In the period of the next several days, the history of basketball may or may not be rewritten. At stake is far more than the next NBA Title, which will go to either the San Antonio Spurs or the Miami Heat. The Spurs hold a 2-1 game lead in the best of seven series and could potentially defeat the favored Heat team before ever having to return to Miami for Games 6 and 7. Or, Miami could rebound and overwhelm the Spurs with superior talent and up-tempo play, taking their second consecutive title and laying the groundwork as the league’s most current dynasty. With that comes the historical directive of one superstar LeBron James, the most dominant player in the league.
As much as basketball is a team game, in some regards, it’s clearly not. Fairly or not, this series isn’t simply the Heat vs. the Spurs. It’s not even LeBron James vs. the Spurs. It’s LeBron vs. Jordan, Wilt, Magic Johnson, and the otherwise star studded history of professional basketball. At least by somewhat popular discourse, if LeBron wins, he continues down the path of heir to Michael’s throne, a two-time NBA champion with likely more on the way. And if he loses, he’s a one-time victor with more talent than title. There’s a long list of superstars that have one, even two NBA championships. And some have NCAA titles to go along with it. Right now, LeBron has one ring, which feels a bit naked for a guy with 10 enormous fingers to fill.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if James hadn’t thundered into Miami with such bravado, holding a nationally aired announcement show on ESPN and bringing along two other max salary guys, Dwayne Wade and an underperforming Chris Bosh, who collectively with LeBron certainly seem to be living up to the commonly used refrain two and a half men. Maybe it would be easier if LeBron hadn’t bragged about winning five, or six, or even seven NBA titles in Miami before he had earned so much as one. In the court of public opinion, sometimes LeBron has been his own worst enemy.
Tonight against the Spurs, we’ll find who James can count as friend or foe. He’s vowed to play better tonight and take more control of the game, as opposed to his instinct to involve teammates in scoring. We’ll also see if San Antonio can maintain their defensive intensity, especially with star point guard Tony Parker as questionable tonight with a strained hamstring. If I was a gambler, and fortunately I’m not, I’d think long and hard about betting against James and the Heat, with or without the points.
But regardless of what transpires late this evening, and really these 9 p.m. starts are killing me, the greater truth will come at the end of this championship series, whether that be in San Antonio or next week in Miami. From there, fans and media alike can completely overreact and either over or underestimate LeBron’s still evolving place in the pantheon of basketball greats.
In the end, it’s not really fair. One player does not a team make, even one as great as LeBron. Magic Johnson was as much a product of the Showtime Lakers as his own prowess. Same goes for Bill Russell and the Celtics. And who knows how Patrick Ewing might be seen if not for Michael Jordan playing in the same conference. In other words, legacy seems confounded by things outside of anyone’s control, lest arbitrary be too strong a word.
But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps being the greatest of all time, and that’s what we’re talking about here, is about overcoming the unfair and seemingly impossible. About scoring 50 with the flu, or hitting a half-court shot to win. Or beating all comers, no matter the era and level of competition. That separates Chris Evert, who just couldn’t get around Martina Navratilova, from Serena Williams, who seems to view whoever is on the other side of the net as simply a side note. Perhaps that’s exactly what defines greatness and legacy, an inevitability towards winning regardless of the situation. Maybe that’s what makes Michael Jordan, well, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James just not there, even if he is physically superior.
Perhaps it’s not fair. But history rarely is. We’ll know more about that, at least for LeBron James, in the next few days.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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