Until LeBron James wins a title, Kobe Bryant reigns

By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Toying with the city of Cleveland's fragile psyche, calling the NBA's reigning MVP "LeGone" James would just be piling on, rubbing in salt. Besides, that would be predicated on LeBron first being somewhere.

For all the numbers, for all the surreal passes and forays above the rim, the most breathtaking young player in the game is still at base camp in the legacy game. LeBron is gazing longingly toward the top of the mountain, where Kobe Bryant is about to plant a flag.

After consecutive MVP awards, let's look at the r?sum? that matters: Rings? Zilch. NBA Finals wins? In his lone appearance three years ago, bupkis; four and out to the San Antonio Spurs.

And to put a bow on what might soon become a seven-year career of unfulfilled championship promise, LeBron's Cavaliers, the best team in pro basketball this season, are one game from bowing out in the second round against essentially three old guys with knee braces who Rajon Rondo found at the Dorchester Y.

At 25, LeBron is in danger of becoming the NBA's Alex Ovechkin -- heavenly regular season, hellish playoff finale.

We're all witnesses, all right -- witnesses to Phil Knight's Great American Hyperbole Machine, where we sop up commercials as reality.

Witness to 3 for 14 in front of your home crowd.

Witness to passivity, flat-out in-game apathy, unbecoming a player of LeBron's Hall of Fame caliber.

"He didn't even play," said Tim Legler, an ESPN analyst and former NBA guard. "He wasn't engaged. I've never seen a star-caliber athlete that uninvolved in a big game. It's like a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning audibling out of a third-and-eight passing down and just handing the ball off. Or Reggie Jackson taking three called strikes and not swinging.

"At one point after he spotted up in the corner, I saw him holding onto his shorts and bending over. I could not believe what I was watching was a guy not into the game."

Legler could only come to one conclusion: Stress. LeBron felt the pressure of having to carry a franchise by himself, which Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen don't have to. If one of them has a bad game, the Celtics can still win. If LeBron lays an egg like Game 5, it's over.

Because Commissioner David Stern and his broadcast partners are very good at what they do, there is a tendency to make this NBA postseason simply about LeBron vs. Kobe, much the way it was once about Michael vs. Magic in 1990 -- the young buck finally on the cusp of unseating the old champion.

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