Friday, June 17, 2011

Are you Master of Your Domain?

I was watching Seinfeld the other day (by the way, I start about 78% of my conversations this way), and it happened to be the episode entitled “The Opera.” Without getting into too much detail, the episode revolves around Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine all attending an opera performance of Pagliachi. But really, the opera just serves as a plot device that eventually allows for the revelation (for the characters on the show) that Elaine’s new boyfriend Joey is actually (minor and recurring character) “Crazy” Joe Davola , who had terrorized Jerry and Kramer for quite some time. As the audience, we already know the situation from the beginning of the episode, but still get to see the disclosure of Elaine’s Joe and “Crazy” Joe Davola as one in the same, through the eyes of the Seinfeld gang.

Early in the episode, Elaine makes an unannounced visit to Davola’s apartment, still unaware at the moment how weird and crazy this guy actually is. After entering his slightly opened door, she finds an oddly run-down apartment with a collage of pictures on the wall, each of which was secretly taken of her by Davola. Basically, it is evidence of how mentally unstable Joe Davola happens to be. It is at this moment that Davola sneaks up on Elaine, startling her even further. Suddenly overcome with fear, Elaine nervously asks if Davola is ok, offering that he doesn’t “seem himself.” It is to this that Davola replies, “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” Obviously, Davola is asking this in a creepy, snarky way, but you can still detect a sense of sincerity in his questioning. He is simultaneously lambasting Elaine for suggesting a lack of “normalcy,” while at the same time understatedly acknowledging that he too is a little unsure about how he fits into the grand scheme of customary reality. What was interesting though, is that I have watched this episode and this scene probably a minimum of 25 times in my life, and yet found myself with a completely new interpretation of it this time around. After hearing Davola utter those two queries, I immediately thought of LeBron James.

The star-studded Miami Heat recently lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, thanks in large part to big-time resiliency and clutch performances from the entire Dallas squad, as well as a complete and utter meltdown by Mr. James. The criticism that has been faced by the Heat and LeBron over the course of the season has been well documented, as James has continually been viewed as a punk for jettisoning his hometown team to join up with another star player in order to win a title – electing to play Scottie Pippen to Dwyane Wade’s Michael Jordan, as opposed to manning up and winning on his own.  Nevertheless, for a while there, it looked like LeBron was ready to communally rub our noses in the rewards of his “Decision.”

The Heat ripped through the initial three rounds of the playoffs, and LeBron’s inspired and impressive all-around play was a major reason why. After a pretty easy win in Game 1 of the Finals, it looked like Miami’s Big 3 would live up to the hype, simultaneously telling each of their many, many naysayers and cynics to “shove it.” And LeBron James would be front and center for every last bit of it, basking in the glory of his “wussy” choice. Then all of sudden, LeBron disappeared. Shrunk.  He came up noticeably small, stringing together games that ranged from mediocre to pretty unimpressive. The more the pressure of the moment and media spotlight were turned towards him, wondering when he would step up and prove he was the best player in the game, the faster he seemed to crumble. Dallas won four of the next five games, with LeBron serving mainly as a glorified bystander to the Maverick’s triumph. On his face, you could see the same Davola-esque mixture of devilish and confused emotions. As the basketball world delighted in his shortcomings and searched for answers, you could almost hear LeBron muttering under his breath: “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?”

This may not help my popularity in Cleveland (which is kind of like having the best wardrobe in a nudist colony) but I personally feel like LeBron James takes a little more flack than he actually deserves. Whether it be from fans or the media, the rubric by which we grade him and the scrutiny we bestow on him is slightly on the harsh side. Now it certainly isn’t lost on me that LeBron brings a great deal of this criticism and scrutiny on himself, due to a mixture of the way he acts, the talents he possesses, and the amount of money he makes. I get that. But that still doesn’t mean the disparagement can’t go overboard at times. I see James as similar to someone like George W. Bush or Tom Cruise, a public figure who is probably viewed a little too critically by mainstream culture, despite the fact that a great deal of that blame lands squarely and rightfully on his shoulders. Admittedly, it would be a lot easier for LeBron to handle it if he was racking up NBA titles and Finals MVPs. He’d probably end up making a lot of people eat a lot of crow for questioning/doubting him in the first place. Instead, he’s only adding more fuel to the fire, and leaving us to ask the very same questions Davola did.

The distinction between criticism and over-criticism regarding James has become dependent on the variations in his production. To me, the vitriol and hostility is unwarranted (to the degree in which it’s leveled) about 80% of the time. Over the course of this season and his career in general, LeBron has been everything you would look for in a star ballplayer. He plays hard on both ends of the court, plays big minutes night in and night out, chooses to score or facilitate based on which scenario will help the team win, and exhibits at least some amount of leadership. And yet, it can’t be ignored that throughout the NBA Finals, when all those superstar qualities are needed the most, LeBron regressed, wandering aimlessly around the court like the chunky, uncoordinated kid during a pick-up game.

In Game 5, James became only the fourth player EVER to record a triple-double in a Finals game, joining the ranks of Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan, and Rajon Rondo. Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell, Bryant…none of them were able to put together a complete stat line in a Finals contest quite like LeBron did. And yet, it can’t be ignored that the triple-double came in a loss, following a Game 4 in which James shot a paltry 3-11 from the field and prior to a decisive Game 6 in which he spent the start of the fourth quarter on the bench and finished with 6 turnovers and a +/- of -24.

In the Game 4 loss, Dwyane Wade missed a game-tying free throw with 30 seconds left, followed by him flubbing an inbounds pass in the final seconds with the Heat down three. If this same chain of events had occurred to LeBron James instead of Wade, James would have been crucified by the media over the next few days. Wade, on the other hand, escaped the situation largely unscathed, illuminating an obvious double-standard. And yet, it can’t be ignored that LeBron had only 18 points in the fourth quarter…over the course of the entire six-game series. In every big, late-game moment, James was either playing hot potato or hiding in the corner, making himself as invisible as a 6’-8”, 250 lb freak of an athlete could possibly be.

But in the end, every LeBron James argument or discussion inevitably circles back to the idea that LeBron could (and should) be the next MJ, when instead, he is playing and acting a lot more like Pippen. To me, this is the biggest problem in assessing James. Why are we focusing so hard on pigeonholing him into one of the MJ-Pippen roles? Why does he have to be one or the other? The truth is, he’s neither. We’ve yet to discover what type of player he actually is, and how he fits (or will fit) into the spectrum of success and stardom in the NBA. No one has quite been able to distinguish the mystery flavor that is King James.

LeBron has been touted as the “chosen one” since he was a junior in high school. If you look at him as the two-time MVP, five-time NBA First Team member and seven-time All-Star that he is, then you could certainly argue that he has lived up to the hype.  But if you’re looking at his hands for championship rings, or at his crunch-time performances for his killer instinct and clutch gene, then you’re coming up with nothing. As of right now, we just don’t know who LeBron James is or is going to be as a basketball player. And just like “Crazy” Joe Davola, LeBron seems as unsure as the rest of us.

The scene with Elaine in Davola’s apartment ends when she escapes after spraying Cherry Binaca in Joe’s eyes. (In print, I realize how dark and demented that entire scene must seem if you’ve never seen the episode. But if you have seen it, then you know how freaking hilarious the whole thing is.) Honestly, I have no idea how LeBron’s story will play out. No one does, himself included. It’s practically impossible to make even a semi-confident prediction, because the path could go in so many different directions. In any event, I’m intrigued to find out who exactly LeBron James turns out to be.

And if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that in the end, I’ll be able to find a Seinfeld episode that somehow relates to the whole thing.

Thanks for reading

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