“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
-- Antony in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"
Legacy is the most important currency in professional basketball. It's the only thing that matters, really, when you get down to it. The rest is window-dressing in a Topeka Pottery Barn. No one cares about the rest.
Hyperbole rules with an iron fist in the NBA, and intertwined with legacy is villainy. The NBA needs villains to sustain itself or it will shrivel out of the public's consciousness.
No one recalls Isiah Thomas' back-to-back championships, or his 25-point quarter on one leg. But they remember his Pistons swaggering off the court before the final buzzer. They remember that Isiah was left off the Dream Team in favor of Clyde Drexler because of that single act of spite.
Scottie Pippen? Is he most known for winning the Greatest Sidekick of All Time award, being part of the Greatest Duo ever or being considered one of the 10-best defensive players in history? Oh no. It's that he refused to step aside for Toni Kukoc. Yup, that's followed him around for more than 20 years.
LeBron's legacy won't be his NBA championships or his MVPs or his eventual place on the Mount Rushmore of basketball with the likes of Jordan, Magic, Russell and Kareem.
LeBron's legacy will always be the images of the mocking, careening Spurs fans, carrying their friends into the AT&T Center before Game 2. There is no better depiction of LeBron's career.
No one will care that he literally dragged his pathetic ensemble cast to a win after being heckled and borderline humiliated for three straight days. No one will remember the five straight shots he hit in the third quarter when the Spurs tried to seize control, or his fourth quarter dominance when his aging supporting cast ran out of steam. The Spurs would have been better off keeping the AC off again Sunday night.
Yes, it’s rather played to talk about how LeBron will always live in Jordan's shadow even if he wins not six, not seven, not eight...
Jordan was feverish about being the best. He was a narcissistic maniac, a little like Indiana Jones on a treasure hunt, or Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia." We responded to that. We respected him for it. We cared that he cared so much. We loved that he held a grudge against Byron Russell.
LeBron's greatness has always seemed thrust upon him, reluctant, complacent, Peter Parkerish. He's the kid down the street who got a Play Station AND a Super Nintendo for Christmas but didn't bother to thank his parents.
Deep down, he knows that we know he doesn't want the attention or the pressure. Give LeBron the option and he'd probably rather have Detlef Schrempf’s career as a well-respected sixth man who would never have to shoulder the load of a franchise or a city. "King" James is apt, because he seems to have inherited the title, not earned it, regardless of the perception.
Unfortunately for him, he's too good not to be the star. LeBron must make Jordan furious. "How many titles would I have won with his talent?" Jordan must ask himself daily, cigar in mouth, while he's teeing off at his country club and wondering what to do with Kemba Walker.
That is why LeBron has become the best and worst kind of villain. In a way, we hate that he was given the keys to the kingdom without earning them. It bothers us that he’d rather have a good time with Wade and Bosh in South Beach than carry the burden of pulling a city out of its misery.
Jordan wasn't about having a good time. He was about winning. LeBron looks to be about not failing. "Playoff sweat is different than regular season sweat," James said after Game 1. Jordan never would have said that. Never. Close your eyes and imagine Jordan saying that during the 72-10 season. You can’t.
So here we are: The most important NBA Finals since Jordan took down the Jazz in 1998. Why? Because it’s the first time in 16 seasons we've had a true heavyweight matchup. There's no underdog here, no upstarts, just Ali and Frazier.
Like Popovich, Duncan and Co., Sloan, Malone and Stockton were on their last legs, but had somehow clawed their way back to the finals for one last shot at Jordan. We knew we weren't going to see that kind of desperation again for a long, long time: Legends who couldn't stand the idea that their careers would end without a title. As it turned out, Jordan got the last shot.
The Jazz accomplished everything but winning it all. The Spurs have won four, but have never beaten a true equal in the finals. If they fall to the Heat again, their legacy won't be the four they won, it'll be the two they lost when they Played an Opponent That Mattered. Win, and Parker and Ginobli are first-ballot hall of famers. Lose, and they're just another really good team in the post-Jordan era, on par with Kobe’s Lakers and Pierce’s Celtics.
Legacy. It's all that matters.
Fans buy $300 tickets to watch Kobe and Griffin and Durant; not to see the Lakers, Clippers or Thunder. They want to see their superstars in their prime; and whether those stars play within the construct of a team game is utterly secondary.
That is what makes LeBron's villainy and legacy so important and so valuable to the NBA. Sixteen years on, it’s still desperately searching for someone to take the mantle from Jordan. Kobe wasn't able to do that. The NBA is praying LeBron is.
The Clippers may have sold for an astoundingly healthy $2 billion. But without rivalries and villains, fans will turn away, and the NBA will only go as far as its fans take it. We are a fickle breed.
Legacy and legend is what keeps the league afloat, those water-cooler debates are what fuel it. We want to argue over how LeBron would have fared against Jordan if they had faced off in the same era. The NBA needs us to have those arguments, because without them, the league loses its cachet, its luster, its reverence.
If LeBron loses this, it'll mean he's lost three finals to Jordan’s zero. It'll make the Jordan-LeBron argument moot. He'll become a second-tier villain; he'll lose some of his sparkle, some of his relevance.
Next season, we'll see the Clippers or Thunder in the Finals, maybe taking on the Heat, maybe not if Mr. Derrick Rose is healthy or Lance Stephenson morphs into Latrell Sprewell. But it won't be the same, because it won't carry the same weight. Frankly, we'll probably have to wait another 16 years for another historic bout quite like this.