Not Supposed To Be Here: NBA Finals, America & LeBron

According to the mighty Grantland – no, not the iconic Golden Age of Sports-writer Rice but the Wise Guys Guide to Sports and Other Stuff We Watch on Flatscreens – we are 26 days from the opening of another NBA season. ( started counting down over 100 days out for this NFL season, such is the pigskin sickness in the Excited States of America.™ 1 ) In recent days, the countdown has included the following essential bits of news. Chandler Parsons digs fashion and wears trendy glasses and fashionably nerdy

Chandler Parsons, fashion plate. (Can’t be in the weight room *all* the time.) Photo from

hair. Kevin Durant is learning to be angry, while Pau Gasol is an unrepentant nice guy (actually, a surprisingly insightful short piece). The Philadelphia 76ers are the early favourites in the tanking derby to try to select Canada’s Andrew Wiggins in next June’s draft (he’s a Kansas freshman), something Grantland terms “Riggin’ for Wiggins”. Drake hearts the Raptors. The Blake-Griffin-as-Doctor-Dunkenstein days are over, according to Blake Griffin. In other news, JaVale McGee remains JaVale McGee. Some of these I actually read. Any port in a storm.

Mostly, though, I’m still looking backward to the 2013 Finals. I was pulling for the Spurs. I replay, as Tim Duncan will for the rest of his apparently fairly contented days, the easy putback he missed late in Game 7. I still can’t quite believe Ray Allen got both feet outside the three-point line for that game-tying miracle at the end of Game 6. (Obligatory caveat: of course he walked! But even in my biased condition, I can’t complain about that bunny-hop. It’s the NBA. It used to freak me out that the world’s greatest players are granted more leeway about travelling than my mediocre high school players were, but it’s The Association. Ray made an unbelievable play and an astounding shot. That’s that.) Yup, and the Spurs still should’ve won, and yup, here’s a prediction, that they won’t fold their tents and experience a haunted collapse under the weight of their disappointment but will again be the ultimate team of professionals and again and still be in the mix for the 2014 title hunt because that’s what they do. So, I hereby declare San Antonio winners!

Those asides aside, I mainly keep thinking about LeBron. Do you remember what he said when they handed him trophies last June? It was his second straight championship. No more back-monkeys. The haters had been largely silenced. He’s so obviously the best right now that smart people don’t even entertain debates, Kevin Durant’s undoubted greatness notwithstanding. Validation! Redemption! Et cetera. Bill Russell handed him his second Finals

The white-haired gent is Bill, the sport’s greatest winner and one of the most thoughtful, aware athletes we’ve seen, lest we forget. (To be fair, LBJ doesn’t. He wears Russell’s ‘6’.)

MVP trophy. (He turned his back on the sublime Bill for some preening, but I forgive him that bit of camera-hogging. He’s playing his role. Fulfilling expectations. Many are thrilled by that preening.) Doris Burke, sideline-reporter-as-serious-journalist, asked a relatively eloquent question about the “din of noise from outside scrutiny and pressure”, because for a game-player, James is picked apart, obsessed about, photographed, gossiped about and existentially autopsied in vivo to an extent few of us can imagine. After some gracious-victor commentary, he said this:

“I can’t worry ‘bout what everybody say about me. I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here! That’s enough! Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a number 6 with ‘James’ on the back. I’m blessed!…I ain’t got no worries!

First, am I the only one who heard the whisper of a sob behind that last declaration? Never mind the astounding physical demands of the way he carried his team to the title; although it’s good to remember the “only a game” mantra, the emotional weight borne by a guy in his position is frightful. I loved how open he was. Goodness, he even put his performance into spiritual terms (“Blessed!” I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth, as Lou Gehrig nobly said on a still more meaningful day in ’39²). He also put it into a sociocultural perspective. “I’m not even supposed to be here.” Where is here? What ‘here’ does James refer to?

On one level, this is exactly where a man like LeBron – genetically gifted, culturally driven,  motivated at least in part by the seeming scarcity of other obvious avenues of success available to the lower-class American black male – is “supposed” to be. Of course, the odds were against him. Statistically, very few among even the basketball-mad communities’ most athletic young men — whether in Indiana, Baltimore, or Lithuania — ever even attend an NBA tryout, let alone stand alone at the top of the heap. (His teammates can be heard chorusing “He’s a bad man!” as he speaks, as he stands apart from even the slightly awed elite of his own profession.) As things stand, though, this is where almost all NBA players come from: economic deprivation, aspirations of jock stardom that seem more real than the fruits of education do, a boiling cauldron of fierce competition for shockingly few jobs – in other words, the world inhabited by a large proportion of African-American boys. It’s the carrot (and the stick), the Way Out. Follow the yellow brick road. (There’s no place like the League. There’s no place like the League…)

What would be really odd, from this perspective, would be the Jewish kid from Manhattan, or the bright Asian boy from suburban California, making the NBA. They’re not supposed to be there, and they mostly aren’t. The latter example, of course, is Jeremy Lin, which is why his story blew up so hugely despite his comparatively modest achievements as a pro, and despite the under-appreciated facts of his raw athleticism and his burning desire to play the game he loved. He was repeatedly overlooked even by smart basketball folk precisely because he really “wasn’t supposed to be here”; he didn’t fit the preconceptions. (Imagine a white Canadian kid, raised on hockey and soccer, shooting outside in snow and rain and dreaming NBA dreams. Ridiculous! Hello, Steve Nash. Where are you “supposed to be”?)

However, there is another way to think about HERE, and this is what LBJ meant with his simple reference to American expectations. So, take a look at where he was literally and figuratively coming from. Here’s the child of a single black mother in the corroding innards of a Rust Belt city…standing in front of 20,000 madly cheering (mainly) white people? Uh-huh. Watched by millions? Idolized around the world? How does that happen? About to visit the Oval Office for the second time with all his black friends (plus Mike Miller, and Coach Spo)? A bank account that swells by tens of millions every six months? Cool, man, but who saw that coming? Or could have, before the last 50 years made sports the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the societal rainbow? Like a lot of things about life in North America, it doesn’t make sense, but there it is.

I hope that LeBron James has continued to stifle his worries. (I also hope he hasn’t been working on shot-fakes, step-through moves, and two-foot finishes, because nobody could beat him if he did. That ever-improving jumpshot is bad enough news for NBA competitiveness.) As he and the rest of the Association and its loyal adherents prepare for another season, I hope he knows some of the sweetness that comes from feeling, sociocultural Zen pronouncements aside, that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. I don’t want to see it, but to my surprise, I wouldn’t hate it if he was talking to Doris Burke and the rest of us again next June.

1 A phrasing coinage I wish was mine. “Excited States of America” belongs to Allan Fotheringham, fine Canadian columnist, curmudgeon and tart observer. (“Tart” here is an adjective, certainement.)

² If you haven’t, or haven’t recently, read about Lou Gehrig and the events leading up to his retirement announcement, it’s well worth the time and the tears. I’d forgotten: he was the first athlete to have his number retired. That famous speech, of which I only remembered the “luckiest man” part, is a graceful and gorgeous thing. So were the comments of Joe McCarthy, his manager. Would we hear such unvarnished eloquence from an athlete today? I wonder.

The “Iron Horse” and an old buddy on the day of his retirement, July 4, 1939. Babe Ruth’s number 6 would later join Gehrig’s number 4 in the Yankees’ list of retired digits.

Comments (2)

  1. Jay K.

    You forgot to mention that LeBron James is ambidextrous, as he will shoot (jump shots, not layups) with either hand if the need arises. Watch some game play, if given enough room he will shoot with whichever hand is most advantageous to what the defense gives him. ESPN or Grantland did a piece on this awhile back. Also his amazing crab dribble is bar none unstoppable.

  2. Wang TY

    Haha, I am a crazy fan of b-ball!

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