Is the NBA now bigger than the NFL? No, can’t be. Pro Football still rules. You watch every football playoff game no matter who’s playing. But as Bill Simmons noted the other day, the NBA has moved into the same territory rather suddenly: People were watching Memphis vs. Oklahoma City! (For the non-fans: Those are two American cities, somewhere out in the vicinity of Arkansas, that have professional basketball franchises that recently played one another.)
And now we’re coming off a great NBA finals. It was just six games, so it can’t be considered the best ever. But it was compulsively watchable. Big stars on a big stage. Dirk Nowitzki played himself into the conversation about the best shooters in the history of the game, and finally got his ring after 13 years of labor in the league. Jason Kidd waited even longer. But overshadowing everything was the LeBron saga. The LeBron psychodrama. He demanded the attention of the world and he got it, but then he didn’t deliver in the Finals, not when it really counted, not in the fourth quarter with games on the line. He’s an astonishing talent but conceivably lacks the killer instinct that we’ve seen with great champions. He’s still young, just 26 if you can believe it. But in these last few games he disappeared as if he’d fallen through a trap door. And he never had the look that Michael Jordan used to get — that look that says “Watch how many ways I can beat you, punk.” LeBron looked lost at times. He wasn’t even the best player on his team — that was Dwyane Wade by a mile.
Still, you had to watch. In a league full of players who are larger than life, LeBron is the largest. Kobe? Nope. LeBron all the way. Even now. Even beaten on his home court. For a sports fan, failure is sometimes more compelling than success, particularly when it’s failure slathered in hubris.
It’s all so dramatic and personal and hi-def vivid. Can football match that, with its players helmeted and buried inside a scrum or scattered across a field? How many football players do we know as well as we now think we know LeBron James? Oh, sure, Wade made the key point — people don’t really know him, or LeBron, or Chris Bosh, and so when they hate on ‘em (for colluding, and being self-aggrandizing, and counting their championships prematurely) it’s kind of a fake hate.
But I feel like LeBron’s been hanging around my house for weeks now. I’ve spent more time with LeBron than with either of my kids who still live at home. I think one of them may have just graduated from high school. Or maybe that’s later this week. Hard to say — I’ve been distracted with basketball!
They got a good show going, there. Some good reality TV. And now that the Mavs have won their championship and Nowitzki and Kidd and Jason Terry and the gang have their glory, the basketball world can move on to the next urgent issue: What’ll LeBron do now?