The Last Glory of LeBron James

Once upon a time, I used to be a boxing writer. I covered the sweet science both as a journalist, with ESPN’s old Friday Night Fights show as my beat—a great gig that got me ringside seats in Reno, where I met Teddy Atlas in one of the coolest total-fanboying moments of my life—and as a romanticist, writing historical fiction in the only sport besides maybe baseball where you can do that for a sports news publication and not be thought terribly unusual. (Unless you’re Jon Bois from SBNation. I am not Jon Bois.)

And boxing was at the forefront of my mind as the NBA Finals unfolded, because I thought of one of my favorite fight narratives.

It was the Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti trilogy. Ward won an unlikely upset in the first fight, which featured the greatest three minutes in the entire history of the sport of boxing in Round 9. Ward was, in essence, LeBron James in those elimination games in the 2016 Finals that should by all rights have silenced, once and for all, anyone who believed LeBron to be a choke artist.

Gatti won the other two fights, and by the third fight, Ward retired; another such brawl might well have killed him, but he went out on his shield.

Which, in a manner of speaking, should’ve been Cleveland’s fate after the gentleman’s sweep that served only to ruin the Warriors’ attempts to be the first team to run the table in the playoffs in the modern era. The Cavs were Micky Ward; Game 4 was the sixth-round knockdown of Gatti in the third fight.

This year’s Finals? Well, what would’ve happened if Gatti fought Ward again? The Warriors were Gatti.

Yet there LeBron was. He broke his hand punching a blackboard after J.R. Smith committed the biggest Shaqtin’ a Fool moment in NBA Finals history in Game 1, and let’s not forget that, as any Pacers fan knows, if you need someone to miss a critical free throw with the game on the line, there aren’t many better at doing so than George Hill.

But was anyone aware of this? Like, at all, before Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported it?

A near triple-double (29 points, nine rebounds, 13 assists) in Game 2. An actual triple-double (33 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) in Game 3. With a broken hand in both games and a rolled ankle in the second quarter of that third game.

And LeBron came out on the warpath in Game 4. 16 points, three rebounds, five assists, get out the triple-double watch, all by halftime.

And then he…faltered. Everything he’d left out on the floor, his heart, his soul, his legacy…

When Golden State went on a third-quarter rampage, outscoring Cleveland 25-13, holding LeBron without a field goal, watching him score just four points from the line…

The King finished with 23 points. His uniform number. The uniform number of the man to whom he is so often compared, Michael Jordan. He had seven rebounds and eight assists, but just seven second-half points.

For the King was valiant, and he led his cavaliers riding against the invincible army of warriors both homegrown and mercenary—the fact that Golden State’s Big Four includes three guys who were drafted by and have played their whole careers with the team should be celebrated no matter your opinion of Kevin Durant—but his men fell around him, faltering and blundering their way to ignoble failure, and finally the king, brave though he may have been, broke before the storm surge.

This is Shakespearean tragedy, and yet all the yahoos on Twitter could come up with is that LeBron is somehow less of a player because he only has three championship rings while Michael Jordan has six.

Well, for one thing, if we’re using that argument, Larry Bird only beat Magic Johnson once; his other two rings came against the Rockets. And besides, Robert Horry has seven rings, the most ever by anyone who never had Bill Russell as a teammate. And Jerry West went 1-8 in the Finals, not winning a title until his 12th of 14 seasons in the league.

Oh, and speaking of Shakespearean tragedy, mark my words.

In ten years, when LeBron is giving his Hall of Fame speech after retiring as the man who ultimately broke Kareem’s scoring record, as the greatest of all time, as the man who dragged some truly awful teams to the Finals in the annals of his career, and quite possibly as a challenger to Russell’s record of 12 Finals appearances depending on where he mercs himself off to next—Philadelphia seems to me the most likely target, but Jonathan Tjarks’ Ringer piece outlining the way-too-plausible path LeBron has to get to the Celtics is too intriguing to ignore because it offers a ready-made team that would’ve been in the Finals this year had not LeBron been the one to stop them—we will point to the 2018 playoffs as the peak, the moment when LeBron’s decline, slow at first but ever accelerating toward oblivion, began.

Really, would anyone hold it against LeBron if he just retired at this point? He has nothing left to prove. Eight straight Finals, including two with a G-League team for a supporting cast, plus that ninth Finals in 2007 with an even worse squad than any he had even in the past two years. A title for the city of Cleveland, the city’s first since 1964 and the metro area that claims LeBron as its native son. The only member of the 30,000 point/8,000 rebound/8,000 assist club. A 27.2/7.4/7.2 per game average over 15 seasons. He’s even made 50.4 percent of his shots, just a tenth of a percentage point shy of His Airness (the Wizards years never happened. NEVER. I will not debate this.)

This was supposed to be a recap of Game 4. Oh well. I guess I’ll have to write about the Finals MVP debate later.

In some sense, we may have just seen another fight narrative unfold; LeBron might very well be Muhammad Ali, sitting on the stool after the 14th round in the blazing, humid Manila heat, beaten to a pulp, and awarded victory only because Joe Frazier broke first.

Except the Warriors weren’t Joe Frazier. They didn’t break. But LeBron’s nonetheless like Ali, having left the last ounce of the prime of his life out on that basketball court.

I don’t know where LeBron will play next year. But in the grand scheme, the story that needed to be told was told in Cleveland Friday night. The rest is but denouement.