Yes, we're all witnesses. We're witnessing the corrosive effects of money and fame on a young mind.
LeBron James showed us another crack Tuesday night with his passive-aggressive on-court tantrum meant to throw his supporting cast under a bus.
Why were we shocked by James' disinterested play in Game 5?
It's not the first time he's disrespected the game. In December, he auditioned for "Dancing With the Stars" during a game against the Bulls. A year ago at this time, he stormed off the court after the Orlando Magic knocked the Cavs from the playoffs. In 2006, James pulled a Randy Moss, walking toward his locker room with 15 seconds left on the game clock.
I mention all of this not to demonize or tear down James. I reference it to illustrate James has been struggling to conceal the cracks created by the collision of youth and fame for quite some time.
What we witnessed Tuesday night in Boston's 32-point romp was inevitable. Mounting frustration over a subpar supporting cast caused James to do what other child stars -- most notably Kobe Bryant -- have done when the going gets tough and they conclude they're outmanned. They stage a work stoppage.
James took the night off, floating around the perimeter on the offensive end, deferring to his teammates, choosing to unspool occasional jumpers rather than drive to the hole.
Phoenix, Los Angeles and Orlando swept their way to the conference finals. The finally healthy Celtics alerted James in Game 2 that his semifinals series would be a battle, and in Game 4 the Celtics let James know they were prepared for war.
Now the team with the best regular-season record and a Shaq- and Antawn Jamison-fortified support staff is on the brink of elimination as it heads to Boston Garden tonight. And even if James and the Cavs escape from their 2-3 series hole, the scars left from this unexpected tussle will leave Cleveland emotionally depleted for the remainder of the playoffs.
So now we're all scrambling, wrestling with the possibility that James won't win a title in Cleveland. How does this affect his legacy? Can we put him on the same pedestal as Michael, Magic and Larry? Or even Kobe?
And, perhaps more important, how do we judge LeBron's maturity struggle?
As someone who loves to be first with the definitive prediction and after reading many fine opinion pieces dissecting LeBron's Game 5, I vote we wait for more information. It's simply too early to know.
Any rush to judgment either direction would remind me of what transpired this past NFL season. You do remember the buildup to the Super Bowl? That's right. Peyton Manning was the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, two heads and two shoulders above Joe Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas and everyone else.
One horrifying pick-6 dropped Manning back in the debate with Steve Young, Brett Favre, Roger Staubach and all the others chasing the true all-time immortals. There's a thin line between greatness and immortality.
Without a title, we know which side of the line James is on.
But we also know James is capable of scoring 50 tonight, grabbing 20 rebounds and handing out 15 assists. If he does and the Cavs win, Game 5 will be rendered virtually irrelevant.
Does anyone define Magic Johnson by the airball he shot in a first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets? And no one cares that Johnson fired coach Paul Westhead. Or that Michael Jordan retired and tried minor league baseball.
Plus, our expectations for James have been a bit too high. We created the impossible standard of James winning championships with less of a supporting cast than Jordan, Magic and Larry.
I'm not excusing LeBron's childish performance. I'm saying we shouldn't be surprised. I'm saying we should judge him on how he responds. That's going to tell the story. Can James overcome the forces at work attempting to stop his rise to basketball immortality?
We've created a system/culture that showers too much fame, fortune and pressure on kids with great athletic ability. At some point, the kids crack. They pick up or give in to their vices and character flaws.
LeBron might be the sorest loser in sports, and he has little class in victory. He thinks he's spoiled us with his spectacular play. He has no idea it's just the opposite -- we've spoiled him and set him up for failure.
We're all witnesses.
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