It’s very LeBron James for a moment that speaks to his greatness to double as a moment that brings great criticism and mockery. James suffered fourth-quarter cramps and had to take to the bench in the San Antonio Spurs' 110-95 Game 1 NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat. Without James' transcendent skills, his team crumbled both defensively and offensively and melted as the Spurs closed out the game with a 21-7 run.
The Spurs’ defense is formidable, but their arena presented a larger obstacle for James on Thursday night. The AT&T Center has challenged people with a bat, a snake and spotty wireless access. On Thursday, players and fans were subjected to temperatures up to 90 degrees due to what a Spurs Sports & Entertainment official said was an electrical failure that crashed the arena’s air-conditioning system. Earlier in the game, James was recorded by cameras joking, “They’re trying to smoke us out of there.” In the end, his seemingly indestructible body forced him from the action.
If the climate around James had been a bit different -- a bit more reasonable -- this might be occasion for near-universal sympathy. How sad it is to see a great athlete not able to engage at the height of competition. What unfortunate timing, what awful conditions. But while James certainly has his sympathizers, social media was replete with unfavorable comparisons to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and yes, even hockey players. If the greats could play under any circumstances, why couldn't James triumph over his lactic acid?
If Tim Duncan suffers those cramps, it’s probably a footnote. When James suffers them, it’s a trial. Obviously, this is because few people have anything against the former, and many people have something against the latter.
This moment is indicative of how, no matter how much he wins, James continues to play before a constituency that still harbors resentment toward him. The ranks can lessen a bit as the victories pile up. The ranks can go dormant during championship parades. But the group is always there -- waiting for situations such as this.
Perhaps it’s the Jordan comparisons that have rankled a certain bloc of those who traffic in 90s nostalgia. Perhaps it’s also the legion of Kobe fans who would rather not see another perimeter player eclipse their favorite. That anxiety of comparison plays a role, but the dominant factor is probably a decision that’s in the past but continues to permeate the present.
On the face of things, James’ relocation to Miami and the reaction that ensued could not be less like the man cramping up in the heat of battle. There are similar dynamics in play, though. When James had millions waiting on his every televised word, it was illustrative of just how powerful a basketball force he was. When the Heat fell apart after James left the game, it was illustrative of just how powerful a basketball force he is.
In many circles, the response to both testaments to greatness was and continues to be rage. It’s difficult to deny James’ on-court prowess, so anger quickly morphs into attacks on his character. If you don’t like somebody, you’re liable to assume the worst about them. To many, it doesn’t matter that James’ choice was validated with championships. To them, it doesn't matter how well James plays. They’re waiting for the moment when that isn’t happening.