Heat Strokes, Games 15-18: The Meaning Of The Bump

FreeDarko's Bethlehem Shoals, a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse and co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (visit the FreeDarko store, too!), is keeping a game-by-game diary of the Heat's season — the one you're pretending not to care about.

Result: Magic 104, Heat 95; Heat 99, 76ers 90; Mavericks 106, Heat 95; Heat 105, Wizards 94
Record: 10-8

When we were all subjected to The Decision, and danced around and said how rotten it was, some especially clever folks contrasted it with Michael Jordan's "The Shot." Just as MJ's fateful jumper in Cleveland set the stage for the rest of his career, the thinking went, so too would The Decision forever cast James as a middling clown. Except there had been another shot before "The Shot," when the UNC freshman sealed the 1982 NCAA championship. And there was another one much later, over Bryon Russell in 1998, that sealed the deal with immortality. The Decision, for all the build-up and rage that followed, was a sideshow. I'm sorry, but no athlete of LeBron's magnitude can have his career defined by a bad infomercial.

Thank god, then, for The Bump. James didn't quite lay hands on his coach, but the intent was there. The Shot proved Jordan the most bloodthirsty of competitors; The Bump demonstrated that LeBron respects no boundaries but his own, thus meaning we need set no boundaries in our abuse of him. It couldn't have come at a better time, either. On Thursday, James makes his first return to Cleveland since Judas-ing the brave and humble city that produced him (or, more precisely, the brave and humble city that lies just 40 miles from the braver and humbler city that produced him). Dan Gilbert has promised no Gestapo, which is a relief, and yet that poorly chosen analogy does give you some indication of how dire the emotions surrounding this game are. It also shows you just how sneaky the otherwise foolhardy Gilbert has been (at least this once). The Gestapo was a terrible awful thing that served to repress and destroy whole populations during World War II. In this case, this hypothetical force would be deployed because multi-national interests outside of the city didn't want to see LeBron insulted, maimed, or killed. Where would this Gestapo come from? Nike, Stern, China, anywhere but here. Who wields the Gestapo? Hitler. If you squint hard enough, Dan Gilbert called LeBron James Hitler, and only I noticed.

And that was before The Bump. I have been one of the foremost LeBron defenders in this field, but at best, this falls under the "warts and all" rubric. You don't lay hands on a coach; it's like the rule about women, mixed with the mind-fuck that occurs when you realize you can kick your dad's ass. Or, rather, it should be like that, if there is to be any semblance of order on a basketball team. A team run by players, or a coach who panders to them, still has a coach. When he gets pushed around, not only does all civilization fall by the wayside, but we have entered a whole new dimension of ugliness. The super-ego has totally unraveled, and next thing you know, the ushers are throwing Molotov cocktails into the luxury boxes, courtside seats are burned for warmth, and the Jumbotron shows dubbed versions of that great Italian sitcom Somewhere Not Anywhere, Mustache. No one cares that Sprewell nearly killed P.J. Carlesimo. It was the symbolic act that mattered.

Then again, there is a way to spin all this. Unless you are one of those weak-ass busters who think LeBron James lacks the clutch or has some other flaw as a player that makes him damaged goods, criticism of LBJ always keys in on personality and persona. With a lifelong product like LeBron, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, or even if there's any difference between the two. The early, jubilant Nike spots, and the bouncing, smiling juggernaut we saw so often in Cleveland, were something we could get behind. But all too often, he seemed preoccupied with becoming a "global icon," making it apparent that he took the game and his place in it seriously, or goofing off to Shaq-like extremes in the approved time-slots. James has come off as fake, for lack of a better word — and the thought that he's plastic through and through is even more alarming. Those who have dealt with him will tell you that the man is smart, funny, and engaging, if terrifically self-absorbed. However, he went to great pains to make sure that the public never saw a chink in his armor or anything that would harm the brand. The Decision was supposed to be part of that, but instead he helped turn the local fans' commonplace sense of betrayal into a national cause.

Jordan's corporate image was bland as all get-out, perhaps even more so than James (Allen Iverson's influence has something to do with that). Except in his case, we knew there was a dark side. On the court, he was ruthless. The man had gambling problems. He conducted himself like the captain of a nuclear sub named after himself. And, as we've seen in recent years, MJ was, for all intents and purposes, a pathological competitor. What makes LeBron so vexing is that we have seen glimpses of a real person, but they are always submerged by THE BRAND. The "What Should I Do?" ad was serious shit, but at the end of the day, it was typical W+K brilliance on behalf of Nike. LeBron is all motive.

That's why The Bump, inexcusable as it is, matters so much. This is what authenticity is made of — at last, a spasm of unrehearsed emotion. Couple that with Woj's latest column — one of his anti-Bron screeds that paints a convincing picture of the dynamic, as opposed to simply trafficking in rumors — and LeBron comes off a vile jerk-face. All the worst things said about him might as well be true. And yet I can't help but wonder if this isn't exactly what Brand James has needed all along. Finally, we have some ballast to the public LeBron James, the one always kept at too safe a remove. Jordan needed The Shot to cement his image as a valiant winner; James needs The Bump to take back his humanity, to be an asshole on his own terms and not ours. It's like a gateway to another dimension: It sucks at first when all the evil spirits and unemployed dragons stream in, but eventually you can set up shop and use the real estate. That is also the philosophy behind the West Bank, I think.

And so, on that note, LeBron is going back to Cleveland on Thursday. Maybe he will feel empowered to tell off the fans burning his jerseys in the street. Maybe we will get pathos and pleading about all the city means to him. Regardless, The Bump has changed everything. Before, we would have wondered how he would deflect what's sure to be a raw, unpredictable event. Becoming the villain is just another coping strategy, both personally and professionally, and maybe it will be as liberating as his old role of the happy Swoosh clown was confining. Now, there's a chance that, as in Dallas, we will see James play, and speak, from the heart, however corroded and pock-marked that heart may be.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse. You can buy The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and lots of other stuff at the FreeDarko store.

Image by Jim Cooke