By Jason Keidel
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As long as he hadn’t broken the membrane between winner and champion, LeBron James didn’t dominate every debate about the best player on the planet. Californians could point to Los Angeles, where Kobe donned five rings. Texans could point to the painfully humble Tim Duncan, who quietly commandeered four rings in San Antonio.
But now the debate is over. Indeed, not only is LeBron the best player on Earth, he has a Secretariat-like lead on the second-best player. He could have enjoyed the lead if he weren’t busy lapping the competition and loving the new view without the most hairy mammal clinging to his back.
It reads like your local Pick Three – 26, 11, 13 – but there was nothing random about LeBron’s stat line, making him just the fifth player in NBA history to bag a triple-double in a series-clinching game. Adding to the layers of his legend, LeBron is just the tenth player to win the regular-season MVP and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. Larry Bird (2) and Michael Jordan (4) are the only ones to do it more than once. Both Jordan and James waited what seemed like an eternity to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy, though each man was just 27 at the time.
If you’re old enough – and lucky enough – to recall Michael Jordan’s entire NBA career, you recall that his bona fides as a champion were honestly and earnestly questioned. And I admit that I was one of them, a member of the ignorant flock who found Jordan was just George Gervin 2.0, an unstoppable buzz saw of a scorer who couldn’t elevate his team to a title. You know the rest.
LeBron James didn’t have that stigma because he led a wretched, 20-win Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals in his second season. And once he took his talents to Miami, Cleveland returned to a 20-win team. And the presumed path wasn’t nearly as rugged for LeBron. Jordan had the Larry Bird’s Boston empire to defeat and then the Bad Boy Pistons, who pounded Jordan and pummeled Pippen to the ground during every drive to the bucket.
But Jordan was regarded with respect, seen a baller’s baller who handled himself on and off the court with elegance, and who was on the verge of spawning an unprecedented financial empire, Air Jordan, his scissor-kick visage stitched onto every article of clothing worn on the hardwood or blacktop.
LeBron has been viewed under a sharper lens, the glow of his astonishing talent and the glare of his gaffes. He had been 0-2 in the Finals and orchestrated that nauseating melodrama, the media lap dance with Jim Gray where he announced he’d take his talent and temerity to South Beach. The three-pronged decision to burn his home team, spurn the Knicks, and sign with the hated Heat – led by the hated Pat Riley – just enlarged the black hat already resting on LeBron’s already heavy head.
During his nine-year career, LeBron has burned and built more bridges than Robert Moses. He is the emblem of the nouveaux NBA mercenary who turned his back on his hometown Cavaliers, and a chance to build a dynasty and legacy just an hour from his childhood home. And as long as he lost the last game of every season, Ohioans took solace in a traitor taking his rightful lumps, paying a karmic tax of the highest order.
But by whipping the Oklahoma City Thunder – a legitimate team no matter your basketball allegiance, who took the far tougher path to the NBA Finals, beating perennial powerhouses Dallas, Los Angeles, and the scorching-hot Spurts – Miami can honestly and earnestly assert that they are the best team in the world. And, like the debate about the league’s best player, the debate about the best team isn’t close anymore, either.
This is dreadful news for Gotham. As long as LeBron hadn’t won a title, Knicks fans could at least rest their hats on the shared misery of yet another ringless season. Just as Jordan doused many a championship dream in Madison Square Garden by dunking on Ewing, Oakley, or another orange-and-blue clad cad who couldn’t run fast enough, jump high enough, or didn’t want it enough, the Knickerbockers have a new avatar soaring over them. This one happens to wear a headband, along with the crown.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
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