Last Sunday, as LeBron James limbered up in the Boston TD Garden for the decisive Game Seven of the eastern conference finals, the TV cameras zoomed in on the his Nikes to study their various — and curious — hand-penned hashtag inscriptions.
One boot was a nod to family: His mother, wife and kids. The other was adorned with a few shorthanded motivational slogans, the most striking being ‘Man In The Arena’.
James has previously explained why Theodore Roosevelt’s famous passage is “one of my favourite quotes of all time”.
After winning the 2015 eastern conference finals — for what was then merely a fifth consecutive time — James faced the media, which he sensed gave him no hope of winning the title outright. The team was already down the injured Kevin Love, while another All Star, Kyrie Irving, was severely restricted with a knee injury. James though was defiant... and just as philosophical.
“The one thing we can guarantee as a team and as a group is we will give it our best shot, no matter who comes out of the western conference. That’s all I can ask and I hope everyone here understands. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to even get this far. It’s so hard to win it [the title]. It’s so hard to win even an NBA game and the fact we’ve won three straight NBA [play-off] series is very, very difficult and, if you’ve never been in this situation, then you don’t know how difficult it is.
“I suggest everyone read [Roosevelt’s ‘Man In The Arena’]. If you’ve never sweated or bled in the arena and had the dust go up in your face or being embattled, then you have no idea what it takes to be in the arena.
“I can’t guarantee the championship. It’s not what I’m here for; I’m here to lead, but I will guarantee we will play our asses of, from minute one right up to 48, or if it goes into overtime, 53.” James was as true as his word. In Game One, he took a stacked Golden State to overtime on their own floor, scoring 44 points in the process, only to not just lose the game, but Irving as well for the rest of the series, through further injury.
In Game Two, the Cavs won in overtime in Oakland, thanks to a stunning 39-16-11 triple-double from James and inspirational dial-up performances from journeymen, such as the scrappy Australian Matthew Dellavedova and the towering, but hardly mobile, Russian Timofey Mozgov.
In Game Three they’d do it again. At 2-1 up, the impossible was on.
In the end, though, the Warriors’ superior talent and depth showed and Steve Kerr’s three-point bomb squad had the series wrapped up in six games. It wasn’t just that NBA finals that stood at 2-4 after that series; so was James’s record in NBA finals, something those cold, timid souls, as Roosevelt would describe them, used as a stick to beat his GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) credentials.
The following year, James would return, this time with a healthy Irving and Love, to shock the Warriors and bring the first championship in 52 years to his maligned hometown.
However, when the sides faced off again last year, with the Warriors outrageously reinforced by the recruitment of Kevin Durant, James’s astonishing achievement of reaching a seventh consecutive finals was again held against him. Never mind that he became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the finals — 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists — the only statline his critics were interested in was that he was now three from eight in the NBA finals, in contrast to Michael Jordan’s flawless six for six record on that stage.
For the past six weeks over these NBA playoffs, James has reinforced his standing as the unquestioned greatest player of the post-Jordan era.
When you consider that the same timespan has witnessed an unstoppable behemoth like Shaquille O’Neal, the greatest power forward of all-time in Tim Duncan, and as obsessive and skilled an operator as Kobe Bryant — only second to Jordan as the greatest shooting guard in the history of the game — it is not just no mean feat, but a staggering one. Even more impressive is that James has created a genuine conversation and debate that Jordan may no longer be the undisputed GOAT. That was something that 10 years ago, none of us thought was possible, even with Bryant at his peak.
Yet, those cold, timid souls are lining up to devour him. James’s predicament looks even more helpless and hopeless than it did in 2015. His supporting cast is even weaker than it was in 2015 and arguably even than the crew of 2007 that were swept by Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs.
In fact, when the Cavs trailed the Celtics throughout the recent eastern conference finals, some commentators, such as Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, were purporting James’s legacy would be better for losing that series; in two years’ time, let alone 20, no-one would remember that loss, while another in the finals would always be chalked up against him.
He’s right. In America and beyond, that’s how pundits and punters think. When Tom Brady lost this year’s Superbowl, despite giving the greatest performance by a losing quarterback in history, Cowherd’s Fox colleague Chris Carter argued that it elevated Joe Montana back to GOAT status. Though the 49er had one less Superbowl ring than Brady, he was 4-0 on the game’s biggest stage, in contrast to Brady with his 5-2.
It is, of course, a warped argument. That somehow James would be better off being 3-0 in the finals than 3-6. As if three gold and no silver is better than three gold and six bronze. As if Jordan’s legacy would have been worse had he got over Detroit a few years earlier than he did and then lost to a primetime Showtime Lakers circa ’88.
In 2016, when Mayo lost the All-Ireland final by a point after a replay, a part of them would have been forgiven for thinking they would have been nearly better off bowing out at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and losing instead of winning by a point against Tyrone. That way, there would have no celebrity losers headlines, no Marian, Miriam or wondering in exasperation why can’t they win the bloody thing.
It’s one of the cruelties of sport. The higher you go, the greater the scrutiny, the bigger the fall; the more cold and timid souls there are to judge you. Some sportspeople shy away from it. Golfer David Feherty admitted in an interview years ago that there were occasions when he deliberately backed off from the top of the leaderboard, that he didn’t need or couldn’t cope with the pressure.
The great Australian hockey coach Ric Charlesworth thought differently. “I took on what I believe is a coach’s challenge, that of maintaining prominence. I did not spend four years concerned with the record of what it might look like. My focus was on the details of everyday training and improvement.” Whatever you say about Mayo, they’ve maintained prominence. They’ve maintained relevance, when counties like Meath and Derry, who were of a similar standing to them before James Horan’s appointment, are not.
Loris Karius, whatever else is said about him — and a lot has been said about him — was relevant in this Champions League campaign. Didi Hamann and the RTÉ panel might question Jurgen Klopp’s record in finals instead of how he managed to reach so many of them; at least his sides have been prominent, relevant. And the same with their part-owner, Fenway Sports’ shareholder LeBron James.
James and his legacy is enhanced — not reduced — by the finals he has reached and lost. In 2007, he was just 22, when he scored 29 of the Cavs last 30 points in an eastern conference finals game to beat a veteran championship team in the Detroit Pistons. In 2011, he massively underperformed against Dallas, but from that he learned he had to develop his outside game, his post game and his mental game, making him the complete player he is today. In 2015, he was the first player to lead an NBA finals in scoring, rebounds and assists. In 2017, he was the first to average a triple double.
Still the cold timid souls were pointing out how the strong man stumbled.
A year before he was booed in a league game by the Tyrone support, Mark Harte, son of the manager Mickey, spoke to me in an interview about the criticism he was subjected to. An Errigal Ciaran clubmate of his, Eamon McCaffrey, was at one time considered along with his contemporary Peter Canavan to be the best young footballer in Tyrone. At senior level, though, he became something of a scapegoat.
Later when he was a selector with Errigal, McCaffrey would say something that resonated with Harte Jnr. “I don’t get abuse anymore – but Jesus, I’d love if I were.” Karius, LeBron and the Tipp and Mayo lads know that already. Winning is not easy.
Being man in the arena is not easy. But there’s no other place to be.