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When I Paint My Masterpiece

By Bob Liss


When Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng missed his second of two free throws with two seconds remaining and his team leading 108-106 in the third game of the Chicago-Cleveland first round NBA playoff series, it was clear LeBron James would not have an overtime period of five minutes in which to add to his total of 39 points. Either the Bulls' lead would hold, or Cleveland would steal the game with a desperation three-pointer, hoisted up by Anthony Parker (exactly the kind of shot that Butler's Gordon Hayward had barely missed sinking – along with the Duke ship – weeks earlier in the NCAA Final).

Parker missed his too, but either way, with Deng’s errant free throw, Elgin Baylor's special place in my memory and personal pantheon was secure, as very little else seemed to be, in the face of LeBron’s prospect of rewriting basketball history.

It was to see James play in person that I was, on my sixty-seventh birthday, at my first live NBA playoff game since 1962, when my college buddy and I made the trek to Boston Garden, and plunked down a modest fee, for which we were rewarded with decent seats from which to witness Elgin post an astonishing 61 points, giving his Lakers a home-court service break in the pivotal fifth game of a championship series which the Celtics nonetheless came back to win in seven.

As involved as I remain with basketball, as a high school coach and devoted fan of my Division III all-conference guard son, I no longer seriously consider going to NBA games. Having covered the University of San Francisco's games for ten years as an Associated Press stringer, I got used to being paid forty bucks and a meal for attending games, sitting courtside among knowledgeable and cynical sportswriters, listening to coaches and stars of various games pontificating about how this particular victory became theirs on that particular night.

My sole excursion to Oracle Arena, the recently renovated home arena of my local franchise, the Golden State Warriors was bizarrely repugnant to me: being ushered to my appointed seat in a supposedly desirable luxury corporate box reminded me so much of going through a (pre 9/11) airport check-in line that I was reduced to muttering stuff under my breath about having to catch a connecting flight to Houston. At Oracle, my seats had been generously provided gratis by Golden State Vice President and former title-winning Coach Al Attles, whose acquaintance and near friendship I valued and had heretofore taken great pains to cultivate. Here was a terrible disconnect: accepting the gift tickets had become the price of continuing the relationship. Al understood: “Oh, you remember when it was just about basketball.”


Yet as well as I know that the game, especially on the professional level, can never provide me with the moments of transcendent joy that it did for so many years, I have been captivated by LeBron James since I first heard of him as a high school junior (him, not me) and saw him play in a summer league game in Berkeley. My sole interest in watching NBA games in recent years has been to see him, because there is at every moment the possibility that he will do something I have never before seen anyone do, or even thought possible.

James’ combination of strength, speed, raw power, and skill has amazed me so much that I started to conceive of him as not only on course to become the greatest player of all time, but also to accomplish the remarkable feat of obliterating the time-honored duality between best big man and best all-around player, as his incredible and unprecedented combination of size, speed, athleticism, and brute strength enable him to combine the sets of attributes that distinguished the greatest all-court player (Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson, Michael Jordan) with the physical prowess that characterized the reigning Big Man (archetypically, Wilt Chamberlain; most recently, Shaquille O’Neal). He would, I liked to contend, replace dualisms with dialectical unity: bring together the two disparate tracks that have always been necessary in discussions of who is the greatest player.

James can both play any position on the floor and also match the physical strength of almost any center or power forward in the game today. Where there always had to be the powerful big man and the all-court player who was not a center, LeBron seemed to point forward to a time when there would be only one King.

Along with that came his work ethic, which in my mind recalled that of Oscar Robertson, the greatest player of my era, and still – I argue – the greatest ever, in that he meticulously mastered, in textbook fashion, every aspect of the game (1), and took the developmental line of greatness so far beyond what had previously existed that his like could never come again; except that James made me think of Oscar reborn, with an Oscar-like attentiveness to improving and mastering everything that really mattered between the lines of rectangular confines of his world.

How different, though, is his world than was Oscar’s! It would be way beyond self-indulgent hubris to beg that I be allowed to count the ways. As Al Attles’ contemporary, a member of the 1960 NBA draft class that also included Jerry West and Lenny Wilkins, Oscar too remembers (2) when it was just about basketball, whereas James, Inc. represents and extends not only the line of development of basketball, but that of marketing. Seminal figures who have preceded James in this progression have been Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal. Nike and Adidas have become household corporate names. James had a $95 million sneaker contract waiting for him when he leaped from high school to the NBA, leaving behind a trail of rumors and press clippings that included his mother’s mysteriously acquiring a new Hummer.


I left Chicago’s United Center that night feeling disappointed that lightning had not magically struck again – this time upon my command – but still trusting and hoping for The Big One from LeBron, even if it wasn’t going to happen in Michael’s house; even though he had only 39 on my birthday; even though Cleveland suffered its only defeat of the Chicago series. Despite all that, I believed!

The Cleveland-Boston series figured to be closer, but the Cavs had racked up 61 regular season wins, and the Celts had spent much of the season in disarray, having been plagued with enough key injuries that I imagined Cleveland a fairly safe bet to advance, except that there seemed to be a developing problem with an injury to James’s right elbow, which came to the public’s attention when he shot a free throw left-handed at a meaningless time in the late stages of Game Five of the Chicago series.

Boston and Cleveland split the first two games in Cleveland, making it clear that this would be a competitive series, especially with difficult-to-evaluate concerns about James’ injury, but Game Three seemed to eradicate any further talk about “Elbow Gate.” Lebron tallied 21 first quarter points, hitting 8-10 shots, and even demonstrated that the points were not going to his head with a late fourth quarter assist where he could have chosen instead to score (“score the basketball,” in contemporary parlance – what else would one throw in the basket? Don’t tempt those Boston fans!) himself. He outscored the entire Celtic team 21-17 in the first quarter, and there were less than ten minutes left in the first half when Boston’s point total first crept in front of his own. The King shepherded his team to a 65-43 half-time lead, and the Celtics, seeing their hard-earned home-court edge disappear, never managed to get back in the game, which ended 124-95. Bob Dylan’s voice seemed to be echoing throughout Boston’s Fleet Center: “When I paint my masterpiece.”

The Celts turned out to be far from finished though, and in fact did not lose again to the Cavs. In Game Four in Boston, Rajon Rondo painted a masterpiece of his own, with a 29-18-13 triple-double that was reminiscent of the kinds of numbers that only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar had ever delivered. Yet even this was not overly alarming to James’s fans, as Cleveland still held the home-court advantage, but Game Five blew everyone’s circuits: inexplicably passive throughout, James was scoreless from the field until he slipped behind the Celtic defense for a long pass and an easy dunk with fully 6:13 remaining in the third quarter (at which point the ever vigilant Rondo countered immediately, assiduously blunting the possibility of a full Jamesian eruption). James never really asserted himself, seeming just to let the slaughter drag on to its 120-88 conclusion.
Back in Boston for Game Six, LeBron at least was a factor, but was not nearly the dominant force he needed to be to stave off elimination, as Boston closed out the six game series at home 94-85. His desultory play was tantamount to casting the Cavaliers off his shoulders, instead of hoisting them up and carrying them. Disbelieving fans were stunned to the point of even wondering if James had dumped the series. How else to explain his having sleepwalked through the critical fifth game, which turned out to be his last in a Cleveland home uniform? Was he in effect asking his loyal following’s permission to move on by leaving them such a bitter aftertaste? Playing well only in spurts throughout the Boston series, he appeared to be cruelly disdainful of his team and his home city, uncharacteristically tarnishing – perhaps irrevocably – his carefully constructed image.

Why, though? James had always seamlessly integrated the unseemly business aspects of sports, maniacally perfecting both his game and his body, while remaining steadfastly focused on his goal of becoming the world’s first billionaire athlete, continuing and expanding the business marketing focus was thrown into high gear by the arguably rigged 1985 draft that delivered Patrick Ewing to the faltering Knickerbocker franchise and ushering in the use of “impact player” to apply to markets, instead of team victories. Now, here was his Cleveland team failing to advance even to the Eastern Conference Finals, their worst playoff finish in three years (4).

Though Lebron’s early exit made it all less compelling for me, the playoffs careened on in surprisingly interesting fashion, with Boston’s courageous but just-short campaign against the multi-faceted talent and overwhelming size of the Los Angeles Lakers. These two star-studded teams went to the wire for seven games, renewing an historic rivalry, with both of them sporting a roster full of future Hall of Famers, as well as players with arguably comparable though less harnessed and focused talent: Rasheed Wallace and Lamar Odom.


When Boston sent home the disgruntled and mysteriously unspectacular King James, the playoffs still had a month to go, but what Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith dubbed “stupid time” (the period between the Cavs’ elimination on May 13 and the July 1 commencement of open-season on free agents) began immediately, and droned on in what constituted in effect a parallel universe. The quiet but always-present background was speculation, over the top at all times, occasionally interesting but generally inane, giving everyone an equal opportunity at punditry-without-knowledge, the seeming preferred stance of sports fans without self-awareness, perhaps – some would say – a redundancy.

James said after losing Game Six to Boston that he had “no plans; we’ll see what happens.” How could he dare be so vague when so many people actually know what he’s doing! Who was he to say he has no plans? Doesn’t he realize that important people want to know! We allow our heroes no private thoughts.

Finally, the day came: July 8, 2010. With carefully constructed but shockingly tasteless pomp and circumstances, King James staged an ESPN spectacular, after listening to offers from his six suitors asked to express their undying love, as Lear before him had demanded from his three daughters. In casual dress in a carefully but poorly chosen locale, the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, the endlessly boring Jim Gray teased expectant viewers a slew of pointless questions, apparently to provide more sponsors with commercial time, and James and the ESPN marketing empire that he now spearheads more time to indulge in platitudes and self-contradictory rationales, all the while crediting the influence of James’s mother.

The mass of analysis preceding the final choice had identified five possible rationales which might inform his decision. Loyalty would argue for staying in Cleveland; making the most possible money (furthering his obsession with becoming a billionaire) would send him to the Knicks, as New York offered the largest market and the biggest stage; maximizing his chances to win a title would propel him to Chicago or Miami, probably Chicago, where he would also have the best prospects of building his legacy, as successor to Michael Jordan, whom he could hope to equal or surpass, and where he could play with the ideal point guard for him, Derrick Rose (5).

Just before announcing his destination, James stated that the chance to win was primary, leaving only Chicago and Miami as contenders, but Miami had the fifth factor too: the joy of playing with his buddies – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – which is ultimately what sent him to Miami, where he also might win titles. The unaddressed thorn in the Miami rosebush may be that even if it all works, Dwyane Wade, whose team James is joining – not commandeering – will always have one title more than he, having won in 2006, but can this be something LeBron never considered? No. It must not bother him.

The biggest seeming problem with the choice is simply its short-run unpopularity. Nobody outside Miami is likely to be happy with it. In this maximum alienation of fans, James may now rival Kobe Bryant, whose Lakers are still likely to defeat Miami, if the Heat can jell sufficiently to dethrone Boston in the East, but Kobe – whatever people may say and dislike about him – has been vindicated by recent history in his insistence on constructing a team on which he wants to play, a team that he felt could win and best allow him to use his and display his wondrous gifts and talents. After all, his “talents” are what LeBron said he was going to take to South Beach, and what’s so bad about wanting to play with your buddies and true peers?

The other dimension in which James may be emulating Bryant is in his desire for a coach who can offer strength and non-intrusive support and guidance. Phil Jackson offers this to Kobe, and Pat Riley’s presence, whether on the bench or in the front office, figures to comfort LeBron, in that Riley – like him or not – has presided over so many great players over so many years that his accumulated experience is invaluable.

By contrast, LeBron ran things in Cleveland, with Mike Brown genuflecting to his superstar’s extraordinarily high basketball IQ, giving him free reign to create, but falling short of actually coaching him in the way James probably senses that he needs.
We may not like it, and how it was handled, but after all, are personal happiness, the chance to play with one’s friends, and a secure franchise run by a powerful and successful executive with championship coaching experience such a bad basis for a decision? I’m unhappy with it too: I wanted him in New York; wanted him to light up the town, win more titles than Clyde and Willis, make ten fortunes, but that’s my problem, not his.

On another level, it’s a clear triumph for monopoly capitalism, with three superstars comglomerating at the top, but to go there is to let envy have its day in the sun. What if I had gotten to root for Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, and Oscar on the same team?

Starved for heroes, aching to find meaning in the game I so love, and hate seeing swallowed and housed in the belly of the infotainment beast – mediated and brought to me by the likes of Jim Gray – envious of those, like my son, who simply enjoy athletic greatness for what it is rather than what it might mean, who can relax and enjoy the games/delights of HD, and scoff at old curmudgeons who maintain that Michael Jordan did not truly supplant Oscar, I chafe at not getting to see LeBron James equal Elgin Baylor’s playoff high of 61 in regulation, because Dwyane Wade will want his share too. Masterpieces are priceless...but maybe it’s a team game after all.

1. Oscar played before the advent of the three-point line, and lacked the great range that Jerry West had, but Oscar prided himself on getting the best shot possible in all instances, meaning that if you gave him the thirteen footer, he want to get it from twelve. He had no use for range, but imagine him playing in the era of the three-pointer: given his softer-than-soft touch, perfect stroke, and demonstrated ability and determination to master all aspects of the game that mattered, there is every reason to believe that he would have made himself a great three-point shooter. Then what numbers would he have posted in the year he averaged a triple double while scoring over thirty points per game?
2. Oscar periodically weighs in with a curmudgeonly New York Times jeremiad that offers perspective about today’s pro game and the absurdly cheapened statistics generated by absurdly high salaried players. I am breathlessly waiting for him to hold forth on James’ press conference and decision.
3. Others had masterpieces too: these playoffs were rich in early spectacular performances, most prominent being Rajon Rondo's 29-18-13 performance in Game Four versus Cleveland, setting Boston on course to win the next two as well. Double RR had also bedeviled Cleveland in Game Two, with l9 assists, and made what was probably the best pass of the entire playoffs, behind his back to a trailer when he heard LeBron’s footsteps and sensed him closing in for a spectacular block. Steve Nash’s back-up Goran Dragic had stolen Game 3 with a 23 point fourth quarter earned but a late third quarter three without which he likely would not have been out there for more than a few minutes, if any, of that phenomenal fourth.
4. James later acknowledged some issues with his elbow after the Game Six loss, but the Cavs’ elimination was still a stunning disappointment after they had led the league in wins with 61, winning sixty for the second straight year, an achievement that proved insufficient for Coach Mike Brown to keep his job, despite his having been named Coach of the Year the previous season. No NBA coach ever has lost his job after such a run, though Alex Hannum resigned in 1969, after a pair of 60-plus win seasons with Wilt in Philadelphia.
5. Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith made an excellent case for James joining with Derrick Rose in Chicago, pointing out that James controlled the ball like a point guard in Cleveland, but would be most devastating playing with a ball-handler like Rose, because he could run ahead of the ball and take the defense with him, thus making it easier for his point guard to penetrate and create offense. Smith points out that this had been an issue with Michael Jordan, until he came to trust Scottie Pippen to handle the ball, and could then attack more easily with the ball in his title years. More from the hard-headed Chicagoan Sam Smith: “Here’s a guy who has won at every level but college and the NBA. If James really wanted to win—he’d join the Bulls.”

A shorter version of this piece appeared in "Broad
Street Review," http://www.broadstreetreview.com. Thanks to Dan Rottenberg for letting FIRST go long!

From July, 2010

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