LeBron James: Two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP — and compelling prime-time antihero.
Even those who find pleasure in witnessing defeat owe a debt of gratitude to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, because never has the prospect of individual and team failure been so compelling to so many. The Heat won a second consecutive title on Thursday night, and James was the undisputed star, but the detractors didn’t lose. They never do with the Heat.
For a third straight spring, the Heat found a way to engage every segment of basketball fans on the planet. Viewers who gravitate to glossy storylines get their prestige drama starring James. As a nation, we’ve come to embrace an antihero driving the plot when we watch a prime-time series, and James’ collection of contradictions serves us in that capacity.
Basketball junkies see James as a visionary, a player that shatters every classification. He’s rendered the power-finesse axis obsolete and can conform his game to any scheme, tempo or situation. Junkies love to watch how James will ply his craft on a given possession, because the options are limitless. Thanks in large part to James, the team has been a leader in redefining positions, another peccadillo of the junkie.
Those who need a designated villain found one in James, because if you’re looking to render judgment on someone based on the five to 10 worst moments of his public life, then James is your guy. Pro sports has never featured a team that’s a more satisfying foil than the Heat for those who put contempt for a world-class athlete before appreciation.
In that same spirit, purists who want the boundaries of the game fixed in tradition loathe the Heat as the barbarians at the gate, a team etched by young stars instead of wise men. The Heat were boastful before they ever built anything, and play without a traditional post presence and sometimes without even a point guard.
Front-runners who like a winner have a team that joins the pantheon of NBA champions with back-to-back titles, and a player almost unanimously regarded as the world’s best. So do those who check in on the NBA in search of an athletic exhibition or the most alluring talent show.
Over the past three years, the Heat have found the sweet spot that lies at the center of the fan universe. This is an achievement, because rarely does a product penetrate every corner of the market, meet every need and appeal to almost every point on the emotional spectrum. The Heat manage to produce a heightened sense of intensity for the viewer, even when they lack intensity themselves. In the process, the Heat have displaced the Los Angeles Lakers as the league’s most indispensable team and James is now the NBA’s most important player.
This would be true with or without a second championship, but another banner means the Heat have something lasting that defines them apart from all the cultural markers. Legacies, narratives, symbolism and mythology are easily revised, but rings aren’t subject to revision. They’re placed in shadowboxes, protected from the noise.
The second title didn’t come as easy as the first, but that’s because the game is hard, no matter how diligent the preparation, or how easy James makes it appear at times, or how many consecutive wins the Heat run off in February and March.
We tend to forget this when we kill a team or player for a lack of effort, assertiveness or execution. It’s not just the hysterics who chirp. Almost all of us participate, even if our critiques are shrouded in the language of rational analysis. We show our work and couch our statements with qualifiers, but we still have trouble remembering that the game is hard is the most common reason for failure, even for James and the Heat.
Attacking the basket is hard when the defense’s sole mission is to deny access to the paint. Drawing contact is hard, because accelerating at full speed then voluntarily initiating a collision with another very big guy moving just as fast is traumatic.
It’s impossibly hard to backpedal at full speed from the paint to a spot behind the 3-point arc in the far corner without looking down while your team is down to its final seconds of life in an elimination Game 6, and that’s before being asked to catch a ball while your momentum is sending you backwards, then set your feet before rising up for a pinpoint-accurate shot against a fast-approaching person with his arms in the air blocking your view of the target.
Doing it night in and night out for nine months is hard. The talent, money, fame and perks don’t change what a player’s body can tolerate physically or the natural limitations of his skill set. Nobody is at his best all the time. Performance isn’t consistent, which is why we have highlights.
Somewhere along the way, the Heat’s desire to come together as a team was mistaken for a claim that it isn’t hard. That misperception was put to rest during the final two games in Miami. The Heat and James commanded our attention for the entire season, but in the end it was all about the work.