As we get set for one of the most anticipated NBA Finals in decades, for Heat vs. Thunder, LeBron vs. KD, the 20-something’s taking over the league from the 30-something’s, ironically, it’s Wilt Chamberlain that I’m thinking about this morning. Yes, that Wilt Chamberlain. For a man best known for both his basketball prowess, and his ahem, social prowess too, Chamberlain was actually an incredibly well-educated, well-spoken and intelligent guy. And as we get set for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I can’t help but think about one of Chamberlain’s most famous quotes as it pertains to the game today. The quote:
“Nobody ever rooted for Goliath.”
So simple, so to the point, so applicable even now in 2012, 50 years after Chamberlain first uttered the words.
Nobody ever rooted for Goliath.
And there certainly aren’t many folks rooting for 2012’s Goliath, the Miami Heat in the lead-up the NBA Finals. As a matter of fact, with Game 1 now hours away, I’m stunned at how much of the chatter surrounding Miami sounds almost exactly identical to what everyone has been saying about them for the last two years. You know the storylines, but in essence, they all boil down to some variation of the following: Nobody likes the Heat. Everybody hates LeBron. Miami has no heart. They’re not tough. LeBron is a choker. Wade is a whiner. Bosh is an ostrich (ok, so maybe I just threw that last one in there for good measure). The Thunder are more of a “team.” Oklahoma City is more likeable. Blah, blah, blah. At this point, it really is all white noise.The simple truth? The Miami Heat are a team, and they do just about everything a fan could ever ask for from a group of 14-15 highly compensated professional basketball players. They pass well, defend well and share the ball. They’re selfless, committed and united. Guys sacrifice stats and minutes for the good of the greater being. Heck, Chris Bosh- a guy who just so happens to be a seven-time All-Star- has given up his starting spot because it puts Miami in the best position to win. Regardless of what you think of the Heat, everyone has bought in, and everyone focused on the one singular goal of winning an NBA title. Really, what more could you ask?
Of course it’s easy to say that after a big Game 7 win against Boston, and an argument could be made that 2012 really isn’t all that different from 2011. After all, didn’t the Heat make the Finals last year? And didn’t they proceed to fall apart in six games, with the two signature moments of the series coming when Chris Bosh crumpled to the ground like he'd been shot after a Game 6 loss and when DeShawn Stevenson strutted around in a t-shirt that asked LeBron “How’s My Dirk Taste”? The contrarian might wonder why the 2012 NBA Finals will be any different.
Well, they will be.
Reflecting back on Miami’s run to the NBA Finals last year, it’s easy now to forget how simple it all was for Miami. Seriously, think back to Miami’s run to the Finals last year; it was like remedial math for Steve Jobs. In Round 1 the Sixers rolled over like a bunch of scared puppies, in the second round Boston was never the same after Rajon Rondo’s right arm bent in ways that no one’s right arm should ever bend, and the Chicago Bulls Boozer’d themselves out of the Eastern Conference Finals one close loss at a time. For comparison’s sake, Miami lost three games against the Celtics alone in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. They lost three games in the first three rounds leading into the NBA Finals last year. By the time they played Dallas, Miami hadn’t faced adversity in months. And by then, it was too late to learn how to deal with, and overcome it.
But this year? Adversity has followed the Heat everywhere they’ve gone.
Besides the constant drama that comes with simply “being the Heat,” Miami has had to deal with just about every kind of other adversity there is in these playoffs. They dealt with Chris Bosh’s injury. They dealt with Dwyane Wade struggling in ways that Dwyane Wade never struggles. They dealt with the Pacers trying to physically injure them, they dealt with Udonis Haslem’s suspension and they dealt with rumors that their coach would get fired and their team would get blown up if they lost Boston. Yet in the end all that adversity ended up rolling off their shoulders, and for the second year in a row, they’re four games away from being the NBA Champions.
Not to mention that the Heat have dealt with plenty of on the court adversity as well. You know, like when they fell down 2-1 to Indiana and faced a fired up, confident team in a do-or-die Game 4 on the road. Remember that? And remember when LeBron responded by going for 40-18-9, when Wade added 30-9-5, and when the Heat not only won that game, but the two that followed to close out the series? And do you also remember when Miami basically did the same thing against the Celtics? Remember when Boston had two games to finish the Heat, and send the franchise into a tailspin that they might recover from? And remember how Miami responded by winning Game 6 in Boston, before going home and closing out the series at home? Say what you want about the 2012 Miami Heat. But you simply can’t argue how mentally tough they are.
As a matter of fact, if you watched Game’s 6 and 7 closely, it wasn’t just that Miami beat Boston, but how they did it. Everyone is going to talk about LeBron’s epic Game 6, but as we all know, great games come and go, especially for the game’s greatest players. Instead, what really stood out to me was the way the Miami Heat- the team- closed out Boston in the second half of Game 7.
Did you notice how Miami played that night? Did you notice how it wasn’t about a group of superstars, but instead about a group of basketball players who simply “wanted it” more than the other team?
Now granted, I understand that’s tough to say, especially since the Heat’s Big Three combined to score all 28 of Miami’s fourth quarter points in Game 7. At the same time, what stood out weren’t the points themselves, but the plays that led up to them. It was about Dwyane Wade getting a key tip out late to give Miami an extra possession just as Boston was making a run. It was about Chris Bosh grabbing a critical board in traffic when his team needed it. And it was about Miami, as a team, stepping up and limiting the Celtics to just 15 points in the fourth quarter, and 35 in the second half. That doesn’t happen unless everyone is on the same page.
What might have been more telling than anything in Game 7- and what could be the difference in the Finals- might not have actually come on the court, but instead in the “celebration” that followed. Or should I say, “Lack of celebration” from Miami. Heck, I’ve seen funerals more lively than Miami was after they closed out Boston the other night. The Heat were stoic, quiet and seemingly not all that excited, as if everyone on that team knew “We haven’t accomplished our goals yet. There are four more wins to get.” Did anyone else notice that? Because I thought it spoke volumes to who the Heat are, and where they are a team right now.
And I do think that’s important, especially in comparison with how Oklahoma City celebrated their Western Conference Finals win a few nights before. For the Thunder, it really was a “celebration.” Guys jumped and hugged and joked, and in the case of Kevin Durant, he even laid a wet one on his momma’s cheek. The Thunder were acting like they were kids, in large part because they still are. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka have played in zero Finals between them. This will be LeBron and Wade’s third NBA Finals each. Like they have been the rest of these playoffs, I do think Miami will be ready when Game 1 tips off tonight.
Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t wrap up by talking about the 10,000 lb., headband-to-cover-up-his-receding-hairline elephant in the room, Mr. LeBron James himself. He has been to the NBA Finals before. He has largely underperformed. But I do think this is the year where things turn out differently.
Now, at the end of the day I do understand that to a lot of you, it doesn’t matter what LeBron does the next few games, nothing will change your opinion on the guy. Believe me, for a long time I was right there with you, and do understand where you’re coming from. Had you asked me two years ago or two months ago, I would’ve told you that I’d never root for LeBron again. I firmly believed that.
At the same time, let me ask you a serious question: Has there ever been another athlete- maybe another person in our society in general- who has taken so much crap, for such a trivial, insignificant thing as LeBron has? Seriously, think about it. Michael Vick ruthlessly and maliciously killed dogs. Ben Roethlisberger was involved in a messy sexual assault case. Tiger Woods broke his marriage vows hundreds of times over. LeBron James changed teams and was incredibly arrogant about it. Compared to what the first three did, why are we even mad at him to begin with?
Beyond that, and beyond the fact that LeBron brought this on himself, I’m going to ask you something: Could you possibly imagine being LeBron James? Forget all the fame and fortune, because what is it all worth when nobody likes you and everyone critiques every single thing you do? What could it possibly be like to see people picking you apart every time you turn on the TV, go on Twitter or read a newspaper? Picking apart the way you do your job, the words that come out of your mouth, the way you carry yourself? I don’t care how much money or fame LeBron has, he is human after all. How could anyone handle what he’s been forced to deal with?
And even if you’ll never like LeBron the person, why not at least enjoy LeBron the basketball player? If we’re all sports fans here (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a sports fan), why would you possibly want to see the most physically gifted basketball player in the history of the sport fail? In 30 or 40 years, wouldn’t you rather tell your grandkids “I saw LeBron James, the greatest basketball player ever” than “I saw LeBron James… and he choked every year! It was awesome!” If you seriously do prefer the latter to the former, well, that’s a problem with you, not LeBron.
To wrap this up as simply as I can, let me use another quote, this one from ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter. When describing his love for the NFL, I once heard Schefter say: “I don’t root for teams, I root for great stories.”
And to me, most sports (with the exception of UConn basketball) are the same way. As a fan, I just want to see the best players, play their best on the biggest stage, something that we will hopefully get start tonight. Give me a great story over any particular team or player. And what would be a better story than LeBron James finally coming through on the biggest stage in basketball? I can’t think of one.
In the end, I’ll save you the heavy basketball analysis and the one-on-one positional breakdowns, and instead tell you this: Now is the time for Heat and LeBron. This is the right team, with the right amount of toughness, against the perfect opponent, an Oklahoma City club which is a deserving challenger but still a bit green behind the ears. The Thunder will win plenty of titles of their own, but it won’t start in 2012. This year it’s all about the Heat. Nobody has overcome more, and nobody is more ready for the moment.
Give me Miami in six, and LeBron with his first ring as an NBA professional.
Whether you like it or not, it might be time to start rooting for Goliath.
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@Aaron_Torres Hey buddy. Check out (and RT please!) my CFB play-off idea... http://t.co/ttFYn0Fj