I would love to wax poetic about LeBron James’ single-handed heroics last night, and I almost feel like I have to. It would be a disservice to the basketball community if I failed to acknowledge what was so obviously a harbinger for a new era. Thus I would love to say that I sat there transfixed by his dominance, shouting so loudly that even my dog Lincoln momentarily stopped eating my diploma to look up at the TV. Two separate sources, ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons and The Basketball Jones, have insisted that we’ll never forget this once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece, as well as where we were when it happened. The good news is that I won’t forget, but the bad news is I won’t forget only because they’ve essentially ordered me not to.
Do you know what my most prevailing thought was while LeBron LeMaggio poured in his 25 straight? It was, “Dammit, I’m not going to make it to the gym in time.” It’s a Metallician sad but true; during the fourth quarter I had first dusted off and then been slowly putting on my workout gear, because I’d decided to make my biannual trip over to the fitness center last night (like many people, I have a membership that I never use, but I pay the yearly fee anyway just so I can legitimately tell others I belong to a gym). But because the game went into multiple overtimes, the place was going to close before I could get there. Maybe next month I’ll try again.
Anyway, I’d been feeling guilty all day long that I’d let such a transcendent moment slip past without giving it its proper reverence. It’s especially troubling considering that for two years now, Nike has been preprogramming me to marvel at LeBron’s genius with their “Witness” campaign. So far, though, I’ve witnessed LeBron about as competently as that little Amish kid in the movie "Witness." But my guilt has been tempered by two things. First, this isn’t new for me; I’ve let much bigger events than this one pass me by cluelessly. For instance, the mother of them all for my generation, that Challenger explosion in 1986? No memory of it. I was in the third grade too. By all accounts I should have been one of the millions of horror-stricken children watching that disaster live on TV, because apparently every public school in the country had assembled in their respective auditoriums to see the event. But I swear to this day our class did NOT watch it on TV, and the reason I’m so sure about this is because I DO remember one of the teachers letting us watch the video for “The Super Bowl Shuffle” during lunchtime once (and then turning it off when she realized that the reason a referee’s whistle was blown twice in the song was to bleep out the word “ass”). As for the Challenger, I don’t remember even discussing it with my parents that night during dinner, or even reading about it in the next month’s issue of Highlights: For Children. In fact, other than that “Super Bowl Shuffle” mishap, just about the only other thing I remember from the third grade at all was the controversial banning of Garbage Pail Kids cards from class. I seem to remember something about fractions as well.
But the other reason I don’t feel too bad about not genuflecting during LeBron’s star-turning performance was because of the erratic, disparate way in which it unfolded. I went back and checked: LBJ hit the first of his salvos, a 17-footer, with 6:05 left in the fourth quarter. He didn’t get his next one, a layup-and-1, until a full 3 minutes later, during which time the Pistons had stretched the lead out to 88-81. And on top of that, he missed the subsequent foul shot. Then Drew Gooden missed a foul shot (but got the other one, hence that one other missing link point out of LeBron’s 29/30 finish), LeBron drilled a trey, and then LeBron missed TWO MORE FREE THROWS (!). Remember, what was the storyline coming into this? “The Cavs keep falling short at the Palace.” It’s been beaten into our heads so much, that was all I could think about at the time: these missed free throws (they went just 2/9 from the line in the 4th) are going to be the story of the game. Even when LeBron next made that thunderous dunk to give Cleveland a 1-point lead with 30-seconds left, Chauncey Billups almost immediately drilled a 3-pointer to snatch the lead right back for the Pistons. Billups’ shot further scrambled my perceptions, because earlier in the day Bill Simmons’ had posted a column arguing that Chauncey should be forced to give up his “Mr. Big Shot” nickname. So all I could think of was, “Man, Bill’s gonna owe Chauncey an apology.”
These long stretches of LBJ point-free play continued in OT: a minute here, a minute-and-a-half there, nearly three minutes in the second frame. And by then, as I said, I was busy feeling guilty over my gym procrastination.
So in the end, yeah, I’ll savor this one, and I’ll definitely remember where I was when it happened. But I’ve had to do it retroactively. The problem with the present is you don’t know what’s coming next, and therefore it’s impossible to construct a proper context for it until later. And the other problem is that people have trouble retaining more than one conclusion about the same event. For instance, if the Pistons come back to take games 6 and 7, will we really consider this series to be LeBron’s “coming out performance”? Probably not, because then the key takeaway will be that for two years in a row, the Cavs failed to put the Pistons away despite having a 3-2 edge. And even if the Cavs do defeat Detroit, what if the Spurs then bury them in 4 or 5 games? We’re probably back to either the “Tim Duncan Is an Underrated All-Time Great” storyline or the ever-popular “Are the Spurs a Dynasty?” theme.
This is why it’s important for me to have critics who can tell me how to think about things. I don’t mean this facetiously; I really think a good critic—be it of movies, sports, whatever—is an underrated commodity. Without them, I would have thought Pulp Fiction to be just a quirky little movie, rather than a brilliantly innovative conflation of humor and violence. I would have considered the album Nevermind to be a catchy, semi-coherent hard rock album with limited guitar work, rather than a symbol for an entire jaded generation. So although it’s tough right now to tell how these playoffs are ultimately going to be remembered, I’m sure someone will let me know when the time’s right. I just hope it’s not while I’m trying to go to the gym.