The NBA final series is LeBron James’s chance to prove his #GOAT status
LeBron James pushes Stephen Curry during overtime in game one of the 2018 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. (Reuters: Cary Edmondson)
Sportswriters don’t get rich but some of us get lucky.
We get to perch on the finish line at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and watch Usain Bolt smash the 100 metres world record despite slowing on the line to savour his victory and assert his dominance.
We get to stand under the big tree in front of the Augusta National clubhouse in 2005 while Tiger Woods sinks the clinching chip on the 16th and feel a roar so thunderous it creates ripples in the clam chowder being served inside.
We get a prime spot behind the bowler’s arm as Shane Warne turns a cricket ball into the golden snitch. Teasing, tantalising and humiliating batsmen who probably wish they really were playing Quidditch.
And now we get to look on in awe as LeBron James attempts to carry the half-strength Cleveland Cavaliers to victory in the NBA finals on his broad shoulders.
James couldn’t quite do that in game one. But as much as his 51 points, it was what it took to stop him upsetting the heavily favoured Golden State Warriors that added to his legend.
There was, in no particular order: three extremely tough calls including a dubious video reversal that robbed the Cavaliers of both their momentum and the ball; the routinely superb shooting of the NBA’s greatest sniper Steph Curry and, bizarrely, confused teammate J R Smith thinking the Cavs were winning in the final seconds and running down the clock instead of attacking the rim.
LeBron James drives to the basket against Kevin Durant during the first quarter. (Reuters: Kyle Terada)
As the buzzer sounded and the game was consigned to an over-time the shaken Cavaliers were never going to win, James stood mid-court with the expression of a man who had just watched his Ferrari being crushed by a steamroller.
“Do I have to do this all by myself?” James seemed to be asking. Although the big question still to be answered is can James do this all by himself — can he win the NBA championship against a talented and experienced Warriors line-up without the support most thought he needed to get even this far?
That is now far less likely after the Cavaliers squandered such a great chance in game one. But James’s attempt to defy the increasing odds is now the most compelling storyline in sport, partly because we are beholding greatness in real time.
As with the greatest moments of Bolt, Woods and Warne, the universal acknowledgement of James’s stature — both physical and historical — makes his achievements more enjoyable. Especially as his stature outside the court has risen.
The pretentious assumption of greatness created by James’s announcement he was “taking my talents to South Beach” in the nationally televised “The Decision” has long been exceeded by his outsized exploits in Miami and Cleveland.
The debt repaid to Cleveland with the 2016 NBA title, and the emergence of a strong, thoughtful and powerful spokesman has delighted and reassured those who feared James’s public persona might not match his athletic performance.
Consequently, the dense fog of celebrity has cleared and with it the crass sense of commercialism that surrounds most contemporary superstars. That James is paid more than US$30 million ($39.6mn) per season by the Cavs, and more than that again by sponsors, is now rarely mentioned. Like Roger Federer, he is that rare modern athlete whose colossal talent has transcended his financial worth.
Watching James stand outside the key hunched, eyeballing an opponent and dribbling the ball with his enormous hand is like watching a rocket ship preparing to launch.
The moment of anticipation about the muscular, gravity-defying physical feat he is about to perform might be the best spine-tingling in sport.
As we have lamented in this space often, the problem with the hash tag #GOAT (greatest of all time) is that people feel compelled to use it as liberally as they might a smiley face emoticon.
The latest in greatest titles, usually bestowed by those with no historical or even current context, merely muddy the waters when a true great emerges and demean those whose vast accomplishments are discarded in a self-gratifying tweet.
But that James is locked in an eternal battle with Michael Jordan in many minds for the right to be considered the true #GOAT is itself as telling. Even if like those other popular comparisons — Lennon or McCartney? Kate or Pippa? Yanny or Laurel? — the decision will always be in the eye or ear of the beholder.
There have been many brilliant Test batsmen in the past 70 years. Some have recorded astonishing averages over seasons or even years. But no-one has seriously challenged Sir Donald Bradman’s records or, in turn, the universal belief he was the best the game has seen.
But James is going basket-for-basket, rebound-for-rebound and, perhaps now, even title-for-title with the Bradman of the court. Not merely shadowing his achievements over a relatively brief period.
For those pushing James’s #GOAT cause, this NBA final series might even prove something of a tie breaker.
In this Cavs team James is George Clooney with the cast of Friends; Louis Armstrong in a high school band. That he almost carried Cleveland to victory in game one was that rare sporting moment — a defeat that enhanced a reputation. If the Cavs win the title — and even if they don’t — we will be savouring sporting greatness as it happens.