MIAMI — Before the NBA Finals end and the obvious is concluded — that the world’s best basketball player simply can’t beat the world’s best team — a little housekeeping is in order.
Before the guy many misguided Americans bizarrely still thirst to see lose more than they even want Tim Duncan to win, it’s time to pay homage to the very incarnate of fame, fortune and championship professionalism, the player somehow so reviled four long years after he made a couple of bad PR moves:
Thank you, LeBron, for carrying the league in the absence of Kobe.
Thank you for giving youngsters someone to emulate.
Without you, the NBA would be two State Farm and three Kia commercials, and one big studio panel hosted by Ernie Johnson.
Really, without LeBron, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat becoming almost as popular and twice as polarizing as Michael Jordan’s 1990s Bulls, the Clippers don’t sell for nearly $2 billion. There is no “It” team that seizes the country’s interest, the perfect villain to make the small-market San Antonio Spurs be viewed as the “good guys.”
The Spurs are finally getting their due as the most aesthetically pleasing, sharing-is-caring team simply because they are beating the snot out of LeBron and the Heat, which lost Game 4 on Thursday and fell into a 3-1 hole from which no finals team has crawled out.
If San Antonio wraps up what was supposed to be a theatrical reprise to the seven-game heirloom a year ago in Game 5 Sunday night at home, the Spurs will have won their fifth championship in 15 years. Duncan’s 17 years will be rightly viewed as the most surreal stretch of greatness matched with consistency since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was able to parlay a title with Oscar Robertson into five more with Magic Johnson over 20 years.
But Duncan’s accomplishment is even more incredible because of who he beat. Whether we yearn to see him lose or do something transcendent on the floor, we watch because of LeBron.
Without him there is no cathartic gotcha moment for angry fans in 2011, some of whom could die happy after Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas stunned Pat Riley’s star-chamber team that essentially had put itself together the previous summer.
There is no summer of growth and grasping the mistake of “The Decision,” no stress release and maturation that led to LeBron finally winning it all in 2012 for the first time.
The humility and perspective shown by LeBron leading up to beating Kevin Durant and the Thunder — apologizing for how he handled leaving Cleveland, the self-examination of someone who admitted he was wound too tight and playing more angry than joyful — began a thawing of his national image.
Well, for some. Others still can’t let go of that early bravado in Cleveland, the pained scowls after each foul call, the “Not two, not three, not four . . . ” championship boast upon the Big Three’s coming-out party in Miami after Chris Bosh and LeBron joined Wade.
After all, the greatest crime in American sports, especially for African American athletes, is arrogance. Ask Richard Sherman, still living down his smack-talking, emotional moment after the NFC championship game.
LeBron will always equal “bad guy” to that crowd.
It won’t matter that he and Wade won two straight titles or won gold representing their country at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, putting more miles on their bodies and careers than some around them advised.
It won’t matter that when the Spurs’ locker room is vacant before games — because their introverted leader, Duncan, has no interest in talking to anyone about anything unless he absolutely must in accordance with NBA media policies — LeBron is down the hall, answering everything asked, from basketball to Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin and beyond.
It probably won’t even matter that John Carlos said last week how much he admires LeBron as a modern-day athlete who actually speaks about social concerns, damn the financial risk — the kind of conviction Carlos and Tommie Smith showed on a podium in Mexico City in 1968.
Nope. No amount of work as the NBA’s emerging ambassador will alter perception for some, nothing the most famous athlete in North American sports will do can change minds that don’t want to be changed, that need a villain for their personal consumption.
Roger Mason Jr., the journeyman dead-eye guard from Washington who played with both the Spurs and the Heat, told me courtside before Game 4 the difference between Duncan and James.
“LeBron wanted to be liked, wanted people to accept him for he was,” Mason said. “When he stopped worrying about that so much, he won. Tim? He never cared. Never gave a thought to what anybody else thought about him.”
Some might see that kind of vulnerability as weakness in LeBron. I see it as authentic, real, a quality that has made me root for LeBron after being one of his biggest detractors the summer of 2011.
When the Spurs win this, they will be seen as the “good guys” in this basketball morality play, a drama that has no bearing on reality.
You can root against filthy-rich teams buying stars rather than developing them.
You can root against the game’s best player against Old Man River Walk, Duncan trying to win one more before he is carbon-dated.
You can root for some of the most, pass-happy beautiful basketball played in the modern NBA.
But the genuine good guy in this series, the one who made us watch the Finals the past four years and exponentially increased the value of the league, who gave his opponents the motivation to be champion, is LeBron James.
Before we crown the Spurs, he deserves applause.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.