Thursday, July 9, 2009

Defending a King and his Court

(This story is based off the events described here)

The scene opens in a small gym in Akron, Ohio. A quick glance around the gym shows that this is no ordinary occasion. A large Nike swoosh adorns the walls behind the basket. There are multiple coolers filled with Vitamin Water. The court has been painted and waxed recently.

The gym is clean and the basketballs sitting in the racks are new, untouched and pristine. Clearly a special occasion is preparing to transpire; one must wonder what is going on. A look around the gym reveals no clues, yet it is so obvious something must be happening.

Something mythical...something epic.

Finally, the last glimpse reveals the occasion. A small sign sits in front of the large metal doors guarding this hall of majesty, it reads simply: Welcome to the 2009 LeBron James Skills Academy.

The next scene opens. It is one of controlled chaos. 10 human magnum opuses are running up and down the court. There are over a hundred more of these men standing and seated around the court, all with their eyes fixated on the round orange ball being thrown between the players.

A general camaraderie is evident between the men. With smiles and joking abounding plus dap being exchanged frequently on the court and in the bleachers, it is clear these men share a bond. Nonetheless there is an intensity circulating in the gym. No man wants to be seen as lesser than one of his equally skilled peers.

Even off the court, it is evident that some men loom greater than the other compatriots in the gymnasium. Although he is one of the smallest men in the gym, Chris Paul sticks out. The men he is seated around also conjure up images of basketball’s finest. Fellow Olympians Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony all loom large. Former collegian Stephen Curry can be seen chatting with fellow 2009 lottery picks DeMar DeRozen and Jonny Flynn in a corner of the gym.

Multitudes of the finest basketball players on the planet have assembled in this Akron gym to hone their basketball skills and pay homage to the king who rules this court. That man is the king of this state, but most importantly he presides over an association that they all aspire to rule one day. Unseating him on this throne will be difficult to say the least. His mythical stature is rivaled only by his basketball prowess.

The king of this court is none other than LeBron James.

One look at the game unfolding on the floor is all it takes to spot this basketball luminary. He stands taller than almost all the other participants, and has a physique comparable to the legendary Greek Titans. Approaching 6 feet 9 inches tall and weighing nearly 260 pounds, the man is one of the most intimidating men in the arena.

He is playing with passion and ability unseen before by his peers. Elegantly and powerfully he abounds up and down the hardwood. The full complement of his skill set is on display. His passing rivals that of Magic Johnson. His shooting harkens to that of Larry Bird. His defense, Bill Russell. His pure combination of skills and ability conjures up memories of the game’s greatest player, a man simply known as Jordan.

LeBron was banished from the playoffs by the Magic of Orlando and he has been determined to never let any team win another war against him again.

He has been playing like that of a man possessed. Not possessed by the devil, but possessed by a spirit of the sport’s finest players.

Even in these improperly deemed “practice” games he has shown his full ability. Step-back jumpers are rain in, drop step moves in the post that lead to easy basket, precise bounce passes to set up teammates, lane clearing drives that nearly bring down the rim, careening rebounds to start fastbreaks, and suffocating defense that stifles opponents. His closest companions and nearest rivals are in awe of his ability.

The teams briefly stop play to catch their breath. LeBron lingers on the floor with the ball in his hand. The King cannot help but smile as he surveys his court. He gazes at a silhouette of himself on the floor. He begins to ponder his sovereignty of the game he loves.

He feels as if he is only one season away from gaining what means the most to him, the title of champion. He has yet to claim the mythical Larry O’Brien trophy, a holy grail that is only given to the Association’s most elite kingdoms, not individual kings. It is a relic coveted by all, yet reserved for a select few. The King wants nothing more than a championship ring to be placed on the hand that he uses to rule empire.

Without it, LeBron feels like a prince, clearly capable of harnessing the greatness and power associated with the Larry O’Brien, and knows that his domination will not be complete until he hoists the trophy in June. Although he may be considered the King of Basketball by many, he knows he has not fully ascended to his rightful throne.

The teams step away from the water coolers and make their way back to join the King on his court. He hands the ball off to a member of the other team. The ball is inbounded and play begins once more.

Then the play happens. Not “play” in the sense of the game invented by Dr. James Naismith, but the play, one that will define this King’s reign. Albeit unrightfully, this one singular moment, a small fraction of time, and the action that follows will be etched into the volumes that chronicled his existence.

The play begins as any other. The ball is inbounded, is dribbled up court. A player with the ball crosses the half court line and begins to facilitate the offense. Men begin moving, cutting around the maze of bodies along the baseline and top of the key. Then the ball moves into the hands of an unknown proletarian, a man from Xavier named Jordan Crawford.

After a quick pump fake the 6-4 guard blows past his defender at the top of the three point arc and barrels towards the basket. LeBron sees the action and reacts, as he too heads toward the basket. They leave their feet and begin their jump at the same time. Jordan is closer to the rim and reaches the apex of his flight sooner and he sees LeBron has not yet made it to his.

Jordan takes the ball in both hands behind his head and slams it to the rim as LeBron’s outstretched arm and body below him fails to alter the flight of Crawford and the shot.

The Play is over. The gym erupts. Madness ensues.

In a game born on playgrounds, the dunk is the most powerful assertion of dominance. Dunking on someone is the penultimate symbol of supremacy.

For that one moment suspended in time, LeBron went from King to serf. He was stripped of all power and glory, a weakness was captured and exploited. LeBron was unable to defend his court from a man who may never even be allowed to join the association that the king presides over.

It was 1 Samuel 17 reenacted. An unknown David had conquered Goliath. An Israelite took down the champion of the Philistines. The proverbial underdog had taken down the King, at least for a miniscule amount of time.

LeBron knew there was no evidence except for the faint memory etched into the minds of the observers who witnessed the occasion. He began a jog down the court, his legacy would remain intact since there would be no visual evidence of the encounter. There would only be a brief mention of the play by the scribes sitting courtside who were allowed to chronicle the happenings in the gym that afternoon.

Then one scribe in particular caught his eye. The man was holding a forbidden video camera, its lens was squarely focused on the King. He had not noticed him before. Another man close to the first caught his eye as well. He too had a camera aimed at the King.

He wondered how long they had been there. His calmness was broken, and he became uneasy. No men were to be allowed to record the undertakings on the court. How had these two gone unnoticed?

With the gym still electric from the dunk, the King called time and motioned for an assistant to the legendary Phil Knight to speak with him. The two conversed quietly and departed. As the game resumed, the men holding the video cameras were approached. They were told that they were committing a forbidden act, and were asked to forfeit their tapes.

As the King continued to play he watched the event unfold. There was no argument, just a peaceful exchange of the evidence. He knew that if that video reached the unregulated internet a domain outside of his realm, it would become viral, and the witnesses to the play would grow from under 200 to 2 million within a matter of hours.

His honor would be questioned. His ability would be challenged. And his reign would be unfairly viewed as less superior than that of other players who had presided over the league before him. A mere peasant challenged a king and succeeded? He might be dethroned faster than the dunk occurred.

He was able to stop the event from going public, and he began to play once more at peace, knowing that his legacy was safe. Little did he know that asserting his power would lead to even more questioning of his ability to preside over his kingdom.

Yet it does not bother him now, for he knows without the tape, no damage can be done. It will only be a play of mythical legend, that can be disputed since there is no evidence. He will remain King.

And rightfully or not, a king will always do whatever it takes to remain on top.

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