King Beats Brow: Witnessing NBA Present and Future in ClevelandNational Basketball Association
“It is the most exhilarating, and strengthening, and soothing. I would rather live on these hills than anywhere else in the world.”
—The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
They have built quite a show around the show he’s built around himself, which has become quite a show on its own merits over the past 12 years. The pregame hullabaloo in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland is so thoroughly LeBronned and overamplified that it makes Michael Bay look like a silent-film auteur. There are flames coming out of the scoreboard and, on the very large video screen, LeBron James is shown giving a pep talk to what appears to be the entire city. And the crowd eats it up with both hands and a soup ladle. It is the loudest and most hysterical act of absolution this side of a tent revival on the Oklahoma prairie, and it is all the more remarkable given that it is directed at a fellow who, when he decamped for Miami in 2010, was treated as though he had been revealed to be the long lost Iscariot brother. He’s come a long way, and he’s come a long way home, too.
“It’s always good to throw something out there and have it work out,” James said Monday night. Earlier this week, he had taken to the Twitter machine and all but promised the fans in Cleveland a better show than the Cavaliers had given them so far. Brimming with promise, and gravid with pure hype, the Cavs began the season 1-3. As was once said about a promising politician who couldn’t get his act together enough to get elected, the Cavaliers started off as a pile of pretty leaves pretending to be a tree.
On Monday night, in defeating the New Orleans Pelicans, 118-111, in a vastly entertaining game that seemed to be lifted whole from the days before Pat Riley’s Knicks turned everyone in the NBA into an Ostrogoth, they finally looked like that tree. James put up a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists, and Kyrie Irving also scored 32, with nine assists and five rebounds. Kevin Love added 22, including hitting six of nine 3-point shots. Cleveland seized control of the game in the third quarter, when James went off for 17, and the Cavaliers held the Pelicans — dear god, what a name! — to 35 percent shooting. This is what people expected to see, especially the explosive interaction between James and Irving.
“It’s getting better game by game, and it’s going to keep getting better,” James said. “That’s why I’m here, to try to help him get better in his process.”
It is hard to believe that James has been in the league for 12 years, that he’s still not 30 years old, and that he has passed into the mentor period of his still-vital superstardom. He was such an explosion of an event in his teens that he might have remained in the middle of that detonation for his entire career, like a distant nova that blew up hundreds of thousands of years ago, but that remains in the present because its light is just now reaching Earth. For LeBron James, there were first the rumors of his talent, and then the frenzy over his high school team, and then the hysteria over his decision to bypass college and turn pro, and then the constant surprise, over and again, throughout the initial five years of his career at how very good he really was. There was also the backlash, as he couldn’t keep Cleveland from being swept out of the Finals by San Antonio in 2007 and then, a year later, failed to get the Cavaliers past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals — and, suddenly, instead of loose talk about the next Michael Jordan, there were whispers about who could carry a team and who couldn’t.
Then there was “The Decision,” the spectacularly ill-advised media spectacular through which James announced that he would be taking his talents to South Beach, and leaving what was left of his reputation in Cleveland out in the sun to rot. Even as he and Miami piled up a couple of championships in 2012 and 2013, and as they got cut to ribbons last year by the Spurs, James remained in too many minds a symbol of a world that was changing in ways that made too many people much too uncomfortable. The string ran out in Miami, and he decided to return to Cleveland, and now he’s blessed, every home game, with all the fervor and passion that modern marketing can provide. Small wonder that, when asked Monday night whether he was where he wanted to be in his conditioning yet, James said, no, he wasn’t. “I’ve played a lot of basketball in the past few years,” he said. And he’s done a lot of other things, too, and it is his 12th year in the league, and he’s only 29, and people are talking about The Next One to the guy who pretty much invented the entire modern concept. The acceleration is generational now, and it is increasing, one player at a time.
There is no flash to the 21-year-old Anthony Davis. Not yet, anyway. There is great talent, but there also is a profound steadiness that amounts almost to elegance, and a patience that makes a liar out of his age. He had 27 points and 14 rebounds against the Cavaliers, and you nearly didn’t notice him at all. Two days earlier, in San Antonio, Davis had hit a layup to beat the Spurs and cap a 27-point, 11-rebound performance against the defending NBA champions. Then, he came into the event that is LeBron James, and he was remorselessly efficient in his play. His head remained so level, you could bowl on it.
“I just try to stay within the system, within the game,” he said. “I just got to be confident in myself. Patience is a huge part. I don’t chase shots or anything like that. I just let the game come to me, and it’s a lot easier to play that way.”
For his first two seasons, Davis showed great bursts of talent regularly interrupted by an almost ludicrous series of injuries. (Last year it was a broken hand, dislocated finger, sprained shoulder, twisted ankle, and back spasms that ended his season early.) This year, healthy at last, he has hit the regular season with a roar, leading the league in blocks and rebounds per game, and catching the attention of everyone around the NBA, including James, who made a point of complimenting Davis’s improvement fulsomely before the game.
“I don’t read that stuff,” Davis said. “I just want to win games, go to the playoffs, win championships, you know? That’s what he’s done, and I’ve yet to do that, so that’s where I want to get. It means a lot to have him say that. It’s a testament to all the work I put in last summer to get better, and it’s starting to show, but, at the same time, I can’t be satisfied.”
So, in addition to being a very good basketball game, this contest had to mean something beyond that, something about the generations passing each other. This is not fair to either man. LeBron James has not yet lost a step. He’s just husbanding them better. In his own way, he demonstrates the value of patience as much as Anthony Davis does. On Monday night, James was 1-for-4 with three points in the first quarter, but you could see him sizing up the flow of the game, easing into it, and then uncoiling, possession by possession, all the way to the end. Meanwhile, Davis was quietly piling up points and rebounds in his unhurried, economical way, and the generations stopped for a moment in their passing, and they existed in the same space, the same time, and in the same steady rhythm.