"It was like a kid, all the things that you dream about. It felt good. You're on the road, going against a team that's giving you their all, and you hit a nice shot like that. I remember a few years back, I was missing those [game-winning] shots. It's a thing where you just learn from it."
-- Derrick Rose on his game-winning shot against the Bucks, March 7, 2012
LeBron James has a problem.
It's out there. We all know it. He has to know it, especially when he sees and hears the way players such as the Bulls' Rose, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Cavs rookie Kyrie Irving and the Nets' Jordan Farmar have played hero at the end of games recently.
The problem for LBJ is not a new one. It has attached itself to his game (and, in another context, his life) over the course of his career. By now, it has a life of its own. It's an identity he can't seem to escape.
It's actually something worse than a problem. LeBron has a stigma.
It's this: not taking/shying away from/being afraid to take the last shot. It's real, and he is helping legitimize it himself, even if both of his recent much-publicized last-second decisions not to take the last shot -- at the end of the All-Star Game and in a March 2 game against Utah -- were good basketball plays, probably the right basketball plays.
But the stigma isn't about basketball.
It's about intestinal fortitude. This is what is being put into question. By passing up those two possible game-winning shots, LeBron has allowed the depth (or lack thereof) of his will to win to become the foundation of all conversations concerning him.
Does he have the fortitude? And if he does have it, what happens to it at the end of games? And if he has it and it disappears at the end of games, why?
It's a more damning and damaging stigma than Shaq's inability to hit free throws, or Mike D'Antoni's inability to get his players to defend.
Some players get the "soft" label. For some, it's a "not smart/low game IQ" label. For some, it's extracurricular: substance dependency, too much nightlife, clubs, gambling, women, friends, their past. For some, it's not taking the game seriously, only in it for the money, lack of passion and dedication, inconsistency, no hunger or heart. For others, it's a technical flaw in their game that defines their entire career.
The argument over LeBron is not about any of that. It's about whether the best (greatest?) basketball player playing does everything humanly possible (in his case, maybe inhumanly possible, too, because of how he's judged) to win. And in this particular case, the talk has focused on those two games. His decisions in those two games, right now, are being applied to every one-possession loss, every playoff series loss, he's had in his career.
His first venture into the Finals in 2007, when he and the Cavs met the broom.
Game 5 in a 2010 playoff series against Boston, again with the Cavs.
Games 3 through 6 in last year's Finals, this time with the Heat. Magnified in that case, because millions suspect he went to Miami with Chris Bosh to play with Dwyane Wade so he wouldn't have to take that shot.
(Amazing, how easily people forget and dismiss moments like LeBron's game-winning, last-second 3-pointer in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals against the Magic.)
His clutch gene is not in question. That isn't the issue. The fact that LeBron on two occasions last week almost single-handedly brought his team back from oblivion in the fourth quarter ought to eliminate the no-clutch-gene line of thinking.
The questioning begins with his accountability gene. Why does it seem that LeBron doesn't want to be accountable for being the last person to touch the basketball when the clock ticks below five seconds in the fourth quarter and his shot can determine the outcome of the game?
Stigmas like this don't disappear by themselves.
The reality of the stigma became inarguable when Kobe walked up to LeBron at the end of the All-Star Game, questioning LeBron's decision-making, telling LeBron to shoot -- which he didn't do. That's when the possibility that the universal criticism has been unfair became something more conclusive. Something more acute. Situations like that are when the possibility of a psychological barrier becomes an inescapable issue. When an opponent, someone desperately trying not to lose even a meaningless All-Star Game, wonders why you didn't do something to beat him? That's a problem.
And when, less than a week later, you allow your own history to repeat itself? Stigma.
Long vision predicts that this will follow LeBron until he rests in peace. The haters, the people who -- in LeBron's own words -- "blame it on LeBron" or make everything "LeBron's fault," will always come back to this. This one week in the middle of what more than likely will be his third MVP season (statistically, he's having one of the most productive and complete seasons seen in generations), he proved them right.
And until he takes -- not makes, just takes! -- those shots, all push-back to the contrary will be pointless. Like the shots he's not taking.
It's unrealistic to expect any player to go through an entire career at the rare and elite level of his/her profession without a flaw or stigma. Both come with the territory. Greatness breeds hate. Greatness breeds microscopes.
And with a microscope comes stem-cell-intense research. Millions of unforgiving fans and an unrelenting media dissecting every pimple in a global icon's game and being proactive about making it the point of contention. The constant reminder of why the greatest player of his generation isn't the King. Why he's far from Mike.
Unless LeBron makes losing this stigma more important than winning a ring, he'll be stuck here, in this moment, unable to distance himself from it. It will be his guest at his Hall Of Fame induction.
Is this who LeBron James is? Are these two games, deep down, representative of who he is as an overall player? Are they the narrative of his basketball life?
As a fan (and, in another context, a friend) of LeBron's, I want that empty-stomach feeling to hit him. That feeling you get when you're on a plane and realize that you left your computer or cell phone in the TSA tray at the security checkpoint, or when you're standing next to your court-appointed lawyer and the judge needs one word instead of two to read your verdict.
That empty, bottomless, dry-burning feeling that finally forces a change. That makes you want to rid yourself and your life of the moment because that moment is not how you want to be defined. It eats at you. That empty, bottomless, dry-heaving feeling that you never want to experience again.
This is what I believe we all want for LeBron. We want him to no longer concentrate on being a combination of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone -- something the game has never seen. We'd rather he just reincarnate Jerry West or Reggie Miller or Paul Pierce. Just be Robert Horry.
Do something to at least act like he hears or cares about what is being said and the conclusions he's allowing to be drawn. But by not doing any of that, by remaining overly unselfish and playing the game the way it is supposed to be played and making the "correct" play when the game is on the line, he is not allowing anyone any room to have his back.
And in LeBron's current situation, with a stigma like this, that might be the worst thing he can do to himself.