Monday, June 13, 2011

Promises in Flesh and Bravado

Just a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of basketball superstar LeBron James announcing that he would be taking his wealth of physical talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the 2011 NBA Finals concluded on the floor of American Airlines Arena in Miami. An impromptu stage was quickly erected by arena employees and NBA staff amidst the on-court celebration that erupted as the final whistle ended the championship series after six games. Delighted fans remained in the building, some crowding down into the lower bowl, to watch the trophy presentation. They cheered exuberantly as a team was awarded the Larry O'Brien Trophy by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

It was just the sort of scene that LBJ, Wade and Bosh had promised to a crowd of fans, many of whom were wearing freshly purchased Heat gear, when the trio was introduced in that arena shortly after all the contracts were signed last summer.



In his first public performance in a Heat jersey, James informed that crowd that he and his teammates would win several championships.

Well, one season down, one celebration on that same floor in Miami. Yes They Did?

False. It was, of course, the visiting Dallas Mavericks winning the championship in Miami. It was the Mavs' players, coaches and front office personnel being herded onto that makeshift stage on that floor in Miami. It was the vocal and shockingly large contingent of visiting Mavs fans that cheered from the stands (and likely found their seats in time for tip off) at American Airlines Arena, like so many road fans before them during the regular season. And it was Mark Cuban's team from Texas being presented with that championship trophy by his longtime foil, Commissioner Stern.

Back at that July 2010 pep rally turned title celebration, which occurred well before the new teammates had even soaked any of those jerseys the league was selling with a drop of sweat, the tag line was "Yes We Did." Past tense. James talked of the coming Heat dynasty like he'd traveled forward in time to 2015 and nabbed a copy of Gray's Sports Almanac. He reeled off the teams accomplishments as if they had already occurred. Past tense.

While the narcissistic Decision soured the public on James and his near-sighted retinue of overmatched courtiers, it was the self-congratulatory nature of the "Yes We Did" party that transferred all the LBJ hostility to the team as a whole. Who did they think they were? And did they really think that they could go take a shortcut to the championship that had eluded all-time greats like Patrick Ewing, Elgin Baylor and Charles Barkley?

Perhaps the sporting public was so offended by the pompous predictions because it actually seemed possible that this team - one that featured two of the top five players in the game (and a Bosh) - could laugh and backslap and fastbreak ally-oop its way to the top without the pain and turbulence that writers and fans want in their sporting dramas. And, to hear James explain it, the formation of the South Beach SuperFriends was going to remove the drama from the season altogether.

Now, I presume that the oligarchs of the Heat weren't the only NBA players confident that they were going to win a championship. I have no doubt that Kobe Bryant thought his Lakers were going to send Phil Jackson off into retirement with another three-peat. In Boston, Kevin Garnett likely believed that he'd scowl and curse and crotch punch his way to a second ring. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may have been convinced that the Oklahoma City Thunder were ready to ascend to the top of the heap as well.

But none of these men were counting off the titles that they claimed to be poised to win with a jovial self assurance that made their successes sound imminent and inevitable. Or, at least, if any other All-Stars were claiming that their winning the title was a fait accompli then they were doing it behind closed doors.

Behind several sets of closed doors, there was one player who did something that was in its own way every bit as brash as the Heat's Premature Title Elation. Shortly before the 2010-11 season began, during a preseason team-only gathering at teammate Deshawn Stevenson's house, Mavericks' sixth man Jason Terry had the Larry O'Brien Trophy tattooed on his arm.


While James chose to televise seemingly every aspect of his transition to Heat and the subsequent fanfare, most basketball fans managed not to learn about the ink on Terry's shooting arm until just the other day. And the first time that we heard about that tat was quickly followed by the time we heard the news that he'd admitted he would likely have it removed if Dallas didn't win it all.

The news that Terry could be subjecting himself to the pain of tattoo removal (in which they essentially "remove" it by burning it off and covering it with scar tissue) reminded me of the time when my brothers and I all got our first tattoos together. As we were discussing how the two older siblings would be paying for the youngest, I cautioned, "It's one thing to have tattoo money, but it's something else entirely to have tattoo removal money."

Of all the differences between the Mavericks and the Heat, the ways in which they went about stating their goals for the season may be the most representative. While LBJ boasted publicly and arrogantly about NBA titles as if they were appointments to be kept rather than accomplishments, Terry's tattoo pain was aspirational and came with consequences. He wanted that title so badly, having come up short in 2006. That tattoo was also inspirational to his collected teammates, most of whom know how painful and permanent a tattoo is.

Yeah, Terry's move was over the top, too. Pretty crazy, actually. But it was altogether different. Because it was private. And because the risks were always part of it. Regret and embarrassment loomed larger for Terry than they likely ever have for the self-anointed King James. He admitted that he was going to have that tattoo removed if his team lost, while LeBron's postgame comments about not hanging his head and that shot he took at the lives of the folks rooting against him made it pretty clear that he's not reevaluating much or accepting any consequences from his actions.

Terry's tattoo was a challenge to himself and to everyone in his locker room that they would experience every day. In the present tense. While the Heat were left wondering why that they had already "YES WE DID" never happened in the first place.

No comments: