LeBron in the Last Minute

Is James simply following the narrative? (US Presswire)

Here is today’s question: Do some people start to believe the narrative that others create for them? I ask this because we hear an awful lot in sports about “proving everybody wrong” and “playing for respect,” and such things. I believe there are some athletes who do feed off this kind of negative energy. Tom Brady seems to be one of those guys who needs the doubters; he seemed to use that low draft pick thing to spark his fury and brilliance. Albert Pujols seems to one of those guys too; he has had nothing but success in the major leagues (at least until the start this year) and yet has never stopped pointing to those who doubted him along the way.

I would say the clearest example is Michael Jordan, of course. He needed those doubters so badly that he sort of invented the whole “I got cut from my high school basketball team” narrative to keep him angry and hungry and edgy.

There’s a story a friend told me about Jordan, I probably won’t get all the details right, so I’ll keep it general. The story was about how a player lit him up for a bunch of points in a game. After the game, Jordan grumbled angrily about how the other guy trash-talked him all night, and how the next game Jordan would personally make sure that guy suffered. Well, the next game happened, and sure enough Jordan scored like 40 and held the guy to something like 2-of-17 shooting, blocked a few of his shots, kind of humiliated him.

After that game, my friend went over to the other guy and found that he was a pretty good sport about it all. “I guess I had it coming,” he said laughing. But then, quietly, he said something else: “You know, I never said a single word to Jordan in that last game. Not one word.”

“Really? So why did Jordan say that?”

The guy shrugged and said: “I guess he needs it.”

So, yes, some athletes and business people and strivers from all walks of life do seem to use the detractors, the insults, the fury to fuel their coal-burning fires. But you know what? Some people don’t run on coal. Some people run on inspiration. When Tiger Woods came back from his brief sabbatical, a lot of people seemed to think that the tabloid articles and rotten things everybody was saying about him would inflame his golfing brilliance and take him to a new level.

I never thought so. I never thought that Tiger Woods was built that way. Nobody had ever doubted Tiger Woods his entire life -- that was part of his magic. He was infused with his father’s ambitions and his own genius for the game and a line of success unparalleled in golf history. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs, making every absurd putt that was necessary along the way. He turned pro and won a tournament immediately. His first professional major, the Masters, he won by the largest margin in the history of big-time golf. He was invincible. He did not just want the important putts to drop, he expected them to drop. What else could they do? He was Tiger Woods.

So when things started to go bad -- with his health, with his knees, with his private life, with his golf swing, with his putter -- I did not see how that would or could spur him on. He did not know how to play the bad guy. More -- and this was a bit surprising, based on his own public persona -- he absolutely did not want to play the bad guy. He did not want to PLAY the good guy either, with all the autographs and smiles and interviews and tips of the cap that go with it. But I think he really wanted to BE the good guy anyway. I will never forget how worried he acted before his first tournament back, worried that people would boo him. Michael Jordan, I believe, would feed off those boos. Tiger Woods would not.

All of which, of course, brings us to LeBron. On Tuesday night, LeBron James added another chapter to his enigmatic pressure-moment persona. There is no better basketball player on planet earth. James in 2011-12 was staggeringly good. Though the numbers at this point have become mind-numbing (28 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, a career high 53% from the floor, a career-high 36% from three-point range, etc.) the larger point is that James in many ways is better than he has ever been. Nobody can do all the things he does on a basketball court. He’s Oscar Robertson, only at 6-foot-8. He’s Magic Johnson, only a better scorer and a lockdown defensive player. He’s … well, you quickly run out of comparisons.

And James is great, very often, in the big moments. How could he not be? Remember John Updike’s brilliant line about Ted Williams’ clutch play: “For Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.” And so it is for LeBron: He’s unstoppable on the move, he’s absurdly strong, he is about as good a passer as anyone in the game, he attacks the offensive glass, and he has a beautiful touch. For him to be all those things and also fail in all the big moments is a physical impossibility. So, yes, he’s been great in the big moments. He carried a motley cast of Cleveland characters to the NBA Finals. And last year -- under the searing heat he had created with his ill-advised “Decision” -- he led Miami to the NBA Finals.

Yet … there have been several big moments when he did fail. We don’t need to go over them yet again, but here are only three just as a quick reminder:

• There was the disastrous playoff game against Boston, the one Cleveland had to win, when he played dreadfully and moped afterward that people expected too much from him.

• There was the playoff clinching loss against Boston, when he led his team into quit-mode in the final 90 seconds.

• There was Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals, when it seemed clear and unmistakable that James was running away from the ball.

On Tuesday, with the Heat playing Indiana at home, LeBron’s last minute was staggering. He went up soft for a shot (LeBron? Going soft?) and had it rejected. He missed two free throws with the Heat down by one. And on the final play of the game, with Miami needing a three-pointer, James’s role was to set a screen for Mario Chalmers, who missed the shot. LeBron James: Pick-setter. And now that series is tied 1-1 and heading back to Indiana.

And so, I get back to the question: Do some people simply start to believe the narrative about themselves? The narrative about LeBron James, more and more, is becoming that he shrinks from the big moment. Whether this is fair or not is not my point here -- you can decide that for yourself. My point is: Once that’s become the thing that people are saying about you, does that penetrate who you are? Does the prophecy self-fulfill? If you call someone a tomato enough times, will he or she begin to turn red?

I often think about Marty Schottenheimer. He was an excellent football coach who had no idea at the beginning that his career would be defined by big-game failure. How could he know that? He unquestionably thought: I’ll build very good teams, we’ll go to the Super Bowl, we’ll win the Super Bowl. Then he built very good teams in Cleveland, and they lost one game after John Elway drove the team 98 yards, and lost another when Earnest Byner fumbled as he went into the end zone. He went to Kansas City, and built very good teams there too, playoff teams every year, twice they had the best record in the AFC, and both times they lost the first home playoff game -- once when his kicker missed a bunch of field goals. He went to San Diego and built very good teams and lost playoff heartbreakers again, one of those when one of his defensive players would not just go down after making an interception.

And so, people think of Marty Schottenheimer as a guy whose teams choke in the biggest moments … and the record does seem to back that up. That became his inescapable persona. But my question is: At some point, did Marty Schottenheimer start to believe that he was jinxed? I have every reason to believe he did, because I saw Marty in some private moments, when he was at a loss, when he wondered if he had something missing in himself. What does that sort of doubt do to someone? Did Marty Schottenheimer, based on his own doubts, create some of his own football catastrophes?

LeBron’s failure in the big moment on Tuesday might not mean anything in the big picture. The Chicago Bulls, who I think were the best team in the NBA, are out of the playoffs because of a couple of staggering injuries. There are other good teams, but I don’t think there is a team out there that matches up with the Heat over seven games (though the loss of Chris Bosh could alter that judgment a bit*). The Pacers are tough and they really were in position to win Game 1 for a long time too, so they could pull the upset here. But it would be a major upset.

*After the game, Steve Kerr -- who I think is a good announcer -- said: “The thing everyone will be talking about this game is the absence of Chris Bosh.” And I thought: “What did he just say? Did he just say that in a game where LeBron missed two big free throws, got the biggest shot of the game blocked in his face and did not take the last shot, the thing people will talk about is the absence of Chris Bosh?”

I mean, yes, the absence of Bosh is a very real story for, like, Erik Spoelstra and particularly involved Heat fans … but just about everyone else knows this NBA playoffs is a referendum on LeBron, right? Every NBA playoffs will be a referendum on LeBron until he wins it. That’s the price of being one of the greatest players in the history of the game who left his hometown team in a prime-time special, created an All-Star team in Miami and immediately promised to win, like 217 NBA championships.

At this point, any Heat loss would be a major upset -- at least in the minds of the “Oh, it’s the playoffs, I’ll pay attention” NBA fans. It isn’t just pressure that LeBron James is facing. It’s that sort of destiny-based compression where only a championship is good enough, and even a championship will leave people shrugging and saying, “Yeah, it’s about time.”

When faced with that kind of skepticism and cynicism, where does the star turn? Jordan turned inward, to fury. Kobe Bryant, I believe, turns to fury. Tom Brady turns to fury. What about LeBron? What was going on for him in that last minute on Tuesday? Were those two missed free throws simply a function of exhaustion and the simple mechanical failures that happen to even the greatest players? Was that blocked shot simply a great defensive play that he could not have avoided? Did he want to take that last shot but accepted his coach’s theory that with the defense geared toward him, the better play was to have the team’s pseudo-three-point specialist, Chalmers, take it?

Or does LeBron James -- deep down -- wonder if those critics and cynics and backseat drivers might just be a little bit right about him?