LeBron James took charge of the biggest game of his life like BP took charge of that oil spill in the Gulf. And there’s not an expert alive who can tell you for certain how long it’s going to take to clean up the damage.
He had a stat line that ended up looking pretty good: 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists. The problem is that too much of it came too late. Then there were the nine turnovers; with one more, he’d have had the kind of quadruple double no one wants.
So it is that King James learned the hardest way possible that it takes more than a cloud of chalk dust to be a superstar in the NBA. And that MVP trophy — his second in as many years — isn’t much more than a glitzy doorstop. That was for the regular season, and it’s no longer relevant. In the postseason, there’s only one way you earn your superstar stripes, and that’s by winning.
LeBron didn’t and couldn’t do that. Cleveland fans had invested an enormous amount of emotional energy in this son of nearby Akron. They’d given him their hopes and their dreams, their yearning for something to finally celebrate after so many years of bitter disappointments.
LeBron didn’t disappoint those fans. In their minds, he betrayed them.
You saw them leaving Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, where several thousand came to watch the game on video boards. It seemed 70 percent to 80 percent of the fans were wearing No. 23 jerseys.
Money isn’t easy to come by in a region that has been as harshly hammered by the economic downturn as any in the nation. But the fans gave that up, too, shelling out hard-earned dollars for game tickets, jerseys, shoes and all things wine and gold.
All they got back was another heartbreak to add to the hard-luck city’s little shop of playoff horrors.
I have no idea what LeBron is going to do next. There are good arguments to stay and good ones to leave. Either way, the beating he started taking in the media after his Game 5 debacle is only going to get worse.
He can decide to stay in Cleveland and make it all better by winning that title and ending the city’s 46-year losing streak. Or he can decide to go someplace where he’ll be more appreciated and get even more endorsements, someplace like New York City.
Whatever he does, his team will be a winner. But he’ll be a disappointment until he wins a title.
This isn’t baseball, where a superstar needs a large and talented supporting cast. It’s hoops, and if you’re the best player in the game, you’re supposed to win a championship. LeBron’s only 25 and hardly over the hill. But this year it was there for him. It’s not even that he and the Cavs lost, but the way they lost. After handing the Celtics the worst loss they’d ever experienced on their home court, the Cavs didn’t win another game. Game 5 was the worst loss in Cleveland’s playoff history. Game 6 was an exercise in futility.
It’s not often superstars suffer such enormous letdowns in the games that count the most. When they do, we tend to remember. In Boston, there are still people who will tell you that Ted Williams hit just .200 in the 1946 World Series, the only one of his brilliant career, and one the Red Sox lost in seven games to St. Louis.
In New York, Yankees fans still haven’t forgiven Dave Winfield for his 1-for-22 performance in the 1981 World Series, which the Yankees lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And until he redeemed himself last year, Alex Rodriguez was more remembered for his postseason failures in pinstripes than his regular-season successes.
That’s the sort of company LeBron is keeping these days. He’s the MVP who can’t win in the postseason, the superstar who fails in the biggest moment.
The judgment isn’t entirely fair. The Celtics are a great team with a great point guard, three potential Hall of Famers, and championship experience. The Cavaliers are LeBron. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. James has Mo Williams.
But great players elevate everyone around them. During the season, Williams and Antawn Jamison were very good players thanks to LeBron. Against the Celtics, they weren’t. A lot of that is to Boston’s credit. But some of it is to LeBron’s discredit. It was there to be taken, and he couldn’t take it.
To his credit, he didn’t blame his sore elbow for his inability to take over the series and will his team to victory. “It limited me some,” is all he would say about it.
Nor would he talk about where he’ll be playing next year.
“I love the City of Cleveland, of course,” he said. But whether he loves it enough to stay there remains to be seen.
LeBron said he and “his team” will decide what’s best for him to do.
“It’s all about winning for me,” he said.
Didn’t Dave Winfield say that, too?