There was a specific moment in Game 3 of the NBA Finals that I think about now. LeBron James had the ball in his hands, of course, because he has had the ball roughly 90 percent of the time Cleveland is in possession. He drove hard to the basket, of course, because that’s how he has played game after game, quarter after quarter, with a relentlessness that even his closest friends have not seen in him before.
When the Warriors’ defense crashed down on him, James made the sort of pass that it seems only he can make these days. He jumped, twisted under the basket and fired an off-balance Aroldis Chapman fastball through the lane — past the free-throw line, the circle and the 3-point line — where the basketball slapped hard into the hands of Matthew Dellavedova in perfect rhythm for a shot.
It was a strong pass, but there was something more in it. Something fierce. Let’s face it, Matthew Dellavedova is not a naturally great shooter. He shot under 38 percent from 3-point range in college, and that’s obviously a closer three-point line. He shot under 37 percent from 3-point range as a rookie last year, when LeBron James wasn’t around. This year that improved, but beyond the mediocre percentages, there’s the erratic nature of his shot; when Dellavedova bricks a 3-pointer, it is an epic crash, like garbage trucks colliding. You wonder if he will ever make a shot again.
And yet, when LeBron James made THAT pass, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind — or, I suspect, in anyone else’s — that Dellavedova would swish the shot. Which he did. He had no choice. It was as if that pass carried with it some of LeBron’s will. It was as if that basketball were screaming, “Don’t you DARE miss this shot.”
And he didn’t.
* * *
The oxymoron of our time is not jumbo shrimp or deafening silence or Civil War. It is not dry martini or same difference or paper towel.
No, the phrase is “instant classic,” that odd way to describe a game or a play or song or a movie or something that immediately feels historic, unprecedented even. It’s a silly phrase, of course, because even in our fast-moving world, where trending topics spoil faster than raspberries and news becomes old in minutes, we still cannot see our own moment clearly. There are no instant classics, not really. We still bow down to the past.
In other words, it will probably be 20 years before we as a nation can fully understand just what LeBron James is doing right now.
Back in 1999, Modern Library put together a list of the 100 greatest novels of the century. That was supposed to mean the WHOLE century. But not one book in the Top 20 was written after 1961. Not one book on the whole list was written after 1983.
In 2001, a huge group of music experts put together the “Songs of the Century,” a list of the most important songs of the 1900s. Among the Top 25, there were more songs from the 1800s (John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) than songs recorded after 1975.
Baseball-Reference has something called the Elo-Rater, which asks fans to rate players against each other to create a list of the best baseball players of all time. Among the Top 10, there are FIVE players who were born in the 1800s (Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie) and none who were born after 1934.
“Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” were made in 1941 and ’42 respectively, and they remain near the top of just about every greatest movie list. Rock ‘n roll is supposed to be about what’s new, right? I mean one of the most famous lyrics in rock history is The Who’s “Hope I die before I get old.” But when Rolling Stone modernized its list of 500 greatest rock songs in 2010, only one song from the previous 30 years (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) made the Top 10.
In other words, Michael Jordan … or Wilt Chamberlain … or Oscar Robertson … or Bill Russell will always have the No. 1 spot in the hearts of those who grew up watching them play. For me, it was Jordan, the greatest pure scorer in the game’s history, a defensive whirlwind, a defier of gravity and, more than anything, the knife in the heart, the man who would not lose.
It was the last of these that seemed to separate Jordan from everyone except Russell, the thing that made his case for greatest ever airtight. Six times in his prime, he led the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals. Six times, they won. Six times, he was the NBA Finals MVP. Some of the performances are so burned in our memories — the 15-for-18 game against the Lakers, the 46-point game to take the heart and will out of Portland, the double-nickel he dropped on Phoenix when the Suns were getting a bit too feisty, the Flu Game, of course, the how-magnificent-is-it final shot to take out Utah — that it would be impossible for anyone to transcend them. I mean, the man scored 38 with food poisoning so intense that he could barely stand up.
So for me and for those of us of Jordan’s generation, he can never be topped. As good as Kobe Bryant was … as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal was … as undeniable as Tim Duncan was … none of them could ever be Michael.
Then, though, there was LeBron. And he was, yes, an instant classic.
* * *
From the start, LeBron James was in a different category from all other Jordan challengers. He was something new. He was as tall as Magic Johnson, as powerful as Karl Malone, as skilled a passer as Larry Bird, as unstoppable a freight train as Shaquille O’Neal, as talented a finisher as, well, maybe even Michael himself.
From a basketball perspective, a James vs. Jordan argument was intriguing. It was fun if you wanted to talk about who was the better scorer, the better rebounder, the better passer, the better defender … and it was hard to say. But in reality, there was no real argument; any comparison between them was dulled by the simplistic but irrepressible logic expressed in the movie “Bad Teacher”:
Teacher: There’s no way LeBron will ever be Jordan. Nobody will ever be Jordan, OK?
Kid: OK, LeBron’s a better rebounder and passer.
Teacher: Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.
Kid: That’s your only argument?
Teacher (screaming): That’s the only argument I need!
It really was the only argument necessary. Jordan, at his height, was irrepressible, inexorable, invincible — you COULD NOT beat him because he would not allow himself to be beaten. If his highest level was not quite good enough, Jordan would invent an even higher one. This is a guy who was STILL TICKED OFF that he had been sort-of-cut from his high school team when he was a sophomore.* There seemed no doubt in anyone’s mind that if Michael Jordan NEEDED to score 100 points to win, he would score 100 points.
* In retrospect, Jordan wasn’t really “cut” — he was simply sent down to the JV team to get some seasoning. But that’s not how Jordan saw it in his fury. A friend tells a story of Michael Jordan once complimenting his shoes. When my friend looked a little bit too happy about it, Jordan growled, “But mine are better.”
LeBron did not display that sort of hunger or rage as a young man. He once carried an Island of Misfit Toys Cavaliers team to the finals (where they were swatted down somewhat effortlessly by Tim Duncan’s Spurs) but as time went on he seemed to grow resentful of the unrealistic expectations people had for him. While Jordan was a stone-cold conquerer who desperately wanted the next war, James seemed emotionally overwhelmed. His last Cleveland team quit in the playoffs, and along the way LeBron James announced, somewhat petulantly, “I spoil people with my play.” Then, he left for South Beach. His first year in Miami, after joking about winning not five, not six, not seven championships, he seemed to run away from the ball in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Even after he did win his first championship — putting up a heroic and Jordanesque game in the Boston Garden along the way — there seemed no reason to bring Michael Jordan into the discussion. They were still two different categories. Jordan was the ultimate winner, the first pick if you were playing a game for your life or to get off Gilligan’s Island. James was something different, a basketball artist who blended power and skill like no one before him. But, let’s be honest, in the big argument you’d rather have the winner.
Thing is, since that Boston Garden game — Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when James scored 45 and grabbed 15 rebounds — LeBron James has shown a different side. He’s still not a Jordanesque assassin. But he carried a fading Miami Heat (with a beat up Dwyane Wade and passive Chris Bosh) to a second NBA title. In the playoffs that year, he led the Heat in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and just about anything else you could think of. When the Spurs had the Heat down and seemingly out, he followed up with a 32-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist masterpiece and then put the hammer down with 37 points in the clincher.
The next year, the Heat were even more beat up and less intimidating. He carried them to the Finals again, fourth year in a row.
And then there’s this year’s miracle. What LeBron James is doing in Cleveland is impossible. That’s all there is to it. When James came back to Cleveland, the Cavaliers realized that the clock was ticking, and after they locked up Kyrie Irving, they added Kevin Love. The hope was that this would be Cleveland’s answer to the Miami Big Three. Of course, Love got hurt, Irving got hurt. Now James is out there with:
— The twice-traded Timofey Mozgov, who averages 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game for his career.
— The thrice-traded J.R. Smith, who has amazed and confounded fans for years with his willingness to take any shot at any time.
— The relentless but offensively challenged Tristan Thompson.
— The Australian Rules Football attacker Matthew Dellavedova.
— The enigmatic but entertaining Iman Shumpert, who saw the movie “San Andreas” and publicly wished that the whole series was being played in Cleveland.
This is the cast of characters that LeBron James has lugged to a 2-1 lead in the Finals against an extraordinary Golden State team that has the league MVP and the highest-scoring offense in the NBA. James is doing it with his physical presence, his mental genius for the game and, now, with some sort of abstract hunger that he seems to infuse into teammates. That pass to Dellavedova is just one example of the constant way Cleveland’s limited players lift their games (especially their defense) because of LeBron James’ presence. Replace LeBron James on this team with a merely good player, and this team would have been a solid lottery team.
So we are now left sharing a moment; because it is hard to watch LeBron James score, rebound, pass, defense and will this Cavaliers team beyond what seems reasonable without asking: Could Michael Jordan do this? Could any other player in NBA history do this?
But … it’s not a question we can answer now. Sure, some people will answer that LeBron James has surpassed Michael Jordan; others will angrily shout them down. And vice versa.
In the end, though, it will take time to comprehend all this. For one thing, the series is still wide open; you would expect Golden State to make adjustments, for Steph Curry to shake off the blues, for Warriors shots to start falling. LeBron James hasn’t yet finished the miracle.
For another, we just don’t have the perspective yet. Michael Jordan’s career is complete, it’s legend, it’s grown richer and fuller in retelling. In truth, Jordan missed big shots sometimes, he had his own period where people questioned his ability to win, he won those last three championships with a crazy all-star cast that included Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper and other very good players. But, in the haze of memory, there is only Jordan making the hand-switching layup, and shrugging his shoulders because shots kept falling and rising high for the last game-winner.
It will be a while before we will be able to look at what LeBron James is doing now through that lens of misty nostalgia. All we can do is allow ourselves to be amazed. In the end, it’s fun to talk about but it really doesn’t matter if Jordan or Russell or Bird or Magic or anyone was better. They had their time. And this is LeBron’s time.