The LeBron James Rollercoaster

LeBron has a lot riding on his 100th game as a member of the Miami Heat tonight.

It’s not so much just about mental toughness.

Any man who has gone through what LeBron James has had to deal with – or any other professional athlete who has ascended to “superstar” status – has to have some semblance of cerebral fortitude.

It’s not a question of whether LeBron has it or not.  The way arguments seem to be going these days, everyone has to polarize themselves and stand pat on one side or the other.  There is a vast majority of pundits, analysts, and talking heads that handcuff themselves by dealing in absolutes.  Luckily we have Skip Bayless to save us from this “I-can-shout-louder-than-you-about-my-opinion-which-makes-it-better” journalism.

The true measure of greatness – the miniscule difference between championships and excuses – is repetition and consistency.  LeBron James is mentally tough.  We’ve seen it before: Game 5 against the Pistons in 2007 when he scored the final 25 points for the Cavs on his way to a ridiculous 48-9-7.  More recently, we’ve seen it this year against the Celtics and Bulls in the fourth quarter of close-out games.

However, within these dynamic examples of mental toughness are scattered the baffling performances of a superstar who shies away when the spotlight gleams its brightest: the infamous Game 5 against Boston last year in the Eastern Conference Finals and two nights ago in Dallas.

So the question isn’t whether or not LeBron James is mentally tough.  It’s not necessarily one or the other. For LeBron James, as we have found in many different instances, he is both – he’s inconsistent.

LeBron’s decision making has always been questionable. Choosing to allow his childhood friends to be his main representation, choosing to never develop any semblance of a post-up game, choosing to go to Miami, holding an hour-long special to announce that he was going to Miami, for some reason saying “taking my talents to South Beach” when he finally announced it, wearing that heinous white sweater for the State Farm commercials, or sitting down with his legs crossed against the base of the basket when the game was delayed for a spilled drink in Game 3.  Things that make you wonder, “what the hell could he possibly be thinking?”

Jordan was a coldblooded, no-excuses assassin.  Kobe is an asshole.  LeBron is a constant game of mental roulette. You think Jordan would ever take a seat on the court with his legs crossed in the middle of an NBA Finals Game?  Jordan would quit basketball and play another sport before he subjected himself to such childish behavior.

Henry Abbot wrote an article for ESPN.com’s basketball blog “True Hoop” (which he also founded) on May 9th titled “The Meaningless of Playoff Toughness.”

It was written one month ago today – when LeBron was shaking all the criticisms of lacking that killer instinct.  The first of the two distinct LeBron 180s was in full swing.  The second obviously has happened in the last two days. We’re now back where we started.

Abbot’s point was that maybe it’s not so much mental toughness as it is just pure basketball.   LeBron so kindly defecated all over that theory in Game 4.  (Sorry Henry).

Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, who knows LeBron so well I’m almost positive he’s been sleeping under LeBron’s bed for the past eight years described the recent performance like this: “He lapsed into detachment…It wasn’t that James didn’t deliver in a clutch moment. That is excusable. It was that he looked like he didn’t even want to be in the moment.”

Detachment : That was the word I was looking for; thank you Brian.  Not that he has mental toughness or not.  Not that he is or isn’t clutch.  It’s that he removes himself from the situation altogether.

Tonight is LeBron’s 100th game as a member of the Miami Heat.  Not to jump on the hyperbole-laden S.S. Bayless that I have previously admonished, but this is the most important game of his career.

If you saw the totally not-staged-for-TV pregame speech that the ESPN cameras “caught” before Game 4; the one that on the scale of 1 to Drew Brees’ “This is New Orleans” 300 speech came up as about a 2.5, you heard Mr. James say that he felt like “his back was against the wall.”

If that was the case, I’m not even sure what metaphor to use now at the point he’s currently at.  What’s 100 times more than “back against the wall?”

LeBron James is an unpredictable entity.  He is a fascinating array of chemical reactions.  Does he allow Jason Terry and DeShawn Stevenson’s comments to get to him? Did Wade’s scolding hurt his confidence?  Is he happy to pick up the second fiddle and strum quietly in the corner?

If there’s one thing I can be certain of, it’s this: we can’t be certain of anything when it comes to LeBron Raymone James.  So let’s be comfortable with the indecisiveness of our conclusion, get in the LeBron rollercoaster, put your hands up and enjoy the ride.

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