Loser

With every loss in these playoffs, LeBron James inches closer to the worst fate that can befall an elite athlete – to be labeled “Loser.”  It’s rarely a fair label.  It’s rarely applied based on facts or stats or an honest evaluation of the circumstances.  It is, of course, based in part upon not winning “The Big One,” but there is more nuance to it than simply that.  There is an emotional component, a feeling, an inertia that builds slowly early in a career but at some points “tips” and becomes a flood of negative sentiment and dismissive derision.   The emotional component allows certain likeable athletes to escape the label – Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, Barry Sanders, Ernie Banks – these men have escaped being labeled “Loser”  even without any championships to validate their greatness.  The corollary of this is:  if a player is unlikeable – even a championship or two may not remove the Loser label from him.  Alex Rodriguez and Wilt Chamberlain still are defined by their losses and failures more than their championship rings.

The greatest irony of the label is this:  in order to be labeled “Loser” a player must be transcendently great at his sport. He must elicit awe from the average fan at his athletic ability.  He must re-write record books and play at such a high level that people alter their lives to watch him perform.  Barry Bonds is a “Loser”;  Jeff Bagwell is not.  Dan Marino is a “Loser”; Rich Gannon is not.   In order to be a loser, a player must be considered capable of almost single-handedly winning a championship by his performance and must fail to deliver in the moment of truth.

Once applied to an elite athlete, “Loser” qualifies every praise, stains every accomplishment, and lingers in the air well after the prowess of the player has faded away.   The “Loser” label is a shadow that grows with each lost opportunity until it casts a pall over the entirety of a player’s great career.  Ted Williams lived in that shadow.   Today, LeBron James can feel the shadow growing – inching closer and closer to the point where his greatness will forever be qualified by his failure to win.  LeBron James, “Loser.”  The cruelest label in sports.

The Hype

Before he ever won a game, he was King James.  And, as with many of the Kings of old, his throne was given to him before he earned it.   LeBron James came in to the NBA more hyped than any player in my lifetime.  He was a “can’t miss” prospect who possessed a complete, all-around understanding of the game as well as the most impressive physical tools that an 18-year-old kid had ever displayed.  He was big, fast, smart, and skilled.  And when the ping pong balls bounced his hometown’s way to give Cleveland the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, he quickly became something else – a great story to root for.  He was the home-grown messiah who would end the city-wide professional championship drought that stretched back to the days when Jim Brown wore a football helmet instead of brightly colored hats.   If he failed – if he didn’t live up the hype – if he was merely good — his failure would make Ryan Leaf and Sam Bowie seem like Montana and Kareem.

He did not fail.  In fact, he did the unthinkable – he lived up to the hype.  It appeared that he would, indeed, earn his throne.  Instead of wilting under the enormous pressure of Cleveland’s 40 years of sports futility and the white-hot spotlight of the national media had heaped upon him, James simply shrugged his enormous shoulders and dominated the league.  Over the next 7 years, he proved to be the irresistible force that so many scouts had envisioned.  In his rookie year, his presence in the lineup doubled the Cavaliers win total from the year before.   He won Rookie of the Year against what many consider the most talented freshman class in league history – a field that included Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.  In his third year, he averaged an incredible 31 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists a game and led the Cavaliers to 50 wins and their first playoff trip in 8 years, losing in the 2nd Round.  LeBron earned first team all-NBA honors at the age of 21. His ascent to the top of the NBA Mountain seemed both effortless and inevitable.

James continued his ascent in his fourth year in the league.  After once again winning 50 games and making the playoffs, the Cavaliers easily swept the Washington Wizards in the first round and decisively dispatched the New Jersey Nets in the second round.  This victory led to a showdown with the beasts of the Eastern Conference for the right to play in the NBA Finals.  The Detroit Pistons were less than 3 years removed from an NBA Championship and were in the midst of a streak of 6 straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Their team was deep, comprised of veterans who had rings and reputations for clutch play, and had home court advantage in the series.   The 22 year-old James was armed with a rag-tag group of role players and unproven commodities.  The initial results were predictable.  The Pistons beat the Cavaliers in the first two games played at the Palace of Auburn Hills by identical 79-76 scores  – the veteran team’s execution down the stretch proved to be the difference each time.  In each game, James had the ball in his hands with less than 10 seconds to go with a chance to win the game.  He failed to deliver either time.  But his failures did not deter him.

The Game

After being held by the Pistons to a total of 29 total points in the first two games, LeBron shook off the physical play of the Pistons and began to flex his own muscle.  He totaled 57 points, 16 rebounds and 20 assists in the next two games as the Cavaliers improbably evened the series 2-2.  The New Bad Boys couldn’t rattle LeBron.  He matched their physicality and proved that he couldn’t be bullied.  When the series shifted back to Detroit, the basketball world watched to see if LeBron could lead his collection of marginal NBA players to an improbable victory.  Conventional wisdom said that the Pistons would win the game based on their superior experience, depth, and significant advantage of playing in front of a generally mean-spirited and rabid fan base.  Conventional wisdom said that the LeBron would revert back to his Game One and Two performances and be held in check by the multiple defenses and schemes that Detroit threw at him.  Conventional wisdom said that the Cavs and LeBron would be praised for taking the next step in their evolution even though their roster was still too young and bereft of talent to win such a big playoff game on the road.  But on that day, LeBron demonstrated why a nuclear bomb is not considered a conventional weapon.  In the last 12 minutes of play in Game Five, LeBron James detonated.

The tenor of Game Five was like all of the other games of the series – rough.  The Pistons held a hard-earned four point lead, 88-84, with only 2:24 seconds left to go.  James walked the ball up the court and, though not a particularly good 3 point shooter, immediately rose up from 26 feet and drained a three to cut the Pistons lead to 1. The explosion had just begun.  The teams traded empty possessions for the next two minutes before James slashed through the Pistons D to crush a dunk that gave his team a one point lead with only 30 seconds left to play.  Chauncey Billups, the Pistons clutch performer, countered with a three to give Detroit a 2 point lead.  Things looked grim for the Cavs.  For the third time in five games, the fate of the Cavaliers would be put in James’ hands in the game’s final seconds.  This time, James did not settle for a tough leaner like he did Game Two or choose to hit his open teammate for the final shot as he did in Game One.  No, this time, James furiously sliced through the Pistons defense and dared them to stop him as he soared above the rim.  They could not.  His dunk tied the game at 91 and ultimately sent the game into the first of two overtimes.

In those two overtimes, James simply transcended basketball as we knew it.  He scored all 18 of the Cavs points including a spectacular finish at the rim with 2.2 seconds left in double overtime to finish off one of the most impressive single-game playoff performances in league history.  James finished the night with 48 points, including 29 of the last 30 points scored by the Cavaliers, to will the Cavs to victory over the Pistons.  On that night, James announced to everyone in the league that his best was as good as anything that we had ever seen before – and that he had the potential to be even better.  This was his defining moment – his signature game.  He had arrived at the tender age of 22.  But we all expected it to be a place-holder until his next signature game came – much like how Michael Jordan hanging 63 on the Boston Celtics in the first round of 1986 playoffs only foreshadowed his greatness to come.  Jordan’s game was a shot across the bow of the entire league – the ‘86 Celtics were the best the league had to offer – one of the best teams that the league had ever offered – and, for that one night, Michael Jordan showed them that he, not they, were the future.  In Game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, James had fired his own shot.

The Cavs went on to close out the Pistons in Game Six, which gave them four straight wins against their hated rivals, thanks in large part, to a triple double  by LeBron.   He wasn’t supposed to be this good this fast.  He was, in a delightful way, ahead of schedule.  The Cavs eventually lost to the San Antonio Spurs that year in the Finals, but there was no one in the league that doubted that James’ time to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy was soon to come.  His career was on track.  He was 22 years-old and had already made it to the summit of the NBA – this was to be his league for the next decade.

The Shadow Grows

Five years, three MVPs, and one foolish Decision later, he is still waiting to hoist the trophy.  The promise of one of the most clutch performances in playoff history has receded into a haze of missed shots, clanked free throws, tentative passes, and complete disappearances in crunch time in the ensuing years.  He is still looking for his next signature game.  The immense popularity that once buoyed him, has been replaced by wide-spread hatred after the way that he handled his decision to leave Cleveland and sign with the Miami Heat.  The lion that attacked the rim with a ferocity that dared anyone to stop him has been replaced by a lamb that tends to defer to others or hoist long threes at the end of games.  Some say he fears getting fouled because his free throw shooting has also regressed since 2007.  Others say that he has been better than most in clutch situations, but he simply can’t bring himself to force a shot when a teammate is open or make a bad, selfish decision when it is not the best basketball play.  They say that it is simply against his basketball DNA to be selfish.  Whatever the reason, the simple truth is that LeBron’s 9-year career has not produced a championship and each spring his legacy is being written by his team’s failures instead of his own, all-around excellence on the Court.  The Shadow is growing over James’ career.  The Loser label is growing stronger with each loss.

Just Win

Tonight, James leads his team – he is always quick to tell everyone that he is its leader – against the Boston Celtics in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals.  The Heat are down, 3-2.  This, therefore, is an elimination game.  The Celtics are battle tested and hard as nails.  They are mentally tough and believe that they are going to win every close game.  They have four guys on their team who very well make the NBA Hall of Fame after their playing days are over.  But, when the teams play tonight, LeBron James will be the best player on the Court – and it won’t even really be close.  He will be the best athlete on the court and also the most skilled player on the Court.  Every skill that an NBA Player needs to possess, LeBron James possesses — and he does it all with an unselfishness that is rare in such a talent.  Yet, none of that matters.  He has to win. Unlike in 2007, James is not leading a rag-tag group of untalented misfits into battle against a superior foe tonight.  Tonight, he is leading a “dream team” of his own creation.  Two other superstars flank his sides in every picture. Tonight,  the superior fire power is on his side.  He has to win.

If the Heat fail to win tonight’s game, even if LeBron has a triple double, the failure will, cruelly, be laid at his feet.  If he falters at all in the fourth quarter, if he makes the right pass when the only other option is a forced shot, if he misses a free throw, or doesn’t shoot enough or shoots too much, if he settles for a jump shot or drives to the basket out of control, if he yells at his teammates or encourages them – the pundits will find a way to label him “Loser”.  He has to win.  Game six has to be James’ next signature game.  He has to win.  There is nothing else that he can do that will beat back the shadow that is consuming his career.  If he wins tonight, the shadow recedes — at least for another couple of days.  But if he loses, rightly or wrongly, I fear that this may be the night that King James joins Marino and Bonds and Williams and Malone and Rodriguez and Chamberlain in the perpetual darkness that shrouds those who have been given sports’ cruelest label — “Loser.”

About David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

David Davies is the Editor-in-Chief of Media Rostra. He is also a lawyer and a licensed minister, so he is basically distrusted by everyone on some level. He received his Political Science degree from the University of Tulsa and his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas. He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arkansas, a former "good athlete for his size," and current owner of The Law Offices of David Davies, PLLC -- an Estate Planning and Elder Law firm that has offices in Arkansas and Tennessee. He co-authored, with fellow editor, Aaron Brooks, the article entitled: “Exploring Student-Athlete Compensation: Why the NCAA Cannot Afford to Leave Athletes Uncompensated," in the University of Notre Dame’s Journal of College and University Law.

Comments

  1. grandokieNo Gravatar says:

    Marty Shottenheimer has the label even though he took my beloved Browns to the AFC Championship Game three times and brought other teams to the brink of the Super Bowl and then poor Colin Montgomery, who never won a major golf tourney.  An 8 iron to the green would have won him a PGA Championship but he pulled out a 9 iron thinking his adrenaline would get the ball to the green.  Sad.  And can you remember the emotion when Mickleson finally won his major?  You just hate to see the games best not win one.  Go Thunder!!!  Deny James!!! 

  2. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, David.
    Regards,
    LBJ

  3. I love this article, you are so smart.  I naturally want Oklahoma to win but won’t call him a Loser.  Am wondering why he has Greek letters on his mouthpiece, do you know?

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