Ironically, despite his gargantuan frame, the giant managed to silently and meekly creep to his seat. With a heart as heavy as his legs, those blinding, beaming lights and flashing bulbs had difficulty finding his eyes. LeBron James found refuge under his baseball cap.
“Obviously, it’s a dramatic situation to be in,” James said after letting out a boisterous sigh.
“But it is what it is.”
A departure from the norm, James didn’t appear as his mighty self. He wasn’t certain, he wasn’t excited and he wasn’t confident or basking in sweet victory.
Yet still, despite finding himself on the precipice of his fifth loss in the NBA Finals, LeBron James was still LeBron James.
True to himself, still, after all these years, he was still The Man In The Arena.
* * * * * *
About 13 months after his term as President of the United States expired, then-President Theodore Roosevelt had awoken one spring morning in Paris. Nine years earlier, he had improbably inherited a United States of America that was reeling after the assassination of President William McKinley, Jr.
Valiantly, President Roosevelt assumed the office, and despite dissension from within his own party, admirably laid the foundation for what would become an economic genesis for the country.
And on this day in Paris—on April 23, 1910—President Roosevelt told the world something quite important.
In a speech entitled Citizenship In A Republic that he delivered at the University of Paris that day, he delivered a message that has echoed throughout American history and has been applicable across all walks of life. The message was incredibly simple, yet certainly profound.
Worry not with your critics, the President said.
Today, LeBron James reminds you of the same.
With his team’s season hanging in the balance, James made a fateful decision to refrain from taking a shot that could have clinched Game 3 for his Cavaliers. That he passed, of course, caused an immediate uproar from those that dissect and criticize his every move.
“I don’t even really care,” James said of his critics.
“One of my favorite quotes, when I really stopped caring about what people say, is Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Man in the Arena,’” he said. “So if you read that, you’ll see where I’m at right now in my life.”
In “The Man in the Arena,” President Roosevelt, using his own experience as a lens, encourages mankind to pursue their own goals and their own greatness on their own terms. Win or lose, those that haven’t walked a mile in your shoes will criticize your decisions and process.
In the end, the public should revere the man that’s actually in the arena, for his foray requires true courage.
* * * * * *
Seemingly larger than life itself, James was a household name by the time he was 17 years old. He stood head and shoulders above each of his peers, and it was then that he began to draw comparisons to Michael Jordan.
Certain to be the next big thing, James embraced our attention, our critiques and our expectations.
Still, though it all, he remained something remarkable. Through it all, he has simply remained LeBron James.
Over the years, we have failed to typecast him. His all-around game was reminiscent of Oscar Robertson, but his passing ability and court vision rivaled that of Magic Johnson. He wasn’t a perimeter player necessarily, but his post-game had been subpar. He lacked the selfishness of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and, to his core, stuck to the simple belief that there was no “I” in team—sometimes, to his detriment.
And even as the ghost of Michael Jordan appears before him—even as the whispers of James and his mighty legacy supplanting some of the greatest players ever grow louder—James has remained the same.
Through it all, he has continued to play the game his way, on his own terms.
So, with his team trailing 0-2 in the 2017 NBA Finals, James saw Kevin Love and J.R. Smith set him staggered screens. Extended out to the half court logo, with his team leading by two points, with an opportunity to potentially seal the game and preserve an opportunity at back-to-back championships, James saw Draymond Green in front of him. He raised his right hand, instructing Smith to stay put. He took three dribbles with his left hand before crossing back over to his right. After he and Green played a perimeter game of cat-and-mouse, James drove to his left, making a beeline toward the basket. By the time he had gotten to the free throw line, James had Green on his hip and Kevin Durant standing outside of the restricted area. With Stephen Curry cheating off of Kyle Korver momentarily, Kevin Love managed to strategically stand between Korver and Curry, effectively giving Korver a screen that would give him the time and separation to get off what would have been a game-clinching three point look.
The play worked to perfection, only Korver couldn’t deliver.
Soon thereafter, Kevin Durant did.
Even the most ardent James supporters grow frustrated with his willingness to cede those moments to his teammates. As James continues to draw comparisons to both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it has been noted—and perhaps rightfully so—that neither would have made that pass in that situation.
James, on the other hand, would do it again.
“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation,” James said before describing exactly how the play unfolded.
“… I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest three-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner,” he said.
“I would do the same exact thing.”
James knows who he is, and long ago refused to try to play by anybody else’s rules. He leaves the debates of his place in history to us and puts adherence to his basketball principles above all else.
In short, while still playing the game to win, James truly plays as if he has nothing to prove.
That, above all else, is what makes him remarkable.
* * * * * *
For more than 15 years, the world has told LeBron to be Michael Jordan and has dared him to compete with Kobe Bryant. Pundits have implored him to play selfishly and revert to hero basketball in tight, waning moments. Through it all, James has shrugged off those suggestions and continued to play his game, his way and on his terms.
He has taken the words of President Roosevelt to heart and, long ago, decided to worry not with his critics.
Over the course of his 14-year NBA career, as James has accumulated a career accolades most-wanted list and steadily ascended the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, we have spent far too much time trying to fit him into a box rather than simply appreciate him for what and who he is. Because “greatness” isn’t defined, the only objective measure used to make inter-generational comparisons are championship rings. Less attention is paid to things like the amount of teams in the league vying for championships, the skill level of the game’s elite players or the division of conferences. What’s most unfortunate is that of all things, when trying to define greatness, the least amount of attention is paid to how a player actually plays the game.
One could argue, though, that it is there that true greatness is most revealed. The NBA had only 18 teams as late as 1974. Fewer teams and no free agency, one could argue, diminishes the credibility of the 13 championship rings that Bill Russell has. During the time that Michael Jordan dominated the league, the Western Conference, one could argue, wasn’t as talented as their Eastern counterparts. As for Kobe Bryant, three of his five championships were won with Shaquille O’Neal, and O’Neal was named the Most Valuable Player in each of those three Finals appearance.
In other words, if one were to dissect any all-time great and the circumstances under which they found success, it would be easy to discredit them.
James has long understood this, which is precisely why he has long ceased trying to play by everyone else’s rules.
As a true team-first player, James took just as much joy in feeding Mike Miller and Shane Battier and watching Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving’s fateful three pointers as he did putting the Spurs away in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Extended out to center court, with his heart racing, his sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. With his mouth dry and his breath short, James looked up at the ticking clock. He made his move around Mario Chalmers’ screen, and although Tony Parker showed, Kawhi Leonard was slow to switch back out onto him. James had an opening, and despite being regarded as a poor shooter, pulled the trigger on a 20-footer that found the bottom of the net.
With a four-point lead, his Miami HEAT would eventually find their way to victory in one of the finest Game 7 performances we have ever seen: 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
What truly lies at the root of the crowd that contends that James isn’t “clutch” is nothing more than a false perception. The reason the public doesn’t believe James to be good in clutch situations is less about the extent to which he has hit big shots than it is the fact that he is just as willing to cede them to his teammates.
If there is a fault to find in that, it would be that James may be underestimating the extent to which others have the capacity to come up big in the most trying moments.
Just because Korver is a 43 percent three point shooter over the course of his career doesn’t mean that he can convert a game-clinching shot in the NBA Finals.
Above all, though, what makes James truly special is his willingness to find out. He is a rare example of a superstar player who can live with the results, so long as he makes what he feels is the right play.
Having taken each of two franchises to four NBA Finals, James has dominated the game in a way that no other player in the contemporary era has. His unimpressive record in those Finals appearances, truly, is more an indictment on the individuals that he had surrounding him than they are of his individual greatness. Despite that, he always has been and always will be willing to trust those very teammates, even when everything is on the line.
In the same way that Stephen Curry made it cool for a generation to shoot step back jump shots and Vince Carter made it cool for a generation to boost their verticals, James made it cool to share the wealth and to be willing to live and die by giving others an opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
And depending on how you define greatness, in a way, one could certainly argue that his refusal to play by anyone else’s rules truly makes James the man in the arena.
Without question, James is very different from both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And that’s okay. He has long since stopped trying to live up to their standards.
Frankly, it’s probably about time we stop expecting him to.
PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More
Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.
Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia
Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.
After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.
On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.
Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.
When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.
“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”
While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.
“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”
The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.
Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.
Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.
So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.
“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”
In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.
Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.
“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”
On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.
“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”
After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.
“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”
Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.
“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”
NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics
With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.
Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.
After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.
“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”
Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.
“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”
Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.
“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”
While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.
“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”
With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.
“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”
While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.
“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”
With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.