God help me, but I feel like I’m rooting for the devil himself.
I’m hoping that LeBron James and his Miami Heat prevail in this year’s NBA Finals.
The reason? I want LeBron to win a championship. He’s the best player in the game, bar none – better all around than Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard.
And the best players deserve to win championships.
Who else could have carried an otherwise mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team as far as he did – to the finals in 2006-07 and twice to the league’s best regular season record?
The Cavs had no business being that good, but they had LeBron, so they were.
Now the Heat are in the finals for the second straight year. Last year, it was good to see Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks win for once. This year, the Oklahoma City Thunder, with all their young talent, can wait their turn. So can Rose, Paul and Howard.
A debate rages among basketball fans about whether James is better than Bryant (of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Durant, who plays for the Thunder. Clouding the discussion is an irrational antipathy toward James coming from hard-core and casual fans alike.
But it isn’t a stretch to say that at 6-8, 250 pounds, and possessing strength and athletic ability in a package never before seen in his sport, LeBron has the best raw talent of any player to ever play the game, including a certain Michael Whatshisname.
What LeBron doesn’t have – yet – are Kobe’s five championships, or Michael Jordan’s six, nor does he – yet – seem to have the focus and drive exhibited by those two superstars.
But he’s getting there. I just hope he shows he can lead his “team” – i.e., the Heat’s collection of superstars, plus spare parts – past a young Thunder squad that truly plays like a team.
Most people outside South Florida don’t just hate hate James for colluding with fellow 2003 draftees Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to play for the same team when Wade (reportedly) convinced the other two to join him in South Beach.
They also hate LeBron for the way he left the Cavaliers in 2010, and how he kept them dangling while he decided whether he’d re-sign with them or head elsewhere.
In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last five years or have a very short memory, here’s what fuels their scorn.
OK, so it wasn’t the most humble thing a professional athlete has ever done.
And it certainly devastated the city of Cleveland.
As luck would have it, my wife and I were actually vacationing in Cleveland – no snickering – during the very week that general managers from other NBA teams were in town to try to convince LeBron to sign with them.
The entire city was on tenterhooks as he prepared to make his choice. It seemed like there were news trucks on every corner in the downtown core. (They seemed to outnumber people with jobs two to one – sorry, that was a cheap shot. Cleveland is a nice city.)
ESPN was running updates every half hour (it was a slow week for sports), and we even went to a comedy show in which one of the three featured comics interrupted his set to fret about LeBron leaving Cleveland. “I ain’t got no joke about this,” he said. “It’s just rough, man.”
LeBron did indeed do some emotional damage to a fragile burg that already had some issues in that department.
Yet, when considering what LeBron (and Wade and Bosh) did, it’s worth remembering a few things that are still overlooked, even after all the hype has died down.
• James and Bosh played by the rules when they signed with Miami. Nothing in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement or league protocols prevented them from talking to one another and deciding to play together.
• LeBron didn’t owe Cleveland anything. He’s a basketball player who sells his services (within the bounds of the collective bargaining agreement) to the highest bidder. He was going to make the maximum money allowed no matter where he decided to play, and it could be argued that his ham-fisted behaviour with “The Decision” cost him some endorsement money. It makes sense that he would choose to go where he had the best chance to win.
• James, Wade and Bosh weren’t the first, nor will they be the last, so-called “Big Three” ever to be assembled. GM Danny Ainge did it first in Boston in 2008 by trading for all-star power forward/centre Kevin Garnett and sharpshooting guard Ray Allen. Other teams are trying to put together similar superstar trios, so far without luck, but some have come close (such as the New York Knicks and the L.A. Clippers, to name two).
• Remember that Jordan never won anything until Scottie Pippen showed up in Chicago, and things really got rolling when Dennis Rodman joined the Bulls. Before coming to Miami, the best players LeBron had played with were Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. It’s not quite the same.
I make all these comments as a diehard Toronto Raptors fan, and you’ll recall that Bosh did much the same thing to my hometown as LeBron did to Cleveland. (The difference is that Toronto is bigger and at least slightly more self-assured than Cleveland, and basketball and Bosh were never as big a deal here as LeBron and the Cavs were there.)
Yet I feel the same way about Bosh as I do about LeBron. He chose to be the third banana on the Heat rather than stay in Toronto, because he wanted to win. Good for him.
I wish him no ill will. The Raptors weren’t going to win with Bosh as top dog, and in any event, GM Bryan Colangelo failed to assemble a good supporting cast around him.
Prior to the Toronto Raptors entering the NBA in 1996, my favourite team was the Los Angeles Lakers – that is, the Showtime Lakers of Magic and Kareem.
I’m the first to say, however, that sometimes it’s fun to root for the underdog – the Raps are my team, after all – but when it comes down to it, I’m the kind of hoops fan who likes to see the best win it all.
And LeBron is the best.