x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Another agonising failure for LeBron James

After playing only for the Cleveland Cavaliers, free agency is sure to put him in another city this summer.

LeBron James played what is possibly his last game for Cleveland, with the Boston Celtics ousting the Cavaliers from the play-offs.
LeBron James played what is possibly his last game for Cleveland, with the Boston Celtics ousting the Cavaliers from the play-offs.

It is inexplicable that in the final minutes, with the clock ticking down, the Cleveland Cavaliers would just let it all expire. No fouls, no desperation, no three-point heaves. They just let it go, the season and perhaps the future. Tick, tick, tick, gone. A wrap. The end. No stopping the clock, no one last time-out. If they did not give up, they certainly gave out.

They weren't ready to win a championship, as it turns out, not the great LeBron James and not the Cleveland Cavaliers. They played hard enough through most of the game, even cutting a 12-point deficit to four on James's daring back-to-back three-pointers. It looked then as if he had the stuff of Magic and Bird, of Jordan and Duncan. But the outburst was brief, a sputter. This cannot be about only LeBron James; an entire coaching staff and a locker room full of players paid a lot of money let this happen. An ESPN analyst said he was disappointed that the Cavaliers appeared to quit before it was over, simply surrender.

But it is largely about LeBron because the culture of the NBA has made it so the buck stops with the superstar, particularly when he is the reigning two-time league MVP and by general acclaim the best player in the game. Many were confident LeBron would post a triple-double in Game 6, and he did 27, 19 and 10. But who knew nine turnovers would nearly make it a quadruple-double. He fumbled the ball, stumbled, was hesitant and indecisive. Yeah, there were brilliant moments, such as after a fourth-quarter time-out when he powered through a Rasheed Wallace foul and tossed one in left-handed off the glass with spin.

Problem was, Cleveland needed a half-dozen of those plays and at least an entire half of the kind of determination we have seen out of James for years. Then again, the regular season and the play-offs are different animals. The freewheeling, outside-in method that works for James and the Cavs from November through early April is not the formula for success in May, when a bunch of skilled mashers like the Celtics decide there will be no wheeling and dealing, certainly nothing free.

James seemed lethargic, without his usual blast furnace of energy, as if after seven years he simply buckled under the weight of being the hometown icon. He seemed overwhelmed, boxed in by the expectations, by the spectre of free agency and his pending decision. For months, James kept the whole free agency issue at arm's length. But lately, it seemed to be gaining on him. It's possible no athlete has ever come into the professional ranks with so much expected of him. In his case, the assignment was essentially to save his home town, to win with a team that had never won, in a city whose teams have not won in decades.

LeBron and Cleveland appeared to be a match made in heaven: the best young athlete in the US for the city in the greatest need of a superstar. He was a beast in the play-offs by the age of 21, had led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals by 22, was the league MVP by 24. The craziest sycophants had him ahead of Michael Jordan at the same age, ahead of Kobe Bryant. This was going to end happily. But at this moment, LeBron's future is unthinkably uncertain and it probably will be for the next six weeks. Cleveland has agonised before but never like this. The despair can be felt from New York to Los Angeles, two places where LeBron could wind up. His despair might be cushioned by a nest feathered with millions of dollars. Cleveland's despair, especially if their favourite son flies the coop, might just go on and on and on.

* The Washington Post