Why I'm rooting for LeBron James—and you should, too.
Time for a confession: I'm rooting for the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship. So I'm surprisingly gutted after the Heat threw away a 15-point lead Thursday night, allowing Dirk Nowitzki and his Teutonic Threes to steal Game 2 of the NBA Finals 95-93, tying the best-of-seven series between the Heat and the Dallas Mavericks at a game apiece. Much to my alarm, I've found my heart beating faster during the final few moments of tight Heat games, and afterward my feelings are not unlike those when my traditional favorites win or lose. How the hell did this happen?
I realize that being a fan of the Heat these days is about as populist as being a fan of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And it should be noted that I am emphatically not dumping my longtime allegiance to the New York Knicks. When New York and Miami play, I'll still roll with the 'Bockers. Accuse me of front-runner-dom if you must, though I think my undying and increasingly idiotic loyalty to the Cincinnati Bengals inoculates me from such charges. Anyway, it was partly because the Heat disposed of the hated Celtics that I've come to admire them.
Like everyone else, I winced at "The Decision," though more from a production-values standpoint than any anger at LeBron James deciding to ply his trade in a far more advantageous setting. The horror that James would dare abandon Cleveland in order to play with his pals in South Beach never registered with me. Isn't that why Jerry West and Oscar Robertson threatened a last-minute strike of the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, so that future players could exercise their right of free agency? LeBron put in his time in Cleveland, played out his contract, and chose to go elsewhere, just like millions of other careerists out there. End of story.
James is frequently ripped for his arrogance, which seems to me to be pretty garden variety, the sort of necessary egocentrism possessed by most great athletes, and leavened by a playful sense of humor (which he has also been ripped for—only a Robert Parish-like level stare is OK with everyone, apparently). From afar, James doesn't appear to be infected by the truly virulent strain of arrogance that runs through the veins of so many entitled jocks who have been buttered up since middle school.
My burgeoning feelings for the Heat are more about their current level of play. I particularly admire the team's ability to adjust and cohere so quickly, within the framework of a single season. This makes them a perfect metaphor for our speeded-up world. The Heat have thrived in the postseason mainly due to their outstanding defensive play, which is partly desire and great athletic ability, but mainly about communication and team concepts. This is especially noteworthy with the Heat, who are more perimeter-based and not reliant on size and shot-blockers to bulwark their defense.
The Heat have proved very adaptable on offense, of course. Remember the Sturm und Drang when James missed a few shots at the buzzer earlier this season? That led to the definitive declaration by Roundball Nation that Dwyane Wade should be the "closer," the one who takes the late-game shots, while James was more constitutionally suited to be Robin, not Batman. That meme sure has disappeared down the memory hole, huh? Even at the time it was ridiculous, of course, requiring moments such as James' "48 Special" against Detroit in 2007 or his buzzer-beating three-pointer against Orlando in 2009 to be scrubbed from official consciousness. Until last night, James has been a Kyra Sedgwick-level closer in the playoffs, his patented bullrushes to the hoop now paired with a reliable deep jump shot, which essentially makes him unstoppable, an offensive force unlike anything we've seen.
Yet the most compelling Heat player for me remains Wade, whose end-to-end full-speed tilts to the hoop remain the game's most breathless moments. Wade willingly diminished his star this season by recruiting James and Chris Bosh to Miami. Unlike virtually every other star player who sublimated his ego and game for the sake of winning, Wade has received zero credit for it—his sacrifice swallowed up by the LeBron turmoil. The goal is to win, and as any hoops analyst would tell you before the playoffs, the Heat weren't the favorites coming in, despite the Big Three. James and Bosh have raised their games to astonishing levels, while Wade has been content to take over games as needed. It's been team-building on the fly, and a pleasure to watch unfold.
Mainly, I reflexively recoil from the whole "Good Mavs vs. Evil Heat" media meme (which was preceded by similar storylines involving Chicago, Boston, and Philly). This isn't wrestling. It's hard for me to feel enmity for Mike Miller, Miami's shooting guard, while he soldiers through his newborn daughter's heart ailment that sent her to intensive care. (She was released from the hospital Saturday, but concerns linger.) Or sneer at Udonis Haslem, who in any other scenario we would all be lauding for racing back from serious injury. (He had Lisfranc surgery on his left foot in November.) Once Miami had disposed of the Bulls, the major current on Twitter and talk radio was, "Help us, Dirk Nowitzki—you're our only hope."
I guess that puts me on the side of the Empire. That's cool—I also rooted for Darth Vader. And after Thursday night, I'm hoping LeBron slices off Dirk's shooting hand and encases Jason Terry in carbonite.