By: Norman Yallen
What is in a reaction? More importantly what is the right reaction in victory and in defeat? In victory do we want to see quiet humility or brash bravado? In defeat do we want to see stoic composure or tears and a promise to do better? The reactions last night ran the gamut from the crying, to the composed, to the swearing on national television, to naturally Lebron who had the most compelling reaction of them all. While there be no right way to react, there certainly is a wrong way. Maybe in and of themselves they don’t mean much but in the future a reaction to victory or defeat can mean a hell of a lot.
Seeing Dirk Nowitzki walk off the court a champion made me incredibly happy, but it was watching the Miami Heat walk off the court that fascinated me more. I was doing what it is that I as a fan do, analyzing this moment to get a glimpse into the deeper psyche of players, which perhaps doesn’t even exist, but which almost any sportswriter will tell you does. I saw Chris Bosh cry in the tunnel, and I had two conflicting thoughts, first that he was not exactly the toughest guy around. The second was that with that being said, he had given this series everything he had, and he was very disheartened that it hadn’t been enough. I may not love to see a player crying but I respected the fact that he had passion and cared about the series. In the other tunnel was Dirk Nowitzki, who had to take a few minutes to compose himself. He just needed a few minutes alone to savour his accomplishment, that after all the tough playoff exits, and criticisms, and missed shots earlier in the night, he was now a champion. It is something that no one will ever be able to take away from him. Then there was Lebron James at the interview podium after the game, where he couldn’t quite give a straight answer on how he felt. At one point he showed what I wanted to see, saying he failed. But then King James came out, opining that any of us who criticized him will be going back to our sad lives while he goes back to his great life. He then went on Twitter and wrote (I refuse to say tweet) that God didn’t plan on him winning this year. Because after all, God was the one who had him pass up open jump shots, stop driving to the basket, and stop covering Jason Terry. God must have wanted him to lose so he could be a prick at the post game news conference.
Pat Riley announced after the end of the 1987 NBA Finals, that his Los Angeles Lakers were going to win another. It can certainly be argued that this confidence helped pave the way for Magic Johnson, an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a veteran Lakers to win again the following spring. You weren’t going to be hearing any of that from Dirk Nowitzki, or Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, that simply isn’t their style. Dirk didn’t need to play up his celebrations, or his reactions throughout these playoffs. He didn’t react at all before any of his previous victories, and even after this one, he retreated to the privacy of the locker room before doing so. As opposed to Lebron James, and Dwyane Wade who celebrated at centre court in the middle of Game 2. This was right before Dallas rallied to win the game and the series. It is a celebration, which I would have rather done without if I were a part of the Miami Heat. For that matter, another bad reaction was James, Wade and Bosh’s infamous celebration in mid-July of last year. On a more broad level of what went wrong, this was where the entitlement, and the hatred, and the refusal of the Miami Heat to adapt, began. That reaction and the arrogance on display in July could still be seen in a losing effort in June.
I wanted Lebron to show some delayed humility, to express that he could have done better, because I felt he could have done better. However, the truth is that I should not matter to Lebron, what should have mattered to him was his teammates. In the 1969 Finals, Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics upset the heavily favoured Lakers. It was the player-coach’s final game and marked his eleventh championship in thirteen seasons. After the game he kicked out every media member, and anyone else from the locker room. He wanted to savour his final victory with his teammates, his brothers who he had played with for years. To me that reaction represents what basketball is all about, that you don’t play for the sponsors, or the media, or to become a cultural icon, you play to win for your teammates, and you play to win for yourself. That is exactly what Dirk Nowitzki did last night and has done his entire career in Dallas. He did not need to celebrate and cry at midcourt because he did not need to show everyone how much he cared. He and his teammates knew it all along.
Lebron says we’ll all go back to our pathetic lives. He wants us to believe that he doesn’t care what we think, that he doesn’t care, but that is not the truth. The unfortunate truth is that Lebron cares deeply about public perception. That is why you will see him celebrating in the middle when he wins, so he can show us, and prove to everyone that he cares. He’s that kid who just wants to be cool, to fit in, and it is cool to be emotional in victory. What is not cool is to be vulnerable in defeat, to say that he may have screwed some things up. To say that he is wasting away his potential, and he knows that as well. That is something he will never say because King James can’t admit fault, he has to show us all that he’s perfect.
I see the Heat being very good again next season. The people who say the team needs to be torn apart are the same ones who said Lebron was better than Jordan a couple weeks ago. The team needs a big man, and they need more role players, but they have Wade and James so as long as they are both healthy, they will contend. To win, they need Lebron to play at his best, and to do that he needs to mature in his game, which means developing a jump shot and a low post game. He is the most intriguing player in the game today simply because of his potential and the question of whether he will put it together. The second part of that equation is that he will need to mature in his attitude and outlook. After his answer at the press conference last night it seems this may never happen but it is something I would like to see, because the game is at its best with the best player at his best.
I will be waiting until that moment when Lebron begins to live up to his potential. I think the first sign of that moment will be when Lebron calmly walks back into the locker room after a playoff victory, and when he accepts responsibility over a playoff defeat. Then maybe the most talented player in basketball can work at becoming the best one. In the gym all day in the summer, developing his shot and his post game, until he knows that he cannot be stopped or deterred. Once it becomes not about showing us how great he is, but knowing himself that he is the best he could be. Then he can stop boasting in victory, and stop evading responsibility in defeat. Then maybe, someday, if we’re lucky, instead of being the player he is, Lebron can take a page from Dirk Nowitzki who never stops improving, and become the player he is capable of being.