After a tour de force in Miami during Game 7, all of planet earth felt an unfettered LeBron James breathe fire into Doris Burke’s microphone as if released from six billion shackles simultaneously, daring those among us still doubting his greatness to summon the temerity to do so as he clutched his second NBA Finals MVP trophy — and seemingly all the world — in the palm of his massive right hand.
The four-time regular season MVP scored 37 points in the deciding game of the 2013 NBA Finals, tying a Finals record for most points in a Game 7 and knocking out a rugged San Antonio Spurs squad that refused to go quietly. James’ quest for fire led the Miami Heat to a second straight NBA title by averaging more than 25 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in back-to-back NBA Finals, numbers no player in NBA history had ever achieved in any Finals, LeBron did it all while playing his own distinct brand of basketball.
And standing amid the deafening roar at the American Airlines Arena – the man bearing the crown of King James finally came to know peace.
Many moons ago Michael Jordan defied the laws of science by alchemizing aesthetically appealing basketball with utter dominance, mesmerizing all who marveled at his 20th century masterpieces, which came to be known as “swoosh art”.
After packing up his brushes for a final time, Michael’s incomparable body of work was installed in a place of high honor at Nike’s museum, where the exhibit offered the final word on how one should practice the Art of Hoop. Commissioner David Stern went so far as to require all rookies to make the pilgrimage to Oregon where they visited the exhibition in person while collecting commerative Jordan Brand brushes, the only art supplies approved by fans and media alike.
Years later, a gargantuan graffiti artist out of Ohio by the name of LeBron offended the tastemakers bent on protecting Michaelangelo’s legacy, by painting outside his 23 sacred lines.
The hoop intelligentsia observed the massive miscreant and his troublesome tendency to do things his own way through their opera glasses bearing Jumpman logos. Scoffing at the finger-painting Jack-of-all-trades who sullied the game with pedestrian techniques utterly devoid of Jordan’s elegance, his wares wrought in bright crayon, and suitable only for the side of your fridge.
But Bron Bron just kept on scribbling his own brand of primitive genius using bootleg brushes boosted out of Basquiat’s basement, the world’s best athlete reveling in a re-interpretation of old-school basketball. His work bold and spontaneous, evoking a truth so old it had nearly been forgotten.
True masters express themselves however they see fit, using any and all tools at their disposal…
In the summer of 2010, at the age of 25, LeBron James announced “The Decision” to ditch Cleveland and go to Miami during an ill-conceived television event held at a Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut and broadcast live on ESPN. It raised millions for charity, and saw LeBron leaving a long-suffering franchise 40 miles away from where he was born in Ohio to play with a pair of All-Stars in South Florida, and doing it on national TV.
The best player of his generation went from hometown hero to public enemy number one in the blink of an eye.
Moments after winning his first NBA title 12 months ago, James was asked which criticism had bothered him more than any other after his dreadful 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas only amplified the negativity surrounding him since his move to Miami.
“That I was selfish, that’s the only things that bothered me, a lot of people said I was a selfish person, a selfish basketball player, and I thrive on being a team player.”
LeBron closed by calling it “the happiest day of my life”, a 27-year-old man sounding far more relieved than elated, all too aware, that one ring does not make royalty.
There are no Great American Novels in the NBA: one title just gets you on the guest list, and more is always better. Any kid on a message board can tell you Bill Russell’s got 11 rings, Jordan’s got six, Kobe Bryant has five and on it goes. MVP’s and regular season numbers are nice, but sooner or later you gotta start slapping dominoes on the table.
Back in February, the Don of the Family, Michael Jordeoni, reminded all the underbosses the kind of jewelry it takes to become Capo di tutti capi. The Godfather summing up his rudimentary comparison of Kobe and LeBron like so.
“Five beats one every time I look at it,” Jordan said. “And not that (LeBron) won’t get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”
Arithmetic doesn’t get much simpler than that.
From the moment he set foot on an NBA court Michael Jordan enjoyed almost total freedom to find his game amid contemporaries employing vastly different styles of play. Appreciated for his athleticism, grace and those very same differences, the emergence of Air Jordan was both altogether new and reassuring in its tradition, because basketball has forever been evolving. But in our desperation to find a successor among the ensuing avalanche of cheap knockoffs generated by mass-producing countless copies of MJ’s textbook on the perfect two-guard, the art form itself has been allowed to remain stagnant.
As I watched Jordan pitching me underwear on TV the other night, kept forever warm by my loathing for all things Kobe, I began to wonder what the Black Mamba’s path may have looked like outside the shadow of His Airness, or that of the Diesel named Shaq in Los Angeles, and what type of artist Kobe might’ve chosen to become if he hadn’t had to wait until he was 26 years old to have a team of his own?
What if Kobe wasn’t swapped for Vlade Divac on draft day in 1996? What if the Charlotte Hornets handed the prodigy from Italy the keys to the Lamborghini and the gym, giving the brazen scoring savant total freedom to decimate defenses night after night with absolutely no conscience from day one?
A carnivore called Kobe inhaling raw steak from Japan as he demolished scoring records along his travels. But all were bound to Jordan’s rules, even those as talented, dedicated and defiant as the Mamba.
For nearly two decades Michael’s legend has suffocated any suggestion that there were any tactics worth pursuing other than those employed by a man who won his last NBA title 15 years ago — before a bull named LeBron barged into Nike’s museum and barreled through Jordan’s exhibition with a broad grin on his grill, as his massive frame inadvertently destroyed priceless antiques that were gathering dust and demanding obedience.
By choosing not to play by Jordan’s rules the Boy King from Akron grew into a man unafraid of old relics, one who couldn’t bear to play a game he loves so much in any style other than his own, a game invented in 1891 by Dr. Naismith, precisely 100 years before Jordan’s first title.
LeBron reminded us all in vivid and undeniable fashion that there are an infinite number of ways to get a round ball into a peach basket hung 10 feet off the ground, and that all master craftsmen address this very same task employing different physical gifts, skill-sets and philosophies.
As in art, when done right sport becomes a form of self-expression, and style of play is but an extension of a player’s personality.
And by breaking all the rules, LeBron has set the Art of Basketball free once more.
There are eight million styles, choose one, and then make it entirely your own, I promise you the best player on planet earth would urge you to do the same.
Because if your authentic self arrives at the promised land, showing respect for your opponents and the game along the way, it will arrive with no need to ever apologize for something so altogether personal as the way you’ve chosen to play the game of basketball.