Ernest Hemingway defined it as “grace under pressure.” Rudyard Kipling called it the ability to meet with “triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” However it is defined, Lebron James doesn’t have it… or at least he has not grown into it at this stage of his career.
Joe Montana had it. Montana, in Super Bowl XXIII, faced with 90 yards of field, trailing by three points with a little more than three minutes left in the game, huddled his team together during a TV timeout. Montana scanned the crowd, pointed and exclaimed, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?” His teammates broke out in laughter. Every 49er smiled, exhaled, and proceeded to flawlessly execute their way down the field to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals.
Magic Johnson had it. That winning smile. Whether it was a blowout or crunch time, Magic had the same demeanor. Jordan had it too. You could see it in his posture, his facial expressions. “Winning time” was when it got fun for Michael. He wanted the ball. He craved the moment.
Not so with Lebron. Watching him in these Finals has been painful, just as painful as watching him against the Celtics last year in Cleveland. Lebron James isn’t having fun out there. As the pressure has escalated, Lebron has become visibly more tense. You can see it in his face. You can see it in his body. Lebron doesn’t crave these moments; he endures them, hoping to get through them.
James is still a fantastic player. Quietly in Game 5 he put up a triple double. News flash: players that record triple double in a Game 5 of the NBA Finals tied at 2-2 have done something remarkable. For three quarters, Lebron drove aggressively to the basket, rebounded with authority, and deftly distributed the ball to his teammates. Then came the fourth quarter.
Lebron missed open jumpers, any of which could have given Miami the upper hand. He passed up opportunities to drive. In short, Lebron didn’t want the ball in the “moment.” Nowitzki did. Even Jason Terry did. Does that make them better players? Not exactly.
Lebron is showing us in these Finals not that he’s a bad player, just that he’s human. Montana, Magic, Jordan… these players are the special ones, the exceptions to the rule, the ones who are immune to pressure. If anything, pressure elevated their games. They thrived when others trembled.
Whether it’s the pressure of the moment, or as Stephen A. Smith alluded to, there are off-the-court factors influencing Lebron’s psyche, it’s clear that he is not a man for the moment. And that’s OK. He’s still a fabulous player, with abilities unlike any other who has ever played the game. Whether he ever sinks a deciding shot in an NBA Finals won’t affect his sure-fire Hall of Fame status. Lebron has a choice, however, as he enters the final two games of this series and the rest of his career.
He can become that player who relishes the moment, which is unlikely. Or he can recognize who he is and come to terms with it. No doubt, Lebron chose to take his talents to South Beach because he wouldn’t have to be “the man” there as he was in Cleveland. Somewhere, Lebron realizes his shoulders aren’t strong enough to support an entire team. Lebron needs to defer in these moments, to focus on the little things. While we’re all looking for him to knock down the winning jumper, Lebron needs to focus on grabbing the winning rebound, making the winning defensive stop, or finding the open player when he’s double-teamed in the final seconds.
In short, Lebron needs to adjust his ego to fit his nature. There’s no shame in not being Montana, Magic, or Jordan. 99.9% of the sports world (or the business world for that matter) aren’t. Lebron can get his rings… if he is willing to engage in some honest self-assessment and play to his strengths and not his weaknesses. That is the mark of a great player.