He was whistling by his locker room cubicle when it ended, checking texts, appearing unworried about losing a game he referred to as “Now or Never.”
LeBron James tried the nonchalant route, but he couldn’t quite sell this as just another wrenching playoff loss.
Given the hyperbole heading into Game 5, this one mattered more than all.
Ater boxing, nothing affords a naked-eye view of a supreme talent like basketball. Viewers see James’s mood swings, interpret his body language, see the fidgety nibbling of his nails, the primal roar after a malicious slam, and they instantly feel they know him in a way they could never know a helmeted free safety or a masked goaltender.
But in this exposed world beyond shorts, sneaks and body art, LeBron was shrouded Thursday night in the NBA Finals.
No one could see or predict how he would respond in a pivotal Game 5 on the road, site of the greatest tease in the history of this city since “Who Shot J.R.?”
Really, why didn’t LeBron shoot?
Because maybe he wasn’t going to make it?
On one end, LeBron threw up a 25-footer with 1 minute 50 seconds left inside this deafening building. Nothing but iron.
On the other end, a phenom from another decade, Jason Kidd, now 38 years old, dropped in a 24-footer behind the arc that made American Airlines Center go berserk.
And as he tried to trigger Miami’s most dramatic rally of the season in Game 5, finishing with a triple-double that included 10 through-the-thimble assists, the better question might have been: What now?
Dallas came back to beat the Dynasty on Hold Thursday night, seize a three games to two lead as the teams head to Miami, and leave LeBron and his crestfallen team needing to pull off their greatest feat. Needing to win two at home for a championship they believed was theirs the moment they signed to play together.
Either way, an intense fascination continues, a curiosity that draws parallels to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson in their primes, a burning to see what happens next to the fabulously talented, if flawed, supernova.
Will he rise up from the first back-to-back postseason losses of his team’s season? Or crash and burn on the account of great expectation, ego or both?
Really, what’s behind the psychology of a two-time MVP taking one shot in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals and making just 1 of 4 in the final 12 minutes of Game 5?
Did he “check out” as DeShawn Stevenson suggested? Was his fear-of-failure quotient so high he needed to let someone else decide the game? Or did he resort to the facilitating point guard he always wanted to be and forget how big, strong and skilled he is as a scorer?
“It’s Now or Never,” he tweeted to his followers, almost impossibly heaping more pressure on himself than all of his detractors and the Miami Heat’s bewildered fans.
King James is such a prince of drama, it’s impossible not to watch whether he responds or falls into a deeper abyss of self-loathing and second-guessing and more apocalyptic social-media warnings. (I mean, if Game 5 is “Now or Never,” Game 6 must be tweeted, “It’s Really, Really Now or Never. This Time I Mean It.”)
Crazy, no, how something about the possibility of the most famous athletes in the world having their ascent halted, literally pile-driven back to earth, titillates us like few things in society?
LeBron walking into the arena on Thursday night was the first time in 13 years that I felt the same kind of buzz surrounding a Finals game in which questions surrounding the visiting star’s superiority overshadowed the magnitude of two teams vying for the upper hand in a wild series. In 1998, the same frenzied masses came to Utah-Chicago, Game 6, to see whether Michael was done and the John Stockton and Karl Malone duo could be king.
James is the franchise player who told his hometown team it wasn’t good enough for him. Tired of being the sole provider in Cleveland, he bolted for the pack in Miami, safely guarded by other big dogs who could take up for him any night of a grueling season.
Look more closely and it begins to make sense.
See, LeBron doesn’t have “Alpha Male” tattooed on his torso. He has “Chosen 1” across his back and “Gifted Child” on his chest, his way of telling himself he was, and is, a special boy.
He constantly needs to remind himself of his stature, to the point of turning off teammates and would-be teammates.
For example, a player recently told me LeBron had contacted him about possibly joining forces in the offseason, though he was cryptic about where he actually might play. The text began: “Yo, this is King James.”
“I was like, ‘Give me a break. You’re going to call yourself that?’ ”the player said, on condition that his name not be used.
“Do you think Michael Jordan texts people by starting with, ‘Yo, this is His Airness.’ Come on, get over yourself.”
But that’s the beauty of ’Bron, too, in a way. He actually thought that would serve as some clarion call to a player of lesser talent who would be moved to take less money and had deigned to play with, yes, the great and omnipotent King James, ruler of all offseason NBA business.
Take off on him if you need to because he scowls or pouts too much to an official or tells America, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” before his employer and fans back home in Ohio know. Fine. But I can’t judge him for any behavior that involves buying into the myth of being something greater than merely an extraordinary ballplayer.
Why do you think LeBron’s favorite teams are the Yankees and the Cowboys — why did he pull for Jordan and the Bulls as a youth and not the hard-luck Cavaliers 45 minutes from his apartment complex as a child?
Because, the thought here is, he wanted one sure thing to hold onto; he wanted to be aligned with perennial winners. He needed something to latch onto that he couldn’t get at home: Trust. Safety. Security.
The idea that LeBron James doesn’t have to do it all himself — hoist a mother and extended family out of abject poverty, make a franchise profitable while ensuring economic prosperity for a struggling Midwestern city, take a team to the Finals by himself — is probably the most comforting thing in the world.
It’s something that two-parent, supportive households like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s don’t quite understand. It’s why we’re all enraptured by one question as Game 6 — maybe LeBron’s last this season — looms.
What will the flawed star do? Can the gifted child shake his boyhood demons and rise above more LeBron Bash-a-thon the next 48 hours to take his rightful place at the top of his profession?
Or does all he can’t leave behind catch up with him on his home floor, something his most strident supporters cannot bear to watch?