Sunday, June 24, 2012

Learning From the King

Dear LeBron,

Now that the dust has cleared and you’ve celebrated your championship by rapping with LMFAO while wearing a t-shirt depicting your face as a vampire—to each his own, I guess—I’d like to offer a few words. First of all, congrats. That was an incredible performance. It reminded me of when I used to be able to beat my little brother every time in the driveway, at will. If he ever got close to actually winning, I’d back him down repeatedly and take him to the hole every time, game over. Victory was never really in doubt. Basically I was the Bill Russell of me vs. my little brother. (He was three years younger than me, but still.) Anyway, these last two weeks, you made the entire NBA your little brother. And not just the young Thunder, but also the old Celts. Everyone officially became your little brother. And it was pretty damn impressive. To make the absolute best basketball players in the world seem like your younger siblings is a crazy feat. Shaq did it. MJ did it. Hakeem did it for a year or two. But besides that, nobody in the last twenty years has come close (including Kobe and Duncan, in my opinion). And this, much more than any supposed learning or changing you might’ve done after last year, is why America is on your side again.

Americans love dominance, LeBron. For those who truly dominate the competition, much will be forgiven. If you don’t believe me, take a closer look at the biographies of MJ or Shaq or Tiger or Steve Jobs. And, in your case at least, this is as it should be. Your dominance should be your redemption. We felt a weird resentment towards you over the last year that had as much to do with your failure to dominate as it did with your arrogance. Maybe more, actually. And so it was a joy and a relief to see you finally take over and dominate in the way we’d always expected of you—the freight-train drives to the basket, the impossibly contorted layups, the clutch bank shots, the timely threes, the passes in transition, the back-downs in the post, the impeccable court vision while double-teamed. We’ve always held you to unreasonably lofty basketball standards, and over the last couple of weeks you actually met them. Just like MJ used to do. Which is crazy.

Now, we’re not gonna make that old mistake of assuming that a perfect sports performance must have some relation to moral perfection (i.e. LeBron was an arrogant asshole, then he was humbled, became a great guy, and won a championship). But that doesn’t mean you haven’t changed, either. It just means the relationship between you and all of us who call ourselves NBA fans—not Heat fans—has returned, completely and finally, to the basketball court. And it feels good. You’ve reminded us that awe is so much more fun than contempt. How could we begrudge a guy his happiness when he played the game so damn well? We can’t. So thanks for giving us a performance for the ages. Before the series ended, you admitted you were immature last year. Well, we were a little immature, too. Thanks for helping us move past all that with an all-time great performance that made all the peripheral issues seem small in its wake.

So much of the media coverage surrounding you has had a condescending tone, like all the talking heads know better than you, like they’ve been trying to teach you a bunch of lessons about life (arrogance will blow up in your face, there are no short cuts) and basketball (don’t settle for jump shots, develop a post game) and now that you’ve played perfectly and admitted your immaturity, their lessons have finally sunk in. This is pretty much BS. Whatever you did, whatever you figured out, it was on your own. The question shouldn’t be what you learned, but what we learned from you and your performance over these past two weeks. I don’t know if you’re any more humble behind the scenes than you were a year ago, but I do know, conclusively, that you weren’t posting on Twitter. And I think that made a difference. No kidding. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, the benefits of your summer visit to Hakeem have probably been way overblown—I didn’t see you doing Dream Shakes during the Finals—but I don’t think the stories of your self-imposed Internet/TV exile are overblown at all. Getting off Twitter and the Internet and not watching TV, these things had to help your focus, right? And not just because of all the second-guessing you avoided. There’s a lesson there, for me, at least. If you want to actually achieve something you’ve been wanting for years and haven’t been able to do, you may have to eliminate all the media distractions. And by “you,” I mean “I.” From this point on, I shouldn't write another one of these letters or do my daily surfing of the Internet until I win a Pulitzer. In any category.

Along the same lines, I also learned something from a mantra that you repeated a lot during these playoffs, one that seems like an empty sports cliché, but I don’t believe it is: “Hard work and dedication.” You threw that phrase around a lot, and I think it has meaning. People talk a lot about your talent and your perfect basketball combination of size, strength, speed, and agility, but maybe we haven’t given you enough credit for how much of your game comes from just pure effort and dedication to your craft. You excel at the skills that take practice just as well as you excel at the skills that come naturally. Your regular season game improves every year, even when it seems impossible for you to improve. And the hard work and dedication of these last few weeks was off the charts, starting from when your back was against the wall in Game 6 of the Celtics series. It’s hard to exhibit more hard work and dedication than you did during that performance (45, 15, and 5), which ended up being a template for your play in the Finals. For as much as all of us basketball fans complained two summers ago that you’d opted for the “easy” way to a championship, none of us could say that you got this championship easily. We (again, read: "I") can learn from this, too, the reminder that if you want to achieve an enormous goal, it takes an enormous amount of hard work and dedication. That might sound dumb or obvious to some people, but you know it’s not. I plan to put a HARD WORK AND DEDICATION sign next to my desk.

The final lesson I learned from you over these last two weeks is almost the opposite: the importance of enjoying yourself. Like I said, I doubt the visiting-Hakeem-made-a-big-difference narrative and I kind of doubt the narrative that you’re more humble now, but I believe the no-Internet narrative and I definitely believe the joy-of-the-game narrative. It was obvious that basketball wasn’t as fun for you last year, as you’ve said a lot, and it was obvious that this year was different. But it was also different than your goofy Cavs years, too. In the last two weeks, you’ve perfected the difficult mix you’ve been perfecting all season: being intensely focused and hardworking, while also enjoying yourself. Which led, of course, to the ultimate enjoyment of jumping up and down on the sidelines with the goofiest, happiest, most genuine smile we’ve ever seen from you. So for everyone who has a huge goal, you’ve reminded us that it’s gotta be fun, too. To sum up: Eliminate distractions. Push yourself. Enjoy yourself. Thanks for all that, LeBron. The only thing left is the hard part, the part for which you deserve the most credit: actually making it happen.

In conclusion, LeBron, let me offer you some advice, because I can’t help myself and because this is probably the last open letter I ever write to an NBA personality. (Private letters, that's a different story.) Recall that Dirk got a little lazy after he finally reached the top of the mountain—and paid the price this year. I bring that up for this reason: Many talking heads have suggested, over these last few days, that we have entered an era of Miami Heat dominance, that there is clearly no stopping you guys now. I was watching SportsCenter the day after the championship and before a commercial break, Scott Van Pelt said, “So how many championships will the Miami Heat win? Coming up next...” (I turned off the TV.) Recall, LeBron, that two weeks ago many of the same people who are talking about the inevitable Miami Heat dynasty were suggesting the Heat should be blown up, that the Big Three couldn’t coexist, that this chemistry experiment was a failure. Two weeks ago, LeBron. So listen to these guys at your own peril. The positive stuff is just as dangerous as the negative stuff. And don’t forget that even as you were spraying champagne in the locker room, Derrick Rose—not to mention my boys Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin—was rehabbing. Even as you were rapping with LMFAO, Deron Williams was considering joining Dirk and Cuban, CP3 was thinking about which of his friends to recruit to the Clippers, and the Spurs were doing what the Spurs always do. And while Miami throws a parade with you at the epicenter, Durant and Westbrook and Harden will be in a gym somewhere, doing everything they can to be next year’s Heat. Hard work and dedication.



P.S. You should really thank Chris Bosh. Pull him aside sometime in the next few weeks and just thank him. Something like, “Hey, I know everyone’s talking about me right now, and how dominant I was, but we both know that I didn’t really start playing on another level until you came back. That’s not a coincidence. You were huge. Goofy, but huge. And the three pointers…Crazy. Anyway, man, thanks.” I think it would mean a lot to him. I really do.

P.P.S. There came a point--too soon, really--when my brother finally beat me in our driveway, and after that it was pretty much over. He beat me every time, LeBron. I don't even wanna say how old he was. My point here is this: Watch out for your little bros in Oklahoma City, not to mention elsewhere. Little brothers get better without you even realizing it.