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Can anything stop LeBron James?
There was a time, before Buster Douglas erased his aura of invincibility and before prison eroded his skill and will, when boxers feared, avoided and melted in Iron Mike Tyson’s presence the way golfers weakened in Tiger’s shadow before Thanksgiving 2009.
This all came to a head for Tyson in 1988, his 35th professional fight. He stormed across the ring and eviscerated a quivering, previously undefeated, 31-year-old heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. Spinks never fought again.
Tyson became a legend, the baddest man on the planet and arguably its most famous. Two months after the Spinks fight and just seven months after his first marriage, Tyson and Robin Givens sat down with Barbara Walters on 20/20 and gave us our first significant glimpse into the price of evoking that kind of fear, legend and fame.
A decade later, Tiger Woods Mike-Tysoned the golf world, winning the Masters by 12 strokes, provoking widespread panic throughout golf clubhouses and launching his legend and fame to the outer reaches of our imagination.
Like Tyson, Tiger lost whatever level of sanity he possessed inside the maze of sex, obscene wealth, dishonesty and fawning, my-way-or-the-highway relationships created by seemingly unchecked and unchallenged power and fame.
Does this fate await LeBron James?
Let me clarify. I don’t know anything about LBJ’s personal life. That is not my point. My point is that he is — like Tyson and Tiger — a child phenom who is in the early stages of dominating his sport the way Tiger and Tyson once did. LeBron is separating his level of performance from his peers and inspiring the kind of awe and fear that Tyson did in the 1980s and Tiger did in the 2000s.
Just three short weeks ago, I argued that my Indiana Pacers, led by the baby dragon Paul George, might pose a serious challenge to James and the Heat. Other noted NBA watchers and pontificators, including Bill Simmons, sang the same tune. I’ve watched nearly every Pacers game since the All-Star break. You can’t see it yet in their record — they’re 7-2 since the break — but the Pacers are melting under the heat of expectations. I’m not optimistic about Sunday’s showdown with the Heat in Miami.
George is relying on his jumper too much and declining to consistently attack the basket and get to the free-throw line. Indiana’s bench, always a weakness, is regressing. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz appears to be right — the Pacers needed to make a move (J.J. Redick) at the trade deadline to strengthen their bench, especially now that Danny Granger’s knee is sore again.
The lack of a deadline move indicates that Pacers management believes LeBron is too good to be challenged right now. The Pacers will wait.
But it’s not just the Pacers. Look at the Clippers. They won 17 straight games in late November and all of December. They were the talk of the league. Expectations jumped on their back and, after a 25-6 start, they’ve gone 19-14 since. No way this should happen with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the same roster — even with Vinny Del Negro as coach.
The Knicks? It’s not just the blistering three-point shooting that has disappeared. The Knicks can’t get it together because Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are not committed to figuring out to how play together. The truth is, Melo is comfortable with it being LeBron’s league. If he wasn’t, he’d shave 10 pounds and two percent body fat, move to small forward and challenge King James.
Maybe the Thunder are serious. But I won’t believe it until I see Russell Westbrook consistently play the right way, which might only happen when/if Kevin Durant musters the courage to put Westbrook in his place.
LeBron’s peers are conceding. His contemporaries are ducking him. They’re uninterested in doing what’s necessary to beat him. LeBron is reaching a different kind of Tyson Zone, not the one Simmons has made famous, the one in which it is possible to believe any and every bizarre story uttered about a celebrity athlete. This Tyson Zone revolves around an athlete becoming so dominant, so supremely skilled and focused above his peers and so hyped that he’s feared.
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It is rare for a great athlete — even the greatest — to elicit fear from his contemporaries, peers and opponents. Joe Frazier wasn’t afraid of Muhammad Ali. Neither were Ken Norton and George Foreman.
Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller lived in Jordan’s shadow, but not in fear of it. The Isiah Thomas-led Pistons bullied Jordan and delayed his ascension.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shared many characteristics — trepidation of the other was not one of them.
At the highest level of athletics, fear is rare. The kind of ego it takes to reach the top leaves precious little room for anxiety, awe or doubt laced with a touch of cowardice. The great ones are like Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. They want to wear the crown, and they pursue it ruthlessly knowing full well the consequences of its weight.
“Sounds like one dem good problems,” Marlo responded famously when his elderly mentor warned him of the burdens that come along with sitting at the head of the table.
“Prison and graveyards full of boys who wore the crown,” the mentor retorted.
“Point is they wore it,” Marlo said. “It’s my turn to wear it now.”
Does anyone besides LeBron really want to wear the crown?
Kobe does. But he’s on a team with the wrong coach and the wrong sidekick and Kobe has the wrong strategic and leadership philosophy.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili want to wear the crown. But they’re too old, too beat up.
Kobe, Pierce, Garnett, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki aren’t LeBron’s peers anyway. They had their time.
The responsibility of challenging LeBron rests with the young hoppers. They don’t want it. Hey, maybe the league doesn’t want it. Tyson and Tiger were great for boxing and golf, respectively. They drove interest and relevance and dollars.
We’ve never seen anything like the pairing of James and Dwyane Wade. Two superstars playing at this level of efficiency, shooting over 50 percent from the field. They invented and perfected the three-quarter-court, alley-oop outlet pass. They popularized the chase-down, hear-my-footsteps blocked shot at the rim. They’re lethal at both ends of the court. James and Wade are 94 feet of hell. It might take a fluke or an injury to stop the Heat’s winning streak.
Experts will debate James vs. Jordan for eternity. James-Wade vs. Jordan-Pippen has been settled. James and Wade are the winners.
The losers are Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and all the people counting on them to dethrone King James.
Looks like we’ll be reduced to waiting for James to fall into Simmons’ Tyson Zone.