People are going to want to act like LeBron James is relishing this. That there’s a part of James who is vindictively and sadistically savoring the kid who took his trophy failing like this. But it’s not like that among athletes, and it’s not like that between LeBron James and Derrick Rose.
Because some part of James sees what Rose is going through and recognizes it, empathizes with it, understands it. This isn’t to make James into some highly empathetic figure, or a kind-hearted, benevolent statesman for the game. James has shown enough behavior to warrant a piece of the criticism he’s earned. Probably not the vilification to the degree of him embodying everything evil, but James is the person who dismissively throws his warm-ups off, who spreads his pre-game laundry out as a barrier to reporters, who didn’t shake Orlando’s hand in 2009, who did orchestrate “The Decision,” etc. He is that guy.
But he’s also a player who was burdened at an obscenely young age with the hopes of a franchise. He was given the responsibility of being The Chosen One (which he embraced with a tat on his back), and leading Cleveland out of darkness and into Valhalla. Cleveland. You know, where sports hope goes to die. I’m not rubbing this in, Cleveland. It’s unendurable what you’ve gone through as a city. But the high pressure of trying to save a desperate people did weigh on James. LeBron was bested in the playoffs by the best power forward in NBA history, one of the best defenses ever seen mechanized by a Big 3 which set the model for what James would later do, by a ridiculously hot shooting Magic team that if the NBA Playoffs were pop-a-shot in 2009 would have won enough tickets to buy the whole freaking Chuck-E-Cheese, and again by that same defense. He did it with supporting players like Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Wally Szczerbiak, Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao. He knows what it’s like to have the entire world expecting you to be better than five men at once, all of whom are actively trying to kill you.
James knows how Rose feels when he sees Kyle Korver missing threes, destroying the only reason he’s supposed to be on the floor. He knows what it’s like for Rose when the Bulls can’t create space, find a lane, attack the basket or get a shot off without him. He knows what it’s like to feel like you have to do everything, and to know the opponent knows that, and to know the opponent knows you know.
And he knows what it’s like to fail.
James knows Rose, more than most will discuss because of the neat theatrics of Rose dismissing James in a text message over the summer. It’s easier to paint Rose as a saint and James as an evil demon prowling the streets of Chicago before DRose sent him packing. But it ignores fairly obvious elements. Like Derrick Rose being a Calipari product. And LeBron James and his crew being thick as thieves with Calipari.
James knows Rose, and he knows what he’s been through. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, to be beat up, worn down, exhausted, and constantly looking to your teammates and wondering why they can’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, or what that defensive rotation was, or where they were passing it to, or why no one else can create their own shot. He’s worn the shoes Derrick Rose is wearing and knows how hard it is to face the microphones thrust in his face after not being able to get it done. James knows how Rose feels and it’s the cause of two things.
It’s why James keeps praising Rose, and it’s why James won’t let up on Rose for a second.
In Game 4, there was no clearer manifestation of James being the active deterrent to Rose. James blocked Rose’s notorious floater into the fifth row (ask Josh Smith how difficult that shot it to time). He blanketed Rose for the entire fourth, causing yet another in a long series of disastrous fourths for the MVP. He defended the game winning attempt, twice, forcing a turnover and a miss. Want proof of the effect James has on Rose? Rose misses more shots than he makes at the rim when LeBron James is on the floor in this series. It was key to the Heat’s 101-93 win in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead.
Derrick Rose is home. He’s a 22-year-old MVP on top of the world, playing for a shot in the Finals of a World Championship. He’s shouldering the load, playing long minutes (seriously, Tom Thibodeau doesn’t know the meaning of the world “breather”). He’s going through exactly what James went through year after year. It reminds James to stay consistent, to stay aggressive, to not go back to where Rose is. When this series is over, James will hug Rose and whisper in his ear words of encouragement the same way Kevin Garnett whispered in James’ ear last year. Because Garnett knew what it was like as well, to hold up a franchise, to be their Atlas, and to fail under the crushing weight. Eventually, the lesson goes (right or wrong), you have to go out and find your own support and stop waiting for management to give it to you. LeBron did and now he’s five wins away from the title that eluded him.
But when he whispers in Rose’s ear, it won’t be smug or pompous (no matter how smug or pompous James may be otherwise), it’ll be supportive and understanding. Basketball is a brotherhood, the marketing slogan says. But franchise saviors share a unique bond. It gives James no joy to do this to the MVP. But like everything else James has done over the past year…
It’s just business.
Game 5 is Thursday if Rose wants to delay that conversation a little longer.