his birth, combined with the ease with which he defeated legions of foes, were evidence that his physical prowess was sprinkled with divine favor. He was, quite literally, the chosen one.
Despite these obvious advantages, Samson had a problem: He did not make good decisions. He continually reacted in impulsive ways that resulted in unforeseen consequences, and often failed to learn from those consequences. He allowed the attention and adulation of others to distort his thinking and cloud his judgment. In so doing, he repeatedly put himself at risk by compromising the principles and directives that were put in place to protect him.
These are many of the same responses we’ve seen from LeBron James. When he and teammate Dwyane Wade were caught mocking their flu-stricken opponent Nowitzki by mimicking his cough, it seemed like the cocky taunt of a frontrunner—inexplicable considering they had just been beaten in Game 4. And after the series concluded, James’ postgame comments were anything but gracious. When asked how he should respond to people who rooted for his team to fail, he contrasts his celebrity with what he assumes to be his haters’ pitiful, miserable plebeian existence. His whole comeback amounted to, “I’m LeBron James, and you’re not.”
The truth is, LeBron isn’t the first NBA player whose struggles with insecurity affected his public perception. Many have preceded him, and many will follow.
As a Trail Blazers fan during their last great playoff runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I was a fan of swingman Bonzi Wells of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Or at least, I was a fan of his ability.
His antics were another story. Year after year, Bonzi’s reputation kept sinking lower and lower as a result of all his off-the-court controversy. Just when it seemed as though he’d figured out how to let his stellar play do the talking, he would flip-the-bird to a fan, or say he doesn’t care what fans think, or get into an altercation.
So I was grateful to run across this account of Wells’ new post-NBA life as an AAU coach, where he admits being humbled by many of his previous missteps. Even a knucklehead like Bonzi, given enough time and enough hard knocks, can finally get it. It’s nice to see people change for the better.
For Samson, it took losing his eyes and being paraded in front of his enemies before he had enough humility to call out to God in desperation. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, but I bet that Samson did some serious soul-searching after the Philistines had taken him hostage. And when he prayed to God for the strength for one final act, Samson wasn’t driven only by a blood vendetta, but by a sense of holy honor to avenge those who had dishonored the Lord.
(So it’s not turning the other cheek, but we’re talking about the Old Testament here. Work with me.)
I think I speak for most casual NBA fans when I say that’s what we all want for LeBron—for the young man to finally get it. When facing defeat, to humbly admit his shortcomings, and vow to do better if given a chance.
That is the kind of humility on display that team officials crave from their star players, and the kind of example we all can learn from. I know that if I had to endure the same level of scrutiny and criticism that LeBron endures every day, I would have a much harder time taking the high road all the time.
But if there’s one thing LeBron can learn from Samson, it’s that it’s never too late to be humbled. If he can learn how to operate with humility, and the early indications are that he’s making a little progress, it won’t be long before he’ll be rising up in big moments instead of shrinking back. Instead of being the most hated athlete, he’ll be among the most celebrated. After all, everyone loves a good comeback story.
And just like Samson, he’ll be able to finally leave the stage a winner.
I just hope he doesn’t do it against my Trail Blazers, because then I’ll have to start hating him all over again.