By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
As the final buzzer hummed and a celebration a full calendar year in the making ensued, confetti rained down upon LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates as swiftly as their onslaught on the Miami Heat Sunday in the last game of the NBA’s unprecedented bubble setting.
The buzzer was appreciated, it signaled the merciful end to a lopsided Game 6 that the new champions had no problem in. Meanwhile, the confetti and the other merriment were a bit more conflicting, signaling the conclusion of what had become an overall compelling NBA Finals.
In the middle of it all, the basketball player I’ve enjoyed most outside of the standard-bearer to whom he’s most often compared, had just procured his fourth overall NBA Championship and with his third team. Seeing James pose with the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy for the fourth time was supposed to be captivating, or so I anticipated it being.
It wasn’t, though.
I’ve unapologetically supported James throughout his pro career — from his debut in Sacramento’s ARCO Arena to “The Decision” to his Tinseltown takeover, even giving him credit for every potential game-winning shot along the way that he readily conceded to a teammate.
So, to feel detachment in this moment where so many others were reveling in their King James standom was…strange.
Had I fallen that head-over-glass-slipper heeled for the Heat? I dare anyone to deny their heart grew softer over time while watching this team built in the image of its anti-superstar, Jimmy Butler, slug its way through the Eastern Conference playoffs. (Anyone who rooted for Indiana, Milwaukee and Boston need not reply. Sorry.)
Was my sudden indifference a result of the anticlimactic season finale along with angst over the uncertain start of the next? Miami seemed to be onto something after losing two of its best three players along with the first pair of games in this series. Whether a result of fatigue or Los Angeles’ decision to stop playing with its food, Sunday’s woefully forgettable affair is the last NBA action we’ll see until at least January or perhaps even (gasp) March.
Could it be that with his 10th Finals appearance, James had occupied the championship stage enough times to become an arbitrary villain? James’ opponents were favored in seven of those instances. This wasn’t one of them. The odds were more heavily stacked in James’ favor this time than with any other Finals opponent in his career, according to OddsShark.
Admittedly, it was more enjoyable to cheer for James as he hunted his first championship, fended off the shrewdly-seasoned San Antonio Spurs and fought to the death against modern basketball’s darlings, the Golden State Warriors.
Was the inevitable — and indomitable — juxtaposition of James and Michael Jordan to blame? Intentionally or not, James has been chasing Jordan’s ghost since he formally introduced himself to the world 17 years ago, that much is inarguable and it’ll continue to be a main storyline of James’ career until it concludes.
The fact is even with James’ brilliance, there still remains an entire hall-of-fame career — two NBA championships, two Finals MVP awards, one Defensive Player of the Year and regular season MVP award, four All-Defensive First-Team awards, and nine scoring titles — existing between the two generational phenomenons. But, how you prefer your G.O.A.T. is really none of my business.
Further exploration caused me to attribute my lack of enthusiasm to a unique combination of all of the above factors. One thing that can’t be given credit to is any credence to the belief that this bizarre season deserved to be branded with a scarlet asterisk.
Between two stoppages in play, the consolidated wearing of time in isolation and reaction to social activism outside the bubble, as well as the absence of tangible fan reaction, this campaign was peppered with unprecedented challenges. Even the Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams thought to be on a collision course at the end of the season before its start, stumbled. To that end, this season was no less meaningful than any other, it will likely live on as more memorable, if not meaningful.
James finally tied a bow around the 2019-2020 season nearly a full calendar year after it began and not just the NBA season, for this was really the first season where this league that so often stands on its own, converged with the momentum and ideals and timing of the WNBA, NHL, NFL, MLS, and MLB.
The tap that we were thirsting for at the coming of summer is now dry and needs refilling. Maybe that better explains my reaction.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago