Wednesday, January 20, 2010
We are all witnesses
By Bill Simmons
Like everyone else at Staples Center, I had a little extra hop in my step Saturday night. LeBron was in the house.
I skipped the second half of a live NFL playoff game for him.
I shaved and dressed up a little. For me, anyway.
I showed up early. Seven o'clock. Gotta watch the warm-ups. Gotta see everything.
You do these things when LeBron passes through town. Hey, we see celebrities all the time in Los Angeles. We walk by them on the street, pull up next to them in intersections, sit near them in restaurants. There's something of a code in place. You don't stare at celebs. You don't approach them. You don't stand two feet away and snap cell phone pictures. You show them respect. You leave them alone. Along with the weather and the lifestyle, that's the biggest reason stars like living here. They aren't treated like lions in the zoo.
So when a basketball player gets thousands of NBA fans to geek out 25 minutes before a game, especially here, he has to be special. In my book, I wrote about how Michael Jordan's competitiveness separated him from everyone else, but so did his force of personality. He had a knack for pulling every eyeball in the room his way ... even a room with 18,000 people in it. Referees and opponents fawned over him. Teammates followed his instructions like drones. If he made an unusually splendid play and glanced into the stands for approval, entire sections would swoon. Command of the room. That's what Jordan had. Kobe doesn't have it, and he never had it. That will always be the difference between them.
LeBron? He's getting there. I saw it with my own eyes Saturday. The Cavs emerged for warm-ups and I heard that same familiar squeal from MJ's prime. Urgent. Pleading. Desperate.
LeBron! LEBRON! LAAAAAAA-BRONNNNNNNNNN!
I saw the same flashbulbs clicking, with thousands of fans taking photos so they could tell people some day that, yes, they saw LeBron James play basketball. I saw the same people crammed around one half of the court, everyone standing -- standing! -- to watch 12 guys in warm-up suits halfheartedly shoot jump shots and get loose. I saw hundreds of fans inexplicably holding out pens and papers, screaming LeBron's name and praying for the miraculous chance that he'd hop out of a layup line, jump into the crowd and start signing. I saw the same look on LeBron's face that Jordan once had -- a Tupacian "All Eyez on Me" smirk, an expression that happens when everyone stares at you no matter what you do, even if you're scratching your balls or rubbing your head, and once you come to grips with that fact, it's a little bit liberating.
LeBron gets a kick out of it. To say the least. He's the most charismatic athlete of his generation, only you wouldn't fully know it until you studied him in person. Command of the room. He might dunk in the layup lines. He might try to make a one-handed half-court shot. He might call for an alley-oop and soar above his incredulous teammates just for the hell of it. Simply saying "bursting with energy" wouldn't do him justice. It's like watching a super-coordinated, mutant 4-year-old dealing with a severe sugar rush.
I'm gonna go block Delonte's shot from behind! HAH! He didn't see me coming! Wait, I'm in the mood for an alley-oop. I need me some oop. Mo, throw me an oop. Ah, yes ... it's in the air ... I'm jumping ... DUNK! What now? I want to try a one-handed shot from the corner. Jamario, come play with me. Hold on, I just saw Baron Davis! Hey Baron! What up, dog! Watch this, I'm gonna make a half-court shot with my eyes closed ... <snip>! Just missed it. You know what I really feel like doing? Jumping on Shaq's back. Look out, Big Fella, eeeeeeeeeeee-yah!!!!!!!
Jordan saved his legs before games, using that time to stretch, practice specific shots and butter up referees. LeBron can't pace himself. Even when he walks from Point A to Point B, there's no loping or strolling. He prances. He hops up and down. And if all these people are staring at him anyway, why not rile them up with a couple ridiculous dunks? You never forget he's on the court. Not for a second. Even his teammates are enamored with him; they jockey for his attention like Octomom's kids. Jordan's supporting cast interacted with him warily, like lower-level executives tiptoeing around their CEO. You were always aware of the pecking order. With LeBron, it's a team in the truest sense. Everyone takes part in every joke. Nobody is excluded. They feed off him. Of all the superstars we have seen, there can't be a better or more beloved teammate. There just can't.
(Two other notes here: First, seeing Shaq relegated to supporting cast member status on the LeBron Express is jarring. Crammed into his ugly Cavs warm-up suit, rendered irrelevant by the ongoing attention for LeBron, Shaq wandered around in warm-ups looking like a bouncer at a sleazy strip club. I kept waiting for him to start checking IDs. Second, a guy in my section named Lenny has been a Clippers season-ticket holder since 1984. I asked him if he was getting MJ flashbacks during the Cleveland warm-ups. "Oh, definitely," he said. "That was the only other guy who caused ... this." Agreed.)
And when the warm-up suit comes off ... I mean ... good grief. LeBron is the greatest natural athlete in NBA history. Has to be. Karl Malone's height, weight and muscles, only if you gave him the Jordan/Erving/Thompson DNA strain, Magic's passing eye and Bo Jackson's breathtaking combination of power and finesse. We're seeing someone like this again? In his first few seasons, LeBron couldn't fully harness his immense gifts; it was like watching someone carrying too many groceries at once. Now? Those gifts have been harnessed. In the first quarter Saturday night, LeBron picked off an errant pass and took off the other way. Standing near midcourt, Eric Gordon turned and started running to protect his basket, only he wasn't running with nearly enough urgency. In my section, a tortured Clips fan named Jesse screamed "GET BACK!" like he was about to watch someone get killed in a horror movie.
LeBron sniffed it out immediately. Cruised to midcourt, clicked in his nitrous canister like Vin Diesel and whooooooooooooooooooooooooosh! Flew by Gordon like a Beemer going 130 in the fast lane. Needed four strides to go from midcourt to the rim. Took off inside the foul line and ripped home a vicious dunk. "Whoa!!!!!!" That's what we screamed. What else could you say? WHOA!!!!!!!! That was the only acceptable reaction. Of all the great dunkers over the years, only Doc and LeBron had that Nitrous Canister Coast to Coast Dunk. Since LeBron is taller and bigger, when he does it, the court briefly shrinks in size. You read that correctly.
Look, if that was the only fun moment of the game, I would have left happy. But LeBron has those "HOLY S---!!!!!!" moments once a quarter. Late in the fourth, Gordon drove past Delonte West and tried to get to the rim, only West timed it and elevated to meet him at the backboard. And I'm watching the play thinking, "<snip>, Delonte might get that," when out of nowhere, the smoke monster from "Lost" came gusting in at warp speed, jumped five feet in the air, soared over both Gordon and West and somehow blocked West's block. The smoke monster? LeBron. A blocked shot of a blocked shot!!! Have you ever seen that one before?
My friend Hirschy is adamant that we haven't seen LeBron's greatest highlight yet, but when we do, it's going to be life-altering and might get its own two-hour ESPYS show. The play will either be a hellacious follow-up dunk (the odds-on favorite) or an alley-oop like what nearly happened in Portland two Sundays ago, when Mo Williams screwed up and lofted it too high from the left side, only LeBron kept climbing and climbing -- his chin at the rim, his hand approaching the top of the backboard -- and somehow controlled the ball (behind him at this point) as his body started doing a pirouette. For a split second, it seemed like LeBron might attempt the first ever 360-degree alley-oop, then he thought better of it. I almost had a heart attack. It was the most exciting split second of my life.
When you see LeBron in person, the Greatest Highlight Ever is always in play. You don't leave your seat until he takes a breather. You just don't. You also expect LeBron's team to win the same way you always expected Jordan's team to win. Heading into the fourth quarter, with Cleveland trailing by five and LeBron having scored only 19, my friend Tollin and I had the obligatory, "What should be the fourth-quarter line, and what should be the line for LeBron's final point total?" conversations. We decided "Cavs by 7.5" and "31.5 for LeBron." They ended up winning by one (didn't cover) but LeBron finished with 32 (covered). When Baron Davis' final brick clanged off the rim, all four of LeBron's teammates on the floor sprinted over to him to celebrate. He held his arms out wide and welcomed them like a happy father. From there, they pranced into the locker room, and if they stayed to have a late dinner in Los Angeles that night, I guarantee LeBron invited everybody and battled with Shaq over the check.
Again, there is no better teammate. And after watching this point get hammered home for three hours, it suddenly seemed far-fetched that LeBron James would willingly walk away from his guys -- and his fans, and his city, and his legacy in Cleveland -- just to play for someone else.
But he might.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On July 1, 2010, LeBron becomes a free agent. He will be able to play for any team he wants. You knew this already. You were also aware of the stakes. If LeBron leaves Cleveland, the franchise may never recover. If LeBron joins the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, Heat or Clippers -- the five most logical destinations -- that franchise becomes a top-five team regardless of players two through 12. Even the 3-37 Nets would be a 55-win team with LeBron. What will happen if he ever ends up with good teammates?
Only five times has an NBA superduperstar switched teams in his prime -- Wilt (twice), Kareem, Moses and Shaq -- and each time, their new team won at least one title. None of those players had LeBron's ceiling at the time: not even Wilt. As crazy as this sounds, he's been the most underrated story of the 2009-10 season. Forget about back-to-back MVPs ... LeBron has a chance to sweep "Player of the Month" from November to April. (Never happened before, in case you were wondering.) He's enjoying one of the greatest statistical seasons ever: 30 PPG, 8 RPG, 7 APG, 51% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3FG and first-team All-Defense are in play right now, only he's doing it in a loaded league surrounded by glorified role players, with a coaching staff that can't figure out much other than "Hey guys, get out of his way." Unlike past seasons, he's learning how to vacillate between MJ Mode and Magic Mode almost like he's flipping a switch. In Portland, the Blazers singled him in the first half and he dropped 31 in MJ Mode. When they doubled him in the second half, he flipped the switch to Magic, found open shooters and finished with a ho-hum 41-10-8. You cannot plan for this guy anymore. He's offensively amorphous.
Five NBA superstars (including Wilt Chamberlain twice) have changed teams while in their primes. All five eventually won a title, but only Moses Malone won in his first season. Here are their ages when they won a title with their new team and how many seasons it took (LeBron is 25).
Know this: The Kobe-LeBron argument is dead. It's over. LeBron James is the best basketball player alive. Whoever gets him this summer will treat its fans to 50-55 appointment home games every season for the next five (including playoffs). If you were ever fortunate enough to have season tickets for a memorable athlete in his prime -- Gretzky, Montana, Jordan, Magic, Bird, Pedro, Koufax, whomever -- then you know exactly what this means. It's not just about the winning. It's about heading to the stadium or the park feeling like you won the lottery. It's about the buzz in the crowd, the way everyone seems like they spent just a little more time getting ready. It's about the ceiling being removed for the night. It's about the chance that, 50 years later, your grandkid or your great-grandkid will ask you, "What was it like to see HIM play every night?" ... and you'll have an answer for him. It's about the familiarity of excellence -- constant exposure to someone who's better at his job than you will ever be at anything -- and how that superiority ebbs and flows from night to night.
For the Cleveland fans, that's what they would miss most about LeBron. Forget about titles, or even the chances for titles. They would miss that ebb and flow. I never fully appreciated it with Bird in Boston. When Pedro was destroying the American League in 1999 and 2000, I appreciated it. Watched every start. Attended as many games as I could afford. I remember one Friday night, when I was dragging my girlfriend to Fenway on another date to see him, she didn't want to go. She made the salient point that, for the money we paid to buy scalped tickets, we could get dressed up and have a first-class dinner at Hamersley's.
"You don't understand," I told her. "We can always go to Hamersley's. We will NEVER have another pitcher like this."
These are the stakes with LeBron. His ceiling as a top-10 all-timer remains up for debate. Right now, he doesn't want it as badly as Jordan did or Kobe does. There's more than a hint of Shaqitis with him, a feeling that LeBron wants to win but isn't obsessed with winning. And you have to be both. Just look at what happened last summer: Kobe distinguished himself by perfecting the footwork for a startlingly effective low-post game; LeBron distinguished himself by promoting a documentary and a book. Does he want this or not? His unwillingness to play with his back to the basket, at this point of his career, with his obvious size advantage, is the only blemish on an otherwise impeccable résumé ... but it's a legitimate blemish.
(Note: On Saturday night in crunch time, the Clippers defended him with Baron Davis, knowing LeBron didn't have the low-post chops to make them pay. He should have been embarrassed afterward. Only he knows if he was.)
The silver lining: He's only 25 years old. Bird, Magic, Hakeem, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe ... all of them peaked as players in their late 20s. Why? Because you need to lose a few times, need to lick your wounds and taste your own blood, need to sit in silence in the locker room of another lost season wondering what went wrong, and then you need to say, "Never again, not ever, I am NOT letting this happen again." Given how easy basketball comes to him right now, given how many people probably kiss his rear end on a day-to-day basis, given how much he enjoys playing and being part of a team, I just don't think LeBron James has hit that point yet. If it never happens, too bad. If it happens, look out.
But where will it happen? With seemingly everyone in play, I allowed myself to dream about LeBron as a Clipper on Saturday night. This wasn't the first time; you might remember my renegade plan last summer for a billionaire to offer Donald Sterling twice the value of the franchise, with the ultimate goal to sign LeBron and turn the Clippers into a twin version of the Lakers. On paper, Los Angeles fulfills LeBron's dueling "global icon" and Hollywood needs, sticks him in good weather, allows him to live a somewhat normal celebrity life and creates one of the best running sports rivalries in a while: Kobe and the Big Brother Lakers sharing Hollywood with LeBron and the Black Sheep Little Brother Who Finally Got His Act Together Clippers. For the first time since Mickey and Willie, the two best players in one sport would share one city. Quite a pipe dream.
Too bad it will never happen. Whether it's a real Clippers curse or just decades of bad karma built up from Sterling's misdeeds -- as Phil Jackson brazenly suggested last weekend by urging Sterling to do a few more "mitzvahs" to change his team's luck -- clearly, it's bigger than all of us. When Blake Griffin was lost for the season last week, people just shook their heads and said, "Of course ... it's the Clippers." LeBron is too smart to get that Clippers stink on him. He can smell it from 2,000 miles away.
So wherever he lands, it won't be here. That means we won't cross paths too often. If he remains in the Eastern Conference, I will see him once a season. If he heads West, I will see him twice. I don't know what uniform he will be wearing. I don't know how many titles he has lurking inside him. I don't know if he will keep striving to get better, or if he'll settle on getting 91.7 percent there and enjoying the ride like Shaq did. I don't know if he will average a triple-double one season, win five straight titles, maybe even give us the World's Greatest Highlight. Everything's in play. Everything. I don't know anything, and neither do you.
But I do know this ...
LeBron James will play the Clippers at least once next season. And when the game happens, I will be standing during warm-ups and gawking like everyone else. Witnesses.