Eerie similarities exist between the initial rise of two star-crossed superstars, connected in the search of their first.
It’s June. A city overlooks a beach –an inviting escape from the heat of the early summer sun. And yet, thousands of people are packed into a single arena, witnesses to the onslaught of greatness.
A man of twenty-eight takes the court. He’s yet to prove that he can secure his stardom on the biggest stage. His accolades are many, but his fingers are ring-less. He’s fresh off his reception of the season MVP award. But it isn’t enough. There’s something left to prove. There’s a trophy he covets more than any personal achievement.
It’s Game Five. The opposing team took the first game, but his team took momentum. They’re ready to seize the moment –to pry it from their opponents’ fingers before the series can run its course. Who needs seven games when you can do it in five? He takes the court, determined. Then, he fulfills his destiny. He wins. The night ends with him clutching the championship trophy for dear life, bookended by his Finals MVP trophy glistening beside him. It’s the moment he’s been waiting for all his life.
This isn’t the story of Lebron James.
It’s the story of Michael Jordan, circa 1991, when the legacy of the greatest ever, His Airness, the best who has ever played –truly began. It’s a story, though, that should sound very familiar. 21 years and very few details separate the narratives of Jordan’s and James’ first rings. After all, James isn’t twenty-eight. He’s twenty-seven. And Jordan clinched in Los Angeles, not Miami. These are semantics. In the end, both nights featured the game’s best current player earning the distinction that separates stars from legends.
But the similarities don’t stop there –at a clinching game five, a 4-1 series win, and an MVP for both the season and its subsequent culminating games. No; the path to the first ring for both James and Jordan arrived in games of destiny –two games seemingly connected across time.
Jordan clinched Game Five with a dynamite performance. He scored 30 points, dished out ten assists, shot 12 of 23 (52%) from the field, and 6-8 (75%) from the line. But, like any star in a team sport, he couldn’t close the series alone. His co-star didn’t fade from the spotlight. Scottie Pippen scored 32 points, secured thirteen rebounds, shot 11 of 12 from the free-throw line, and found his teammates for seven assists.
And it didn’t stop there. An integral facet of Jordan’s first (and certainly not last) stand resided in the hot hands of a role player. Shooting guru John Paxson scored an astounding 20 points in that game on 9 of 12 shooting, helping secure the ring that Jordan had so long coveted.
All of this, despite what the 4-1 series tally may suggest, came against a worthy Western foe in the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan had to stare down a legitimate star to win this series –some guy by the name of Magic Johnson. Magic didn’t no-show in this series-clinching game. He dropped a triple-double (16 points/11 rebounds/20 assists) in the loss. A spark-plug off the bench by the name of Elden Campbell scored 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting. But it wasn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t win when you’re up against destiny. And a new king of basketball was crowned that night.
Stop me when this starts to sound familiar.
Lebron James, like Michael Jordan of 1991, shined brightest in his biggest moment. Last night, beneath the pressure of the entire basketball world, he (finally, to some) lived up to the hype. In a close-out game, he rolled the Thunder with his own triple-double, scoring 26 points, snagging eleven rebounds, dispersing thirteen assists, and all-the-while shooting an astounding 8 of 9 (89%) from the free-throw line and 9 of 19 (47%) from the field. It was a performance that took the critics who said that James always shrinks in the biggest moments, and shoved their faces in a metaphorical toilet –their feet firmly into their own mouths.
But, once again, this first ring didn’t come on a solo act. Lebron’s co-star stood tall by his side. Dwayne Wade, after an arguably disappointing playoffs, finished on a respectable note. He scored 20 points, somehow grabbed eight rebounds, and shot perfect from behind the line. For the second time, this time as a second (but still very musical) fiddle, Wade won the last series of the year.
And I’d be remised to not mention a shooter that came off the bench and made John Paxson of 1991 and sharp-shooters everywhere proud. Mike Miller, with a stunning display beyond the arc, played his role, scoring 23 points on 7-11 shooting.
Like the Bulls, the Heat won 4-1 over a team that shouldn’t be dismissed. The Thunder proved throughout the season and postseason to be a threat. In the end, though, their superstar and cast of young studs couldn’t compete with destiny. Durant, like Magic, didn’t disappear in the role of best player on the losing team. He scored 32 points last night, and completed his double-double with 11 rebounds. And James Harden, after disappearing for most of the finals, provided that Elden Campbell-like (this will be the first and last time Harden is every compared to Elden Campbell…and for good reason) spark-plug off the bench, scoring 19 points and shooting six for six from the charity stripe.
But once again, it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough when the player on the other side has more than superstardom –he had destiny on his side.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The signs were in the stars, as well as Basketball’s storied past. We’ve seen this movie before. But damn, it’s so good, it’s worth a second watching.
The rest of Michael Jordan’s career, obviously, is history, legacy, and quintessential NBA superstardom. After that fateful June night, when the final seconds leaving the scoreboard of a Game Five secured Jordan’s legacy as a champion, he never looked back. He would win five more of those rings, the final one coming at the age of 35, bringing back the same smile that found the face of a 28-year-old that won when he had everything to lose. It’s a career that many still call the best we’ve ever seen.
Lebron James doesn’t deserve to walk in such company. Not yet. But there’s something strange about the way these star-crossed superstars found a way to connect. They belong to two separate generations, two different styles of basketball, and two different journeys. And yet, the defining moment that forged the first ring for each of them feels very much the same.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence that these two separate journeys could intersect across time and space. Perhaps it is blasphemy for me to wonder if Lebron is on a similar path to greatness. But ask anyone that watched or played in last night’s game; there was more than pure talent at work. It went beyond basketball. At some point, the end was inevitable. The superstar would rise, and in the end, see the reflection of his smile in the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence, and star-crossed superstars will once again go separate ways. Or perhaps, like last night, there’s something else in the air. Perhaps this is fate. Perhaps this is destiny.