Monday, April 9, 2012

The Frictionless Lives of the Meek

Dear LeBron,

A couple weeks ago I was talking to my grandma on the phone while she watched the last few holes of Tiger Woods’s victory at Bay Hill. He was up by five strokes, in position to get his first win since that moment more than two years ago when his status as one of America’s most beloved athletes evaporated overnight. (You can relate to that, of course.) Anyway, my grandma was giving me play-by-play as we talked, and when Tiger got to eighteen, victory in hand, she said, “Well, I guess he’s been in the penalty box long enough.” I thought that was a brilliant comment. Tiger has been in the penalty box long enough. And so have you, LeBron. In fact, maybe you—who committed no sins against morality, but only against humility—have served more time in the penalty box than you even deserved. America’s system of checks and balances worked: You orchestrated an act of extreme and oblivious arrogance and we the people held you accountable for it—wishing ill on your performances for an entire season, cheering Dirk when he put you in your place. But that’s all behind us now, or should be. We’re deep into another season, a season in which you’ve played incredibly, up there with almost any season by any player in history. In the course of one game against Portland you guarded all five positions. You also rode a bicycle to a game against the Bulls in late January, when the Miami Marathon shut down the streets. Yes, your bike said King James on it, but still: You rode a bike to a game against the other top team in the East and had 35 points, 11 boards, and 5 assists. How can we hate on that? (If I had any advice for rehabilitating your reputation, it would be this: Sell all your cars and SUVs and start riding your bike everywhere.) And your game’s hard to hate too. I mean, how can we continue to hate on a guy whose biggest flaw as a player might be that he makes the unselfish pass too often? After you took your talents to South Beach, I never would’ve imagined I’d say this, but you deserve better from us, LeBron.

The other day I was reading a book called Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane, the great short story writer and 2006 inductee of the National Horse Cutting Hall of Fame, and I stumbled across a line that made me think of you. It comes from a passage about an arrogant, baton-twirling drum major and the crowd’s reaction to watching him perform at a high school football halftime. Here's the line: “As would become habitual for most of us, we wanted either spectacular achievement or mortifying failure, one or the other. Neither of these things, we were discreetly certain, would ever come to us: we’d be allowed the frictionless lives of the meek.” This is your situation—and Tiger’s—in a nutshell. We want, from our superstars, either spectacular achievement or mortifying failure. In the secret hearts of most NBA fans, we’ll be hoping you experience either one or the other in the playoffs this year, and nothing in between. And that’s pretty lame. And even lamer is that we hope for this from the comfort of our frictionless lives, as McGuane beautifully puts it. I’m tired of hearing columnists and announcers and talking heads jabber on about how you need to step up in big games, and turn it on during clutch time. I’m tired of hearing these guys talk about how they don’t see that killer instinct in your eyes. Who are they to say that? Who are they to read your eyes? It’s easy to tell somebody else to turn it on, especially when you’re not in that position yourself. So don’t listen to us, LeBron. We don’t know whereof we speak.

The way I see it, LeBron, you’re driving a car down a narrow and curvy one-lane road, and when you look in your rearview mirror you see nothing but tailgaters, a long line of tailgaters, millions of them. And these tailgaters are right up on your bumper, pressuring you to speed up. Now, it takes a very special person to ignore all these tailgaters, to maintain the exact same speed that you would’ve driven if nobody else was on the road. I’ve never been able to do that myself. I always speed up to please the tailgaters, even if it’s dangerous. And I’ve never been in a situation like yours, followed by an entire nation of mental tailgaters. In this year’s playoffs, when the line behind you will be longer than ever, my hope is that you’ll be able to ignore all these people and play the exact way you’d play if the sports opinion industry didn’t exist. Your game is more than sufficient; it doesn’t need to speed up in clutch time. If you feel like passing in the fourth quarter, pass. If you feel like shooting, shoot. Whatever you do, just don’t look in your rearview mirror. If you can pull that off, you’ll be an inspiration to everyone who’s ever felt the pressure of tailgaters, mental or literal. Let us all follow our instincts.

To conclude, let me say this: I have a reasonable suspicion that most NBA fans would be absolutely appalled if they saw the behind-the-scenes behavior of most superstars. Spectacles like yours in 2010 or Dwight Howard’s this year are only the very tip of the iceberg, the smaller part visible outside the water. There’s a huge dark side underneath that only a select few have ever glimpsed. And in the past, I’ve judged players based on the few secondhand reports I’ve heard of their dark side. You were no exception (and in fact, the secondhand reports on you have often been among the worst, at least in the past). But over the course of this shortened season I’ve realized that disliking an NBA superstar because they’re too arrogant and self-involved is the equivalent of disliking a rockstar because they drink and do drugs. It greatly limits your options as a fan. So I’m not concerning myself anymore with behavior I can’t see. I’m not gonna worry about whether the people who manage your “brand” are pulling the wool over my eyes. You’ve made one public misdecision (and a handful of smaller, related misdecisions) and you paid the price. So what if you aren't the most humble guy in the world, or don't know what the word even means. It’s time for us to turn our attention fully back to your marvels on the basketball court. Come playoff time, I don’t see myself rooting for the Heat, but I don’t see myself rooting for mortifying failure, either. I see myself rooting for you to have a performance for the ages, though perhaps in defeat. It goes back to Tiger: Some golf fans may not like him or root for him anymore, but everyone has to admit that the game is more fun to watch when he’s playing great, that beating Tiger-at-his-best really means something. Likewise, I want the best basketball player in the world to play like the best basketball player in the world. So when the playoffs finally arrive, Bron, here’s hoping you ignore all the haters and all the mental tailgaters, and do what you do best.



P.S. Last week, when you played the Thunder, there was one play where you knocked the ball away from the guy you were guarding (Durant?), chased the ball down on the other side of the court, and jammed it home without taking any dribbles. It was an incredible display of power and speed and finesse, the kind of play that makes it seem possible that the NBA might one day lengthen or widen the court just because of your dominance, the way baseball lowered the mound because of Bob Gibson. Let's see more of that in the playoffs.

P.P.S. Speaking of guys named Bob, you know who has always driven the exact speed he wanted to drive, regardless of how many people were honking in the cars behind him? Bob Dylan. You’d do well to follow his lead, LeBron. That guy has always made the exact music he wanted to make, regardless of the criticism he received for it. This should be our goal, too. Make the music you want to make.