The aesthetic differences between passing and dribbling are so vast that it seems incongruous that they are the twin methods of movement in basketball, the only two acceptable styles of moving the ball. One reeks of ease and fluidity, swinging from one side of the court to the other in such quick, flowing motions that the motions of passing make the sometimes incredibly difficult acts being performed seem quotidian; the other defines itself through repetition and deception through breaking that repeated action, essentially making the act of dribbling a ball a repudiation of itself. We all know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about both of them, too: passers play the right way, while too much dribbling will inevitably lead to the end of human civilization as we know it. The greatest offense of all-time, occasionally still on display in Los Angeles whenever Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom feel like running it, entirely predicates itself around the notion of constant ball movement through the pass (and who the hell is anyone to argue with Tex Winter, Phil Jackson or 11 rings?). Basketball’s Moses, Dr. James Naismith, never even originally included the act of dribbling, now probably the first thing any young ball player ever did or learned, in his initial 13 rules of the game.
As this generation seems to have cornered the market on ugly, the decade of the Aughts that we have just exited had a beginning defined by its dribblers, practitioners of a repellent art that garnered as many groans through the first 18 seconds of a ball repeatedly being bounced against hardwood as it did “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” in its last six seconds of crossovers and impossible fadeaways that might fall in the basket through sheer providence. As Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury looked down their opponents while twisting that rock between their legs and around their backs, usually going nowhere, a young, impressionable LeBron James watched, taking mental notes even if he didn’t want to do so.
The first time I remember talking about LeBron James to a person whose life did not revolve around hoops was at some sort of family get-together with a particularly disagreeable uncle of mine. The 2004 NBA Playoffs had just started with James at home, not even part of the real show that’s supposed to define greats like James was supposed to be. My uncle told me that he wasn’t impressed by the kid’s game, never wowed by his play in the same way that Michael Jordan had captured his and every other American’s in the Nineties. This discussion happened after LeBron had just posted a ludicrous rookie campaign, one that would win him Rookie of the Year honors a few weeks after my uncle opened his big mouth and had left us all with raw numbers that seemed incomprehensible: almost 21 points and six assists to go along with five boards. I had read books: those were Oscar-Robertson-type numbers, the kind people who played after 1970 weren’t supposed to get (at the time, I probably thought such because today’s players didn’t do it “the right way”, as this all happened long before the word “pace” became a typical part of my vocabulary. I also thought Wilt Chamberlain was the best player ever).
But my uncle, in his own coarse way, had a point. People did not line up to see this man-child, this freak, like they had Jordan (or like they now flock to see the Blake). Maybe his team took too long to get off the ground (it is rarely remembered that the King missed the playoffs in his first two seasons), or maybe it was that said team operated out of the bustling media metropolis that is Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe Kobe was too busy carving up guys for 40+ for those with untrained eyes so as to make LeBron’s balanced but violent attack seem too mundane or boorish. Maybe LeBron is just kind of a boring person (that part he definitely got from Mike, not AI). Whatever the reason, the guy that was obviously on the path to becoming this league’s best player was not being embraced with open arms by anyone but David Stern, seeing his first real opportunity to create a Thing, the one that viewers take time out of their busy lives to see play ball, post-Jordan. After the brawl, he became the face of the league, a face with which no fan seemed particularly thrilled.
Why was Stern’s bet so misplaced? Bron certainly did and has taken his rightful place as this league’s greatest player and force, but Stern’s dream of LeBron as Michael never was realized, probably because LeBron’s game, effective and revolutionary as it is, couldn’t realize it. For seven long years in the ice of the Midwest, James willed his teams to victories more often than not, pounding the ball into the hardwood until he could create through twists, elevation or raw power. As immortalized in his 48-point, single-handed decimation of the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, James would generally be defended perfectly, masterfully even, and still find new ways of scoring because he was just that damn good. His abilities and unseen size to go along with those otherworldly skills constructed new ways of getting points through his own force or his ability to distribute, breaking the planes of what had traditionally been considered good offensive play. The problem was that none of it looked particularly transcendent for the vast majority of those successful possessions, and when the offense stalled and those glorious failures turned opportunities just remained failures, nothing looked more disjointed and disagreeable than the offense of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While many blamed the unimaginative offensive sets of Paul Silas and Mike Brown or the lack of usable talent surrounding the King, plenty of observers remarked on the fact that every effective Cavs play seemed to end in a stat for LeBron, the triple-double machine (it is important to note that James began to also covertly and absurdly take on the designation of a “loser” because of his team’s inability to win a title. In his first seven years. Ugh). Suddenly, his proclivity for passing, after what seemed a month of pounding the ball, of course, became a symbol of James’ selfishness, proof that he only wanted to make the plays that would pad his numbers. The situation reminds me of a line in the ever-insightful Free Darko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History focused on another game-changing/destroying freak of nature, Wilt Chamberlain. In describing a season in which Chamberlain led the league in assists as a statement to those who called Wilt selfish, Bethlehem Shoals said of Chamberlain, “It’s a macho journalistic cliché to write that some athletes ‘don’t get it,’ but sometimes you have to wonder if the game came too easily to Wilt for him to ever inhabit it naturally.” James had similarly found himself painted as an unnatural talent that may have stomped around and got buckets easily but not attractively, the greatest sin any megastar could commit, and if those numbers could not be translated into championships, then he was nothing more than another greedy, unrepentant ballhog, albeit one of the best ever.
Thursday night against the unprepared Orlando Magic, the world saw a different LeBron James, one that could just as easily use his size to bully his way for tip-ins and putbacks on the offensive glass as he could disrupt defenders ever so subtly before he pulled back for another jumper, all free of the kind of ball domination with which James had become identified. Through his reportedly heinous move to Miami, James has found the offensive options that allowed him to gallop around the way that David Stern probably hoped he would eight years ago. The villainy he’s supposedly taken on might just overshadow a drastic change in play that might make this game’s best one of its most breathtaking to watch, but James showed what lies on the other side Thursday night, even as he threw up some more of those vile “numbers”. Iverson and Chamberlain hold very different legacies, but both bore the brunt of breaking the ice, changing fans’ expectations even if those fans didn’t want them changed. LeBron’s already done the same, and the winning that never truly went along with AI and Wilt will likely comes to the boy King. The question now is, will we allow LeBron to make the game pretty again? Thursday night gave us signs that we’ll have to because the King doesn’t seem to care.