LeBron James isn’t just the most-debated basketball player on the planet. Through the magic and mayhem of the 2013 NBA Finals, we now know he’s the most-debated headband wearer, the most-debated receding hairline sufferer, and the most-debated living sports legend who gets picked on incessantly on the planet.
It is an interesting world that James, and only James, lives in. He created this existence, with his talent and his audacious nature and the public’s ever-growing demands of him. He is a man who was created to do anything on a basketball court, and even when he does so, he leaves you screaming for better. There is always a last-second shot he should take or a jump shot he should make. No other current sports superstar can make the right decision and endure criticism because he should know when to break the rules.
You’d feel for James, except he has always stoked the ridiculous excess, from The Chosen One nickname he embraced as a teenager to his stated desire to become the richest man in the world to his regrettable “The Decision” show three years ago announcing he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. It all adds up to the rarest and weirdest title you can place upon the complex King James.
He is the most revered athlete ever to be reviled.
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He is the star who can do no wrong, except when he is the star who can do no right.
On Thursday night, in the latest chapter of James’ fascinating career, he will play his most important game to date. It’s a winner-take-all Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and it’s one that will mean much to the historical footprints of two players.
If the San Antonio Spurs win, it will be the fifth championship of Tim Duncan’s career, putting him on a special shelf of superstar winners with a full hand of rings, joining, most notably, Bill Russell (11 rings), Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (six), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), and Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant (five). And though the 37-year-old Duncan isn’t a dominant player anymore, it would still be his greatest victory if the Spurs can beat a LeBron-led Miami Heat team that won 66 games in the regular season.
If the Heat wins, James will have back-to-back titles and become the multiple-championship winner that he was required to be to live up to his unprecedented hype. Yes, even more is expected of James, but if he leaves the game with at least two rings, he won’t be considered merely a spectacular player who couldn’t win. Furthermore, if he performs well in a Game 7 victory, James will experience a first that is mandatory of legendary players: Triumph when pushed to the brink.
That’s clearly missing from James’ 10-year NBA resume. He has never done that on a stage like this. He came the closest last season when, with the Heat down 3-2 to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, James scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds — the best performance of his career — in a Game 6 victory and then scored 31 points in a Game 7 triumph.
James has had plenty of amazing playoff moments, including his binge of 25 straight points (48 overall) against Detroit in 2007. But he hasn’t always shown the appropriate resistance when things aren’t going his way. He has made it too easy for detractors to question his resolve. He can turn catatonic when the moment requires determination.
This is his chance to edit that narrative. He managed an impressive triple-double in Game 6 on Tuesday night, but it was an uneven one, if there is such a thing, and only James could achieve such a thing. He was disappointing for three quarters, and the Heat fell behind by double digits. But in the fourth quarter, with the season on the line, with his trademark headband knocked off his head, James pushed back in breathtaking fashion. And then, in the final minutes of regulation, he mixed a three-pointer in with several mistakes in the clutch, but Ray Allen saved the Heat with a three-pointer that sent the game into overtime, where Miami won 103-100.
It was classic LeBron: 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds — and a smidgen of imperfection to allow you to second-guess brilliance.
Thursday night provides James an opportunity to eliminate a significant portion of his polarity. For special NBA players, the belief exists that there is a championship code they must break, and once they do so, they can own the game until they get old. They can win championship after championship. James supposedly broke the code with his first title a year ago. The window for him to own the game is open. This is his chance to collect unlimited reverence and erase all the contempt.
But what if the Heat loses and James’ Finals record falls to 1-3?
The story won’t be about the Heat losing. It will be about James’ failure, even though he has had to carry a Big 3 that isn’t so big anymore. That’s the burden of being the King. The bar keeps getting raised.
Of course, the perk — immortality — is more than worth it.
|LeBron James in Game 7|
|Thursday will mark LeBron James’ fifth Game 7 of his career. He is 2-2 in his previous four.|
|Year||Round and opponent||James’ stats||Result|
|2006||Conference semifinals at Detroit||27 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists||L, 79-61|
|2008||Conference semifinals at Boston||45 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists||L, 97-92|
|2012||Conference finals vs. Boston||31 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists||W, 101-88|
|2013||Conference finals vs. Indiana||32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists||W, 99-76|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer