It is one of the great joys of the sports fan. It starts out feeling like just another match on just another afternoon when you just want to escape into the exploits of the athletes on tv who you’ve seen execute their skills so often that you almost forget how incredible their talents actually are. And then, without warning, you realise that you’re actually seeing a moment that you will remember, discuss and debate for a long time coming. That rare occasion when a ‘defining moment’ in an athlete’s career arrives out of nowhere.
One moment, you’re watching a Heavyweight bout. Suddenly, you’re witnessing Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear. One moment, you’re watching a test match. Suddenly, some kid from the West Indies named Lara has smacked Australia for 277 at the SCG in only his fifth test. One moment, just last week, you’re watching Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in the NBA Playoffs. Suddenly, you realise that the career and reputation of LeBron James has just been turned upside down.
James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the visiting Boston Celtics were tied 2-2 in their best-of-seven series. The Cavs were heavily favoured to take out not only the series, but the NBA Championship – they led the league in wins during the regular season, and had recruited Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison since they lost in the Conference Finals last year. But the Celtics, champions two seasons ago, had surprised the Cavaliers twice already on the back of some incredible play by point guard Rajon Rondo. In Game 4, Rondo had became the third player in NBA history, after Oscar Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain, to have 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in an NBA Playoff game.
And then came Game 5.
During the tight first quarter, the commentators were not at all concerned that LeBron – for he, like Magic, Michael, Shaq and Kobe before him, is known to the world by his first name – hadn’t scored. He’s so damn good, they said, that he can score at will. He can choose when to score and when to get his teammates into the game by passing to them. His few assists in the first quarter was, clearly, a clever tactical decision.
Three quarters later, the Cleveland fans were loudly booing their star and their team. LeBron had made 3 field goals out of the 14 that he’d attempted. He had a total of 7 assists. Boston weren’t just ahead – they were going away. They won the second quarter by 9, the third by 11 and the final quarter by 15. The series was going to Boston with the Cavaliers one game away from elimination. The commentators and fans suddenly realised that LeBron can’t always choose when to “turn it on”. They also realised that this might just become the last time they see LeBron play in a Cavs uniform in Cleveland, as his contract ends at the end of this season.
The most fascinating thing about these defining moments is that they often sneak up on the athletes themselves just as much as they do the fans. Even before Game 6 began, Sports Illustrated had a new photo gallery up online: ‘Best players never to have won an NBA Title’. One minute, your name is mentioned with Jordan and Bryant as the best players to have ever played the game. Suddenly, your name is alongside those of Barkley, Ewing and Malone instead. You’re still up there, but you’re no longer in the stratosphere. And you’re at least one, if not three NBA Championships away from ever being there again.
All of which is why the photo taken after Game 6 is so mesmerising.
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Something about his expression makes it appear as if the 6-foot-8 superstar, recognisable worldwide, looks like he just can’t believe that the man on the right, a 6-foot-1 point guard taken 21st in the 2006 draft, has dominated their playoff series and knocked the man on the left out of the playoffs.
For the stratosphere is where LeBron has always appeared to believe he belongs. This is a man who has the phrase ‘Chosen 1’ tatooed across his back. A man who gave himself the nickname ‘The King’.
But how much are we to blame him for seeming so arrogant? For the stratosphere is where everyone has always told LeBron he belongs. At 18 years old, Nike had already given him a $90million contract and he’d been on the front of Sports Illustrated. Indeed, it was SI which had the headline “Chosen One” on it when LeBron was first on the magazine’s cover. When he was 20, their headline read “Best ever?” Chris Ballard’s book The Art of a Beautiful Game has a whole chapter dedicated to the fact that LeBron has the best, most athletic body in NBA history. Just this week, Ian Thomsen argued that if LeBron doesn’t win more than one Championship in his career, he’ll be the biggest bust in NBA history.
Meanwhile, the man on the right of this mesmerising image helped the Celtics to a title two years ago when he was in the second year of his career. Since, he has slowly blossomed to become a dominant force in the league, especially in this year’s playoffs. He doesn’t look surprised at all.
In fact, one wonders if the expression on Rajon Rondo’s face simply reflects what so many have thought since LeBron came onto the NBA scene 7 years ago.
No matter what you or anyone else says, you cannot be The King until you’ve won a ring.