In sports, it’s almost de rigeur to box the participants into simplistic, Manichean paradigms. It’s one of the main hooks, really. We (or at least I) retreat into passionate fandom/ascribe so much of our (my) emotional well-being to the scores of games because, in real life very, very, VERY few things are black and white. The majority of one’s daily events are semi-pointless minutiae that land somewhere within a miasma of vast shades of gray. No winners and losers. Just a series of tentative half-steps along a never-ending path fraught with anxiety and indifference and boredom and fear and indeterminate answers to unsolvable questions. (Yes, your humble correspondent is in a chipper mood today.)
But that’s the fun, dontcha know. Eff all those moral ambiguities! When you’re rooting for a team (any team), it’s wholly clear that on one side stands the nefarious villain, bestowed with Skeletor-like powers beyond our understanding, bent on the destruction of all that is good and noble and holy and All-American and brimming with earnest, selfless, hope and desire. Naturally, we are The Good and they are The Bad! And unlike the workaday world, in the end, it’s crystal clear whom has triumphed and shall be decorated with wreaths of finely spun gold and heralded throughout the ages with wine and women and song and who lays vanquished, covered in bruises that may not ever heal.
So after watching the Heatles (MoHeatOs, Golden Girls, Miami Thrice, etc.) succumb to Dallas, I expected to be filled with venomous, bile-ridden glee. Like (seemingly) the rest of the hoops-nation, I had draped LeBron in a dark cowl and cast him as Darth James. I mean, after the lugubrious preening of “the Decision,” followed by the now-even-more-mockable post-decision “Dance Party South Beach Pre-Championship Shingdig” (Or whatever it was called) and prediction of multiple titles, pretty much every other team/fans of all the other teams (especially the fine burghers of Cleveland) in the league wanted to see Miami, like the bully in the old Charles Atlas Comix, get socked in the schnozz. And as a Knicker-backer, after two years of shedding contracts and openly pining for LeBron only to see him, like the archetypal actaeonizingly attractive woman at the bar, shoo us away, I expected his loss/failings would feel like a kind of vindication and I’d bellow, “See. He ain’t no Jordan! We didn’t really need the bastid anyways! He ain’t tough enough fer dis town. Fuggeddaboutit!” (Yes, my stock NY accent is quite similar to Jon Stewart’s)
But here’s the thing.
As much as I got a bang out of Nowitzki’s collection of feints, jab-steps and silky-smooth jumpers, I didn’t enjoy watching the Teutonic Titan kick sand in LeBron’s face. It just kind of felt…well…sad.
It was like he (LeBron) knew that he was doomed to failure. That for all his vaunted physical prowess, there’s an element missing there that can’t be easily labeled or identified. Those lacking a poetic bent might say that he lacks a goddamn post-up game, but that’s for wiser, less-sentimental basketball minds than me to determine (and given the dearth of actual games that the lockout is going to leave us with, the wags/pundits certainly will spend much of the next few months musing on the holes in LBJ’s game). But as the minutes dwindled down in the 4th and LeBron hoisted a series of futile threes, I almost saw a flash of recognition, of dare I say it, self-awareness,. It was both utterly surprising and damningly ironic, since an utter lack of self-awareness (or at least any awareness of how his actions might be perceived by others) could be said to what led to “The Decision” in the first place. Maybe it was just the pain of losing, but I could swear I saw a moment of regret flash across his face. A regret for all that had passed over the last twelve months: joining forces with Wade’s team instead of staying in his hometown, making such a production out of free agency, and raising the stakes so high that anything less than total domination would be viewed as a personal failure on his part.
In my heart, I know that look. I know regret. And for the first time, I didn’t wish LeBron was a Knick or hate him for not being a Knick or see him as the big bad, I just felt pity for a man – a still-young man at that, lest we forget, coming face to face with his limitations (the Freudian in me would say he came face to face with his own mortality, but that’s another column altogether). And as much as I’d like to, I can’t kick that guy when he’s down.