January 22 - Wanted: Natural Born Killer
It's been a bad week for LeBron James. The first ugly stretch of his young NBA life.
Folks are starting to question him, to doubt he'll be the King James, Heir to His
Airness, the league has been wishing and hoping and praying for. How LeBron
steps up to the criticism -- whether legit or not -- will likely define his career.
For three nights running, "NBA Fastbreak" and "SportsCenter" have caught James
on the losing end of distinctly clutchy moments -- the kind of game-ending situations
that get memorialized on highlight reels. The kind of moments we see season after
season whenever a superstar player wins an MVP or a championship series. The
kind of push-coming-to-shove flashes of talent, skill and swagger we miss once he
--Game 1, 1996-97 NBA Finals: Michael Jordan's buzzer beater sideswipes a dumbfounded Utah.
--Game 5, 1996-97 NBA Finals: A feverish and dehydrated Jordan, staggering from stomach flu, tops
off his 35 points with a go-ahead trey that again silences the Jazz.
--Game 6, 1997-98 NBA Finals: MJ sinks the game- and title-winning jumper over Jazz guard Bryon
Russell to give the Bulls' their sixth championship.
I could list some of the other NBA greats and their career-defining clutch shots -- Larry Bird, Magic
Johnson, Dr. J, whoever -- just as Stu Scott or Eric Neel or Dee Brown have in the past week. But
there's only one man LeBron James is being compared to. Since the hype started in his junior
season at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Bron-Bron has been viewed always and only within the
shadow of Michael Jordan, the true King of the Realm.
I tuned in Wednesday night to watch James and the Cavs, minus Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden,
take on the Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets. Not an awe-inspiring game by any stretch. LeBron
wasn't the only one looking beaten by the altitude -- 'Melo and that classic underachiever Kenyon
Martin both played as if they were sedated. Until the last minute, anyway.
In the last 20 seconds, Anthony finally made a move reminescent of his one year at Syracuse,
completely blowing by the statue that is Ira Newble for the go-ahead slam dunk.
LeBron's turn. He's on the foul line, and it's 88-90 with 0.6 remaining. He misses on purpose, grabs
his own rebound and is fouled again. The first shot -- swish. But the second, you can just see in his
eyes what's coming. You've been watching him chew on his nails all night, just like he was caught on
camera doing versus Portland and again in Los Angeles. Gnawing on those fingers like like a rabbit
in a trap, biting its own leg free. Not for one second believing the game can be won, not knowing he
can win it. And just like that, he misses. Game over.
It wasn't the first time Bron-Bron cough-coughed it up. As a matter of fact, it was nearly the third game
in a row. Last Thursday, Jan. 12, it was Kobe vs. LeBron at the Staples Center. Kobe was sluggish --
well, he SAID he was sluggish, anyway. But at crunch time, there he was, scoring his team's last six
points, two of them on a go-ahead jumper that ultimately decided the game. LeBron had his shot. In
fact, he had two. At the foul line with 5.2 seconds remaining, he missed the second attempt -- but
Drew Gooden (Carlos Boozer with a fake beard?) snagged the rebound and got the timeout. Called
play for -- who else? -- LeBron, who doinks an 18-footer. Game over.
Next up -- Portland. With the Cavs playing catch-up yet again, LeBron dribbled upcourt with just a few
ticks on the clock after Ruben Patterson had bricked a free throw, leaving the score a very tie-able
87-89. Making his move, LeBron drove to the bucket, blazing a trial through a lane of Portland players.
He jumped, extended his arms for what looked to be maybe a finger-roll or soft lay-in ... and dished off
to Eric Snow, whose long jumper clanged off the rim. Game over.
Maturity has been the byword for James from the start, and he didn't disappoint in this regard in his
reaction after the each loss, the last of which was Cleveland's fifth straight.
"I'm the leader of this team and I failed to make plays down the stretch. I'm the leader and I'm
supposed to make plays down the stretch, and we lost. So put it on me," he said after the
heartbreaker in Denver.
But it wasn't his maturity under the microscope with the commentariat. What everyone is now
scrutinizing is whether or not LeBron has what is commonly called the Killer Instinct. And the
concensus is that he doesn't.
"If it's an instinct, can it be learned? Will LeBron ever have it if he doesn't have it now?" Scott Van Pelt
asked studio analyst Dee Brown. The former slam dunk champ didn't exactly put this one away,
waffling in his judgment of the NBA's Great Bron Hope. Instead Brown said Killers are born, not bred,
and turned for analogy to the quintessential example -- maybe the only example -- of KI in the NBA:
Brown's comparison strikes me as a fair one to a certain extent. He pointed out that Kobe came into
the league hungry from the get-go to jam down everyone's throat that he was Da Man. He
<em>wanted</em> the ball in his hands come crunch time.
This idea didn't strike Kobe as ludicrous whatsoever. As far as he was concerned, it didn't matter that
he was coming off the bench as a rookie, averaging only 15 minutes and under eight points per
game. Didn't matter that Shaquille O'Neal was both the main attraction and the go-to guy for the
Lakers in 1996-97, averaging 26+ ppg over the season. Didn't make one bit of difference that Allen
Iverson was Rookie of the Year, or that a couple teams' worth of players stood in front of him in the
Has Earned Our Respect and Admiration line. Didn't even matter that the Almighty One, Michael
Jordan, was in the middle of his mind-blowing three-year-long peak, leading the Bulls to a 69-13
record and a fifth NBA title. Kobe Bryant never saw himself as anything less than the best. Not just the
best in his rookie class (actually, he only made the All-Rookie second team), or the best on his team,
or the league's best shooting guard, or the MVP of a season. But the best of all time.
Our socio/cultural/psychological brethern might call this peculiar mindset "megalomania," and point
out how maladaptive it likely is in everyday life. But in the sports world -- especially in the NBA, where
teams are less a fact than a concept and each competitor must go at his opponent head-to-head and
face-to-face in what comes down to a battle of wills -- such a way of playing and thinking is admired,
feared, deeply respected, even coveted.
Which brings us back to our questions: Is Killer Instinct really an instinct -- that is, biologically instilled
and/or ingrained to bone-level during one's formative years? Or is KI something that can be learned?
And, finally, if LeBron James doesn't currently own KI, and has no hope of coming by it if indeed it is a
"nature" thing, can he ever hit those clutch shots, lift his team into the playoffs, win a full series, pull
down multiple MVP trophies, earn an NBA championship and end his career as one of the truly great
basketball players of all time?
Stop. Just stop. Why do we do this to him? Why do we do this to ourselves?
LeBron James isn't Michael Jordan. Yes, he's a fab player, very promising. Absolutely! So promising
he's among only MJ and Oscar Robertson in averaging at least 20 points, 5 boards and 5 dimes in
his rookie year -- and the youngest rook to ever win ROY. And the youngest to 1,000 points. And
youngest to score 40 points in a game. I know, I know -- he's trailing just Iverson and Kobe in scoring
this season in only his third year in the league. He's on pace to do this-n-that. He wears No. 23.
But for crying out loud, he's not even "Mr. Clutch" yet. That is, not even close to being as great as Jerry
West or Sam Jones, both of whom earned that nickname. Who knows? LeBron could turn out to be
Rick Barry-like or awfully similar to the quiet Dave Bing or even as dominating as Scottie Pippen.
While it's true Bron-Bron is prob'ly a little too "mature" to reincarnate Bob "The Big Showoff" Cousy or
the fiesty Bill Sharman, there's no reason to think he couldn't live up to the legacy of Clyde "The Glide"
Drexler or that ol' slashing "Black Magic," Earl Monroe.
Still, Earl wasn't "The Pearl" upon turning 21. He was still in college. Until he was 23. Only in his
rookie campaign -- at 23, 2-3, twenty-three -- did Monroe begin to impress his mark upon the league.
(Monroe also won ROY honors.)
Stop me now, 'cause I could do this with skads of former and maybe even current players. Is the
message getting through? Do I need to spell it out? L-E-B-R-O-N I-S A-W-E-S-O-M-E A-L-R-E-A-D-Y,
S-U-R-E, B-U-T H-E'-S N-O-T E-V-E-N C-L-O-S-E T-O H-I-S P-R-I-M-E Y-E-T.
Let's move on to the "instinct" issue. What we earth-bound hominids generally think
of as "instinctual" talent in elite athletes is mostly a matter of wishful thinking on our
part. Instinct schminstinct. Despite Allen Iverson's infamous scorn for it, practice --
hours, days, weeks, years of it -- culminates in movements and thinking that to the
uninitiated seems like god-given natural ability.
That's not to say LeBron didn't start with some good athletic genes and sufficiently
motivating environmental circumstances. But when we start talking about who brings
what to the NBA table and who has the goods and who doesn't, it would be wise to
remember that not all those who went on to earn superstardom, superwealth and
superbabes were born looking at the world through the eye of the tiger.
Earl Monroe didn't play hoops until high school, when he reached 6-foot-3 and coaches came
clamoring. And you gotta think that for his first year on the court he looked like a big goof. He was
physically gifted, but what's more -- he was from South Philly. If he wanted to play ball there, he had to
find a way to do it. And he did, by developing a certain playground hang-time move all his own.
Is this what we're talking about when we talk about Killer Instinct? Well, maybe the natural drive to fit
in, have fun, do well and impress others. Pretty typical of adolescents, right? Monroe's challenging
formative experiences more than likely built a solid foundation for KI -- but you can see the
contradiction here: building an instinct.
Michael Jordan didn't have it that rough. Born nearly 20 years later than Monroe, MJ likely didn't face
the same sort of pre-Civil Rights racism experienced by the family, friends and neighbors of "Black
Magic." Nor was Michael raised by a single mother living in an impoverished and dangerous section
of the inner city. MJ's story is that he was cut from his high school varsity team as a scrawny, 5'11"
sophomore. Did that first cut draw the blood of a killer? Please. It likely embarrassed and infuriated
him enough to put some gas in his giddy-up, sure, but growing four inches before his junior year
helped him make the squad the next time around too. (Let's not even get into the fact of his athletically
gifted older brother and their likely rivalry -- yet another piece of the puzzle when considering the
factors that went into the creation of MJ's KI.)
I'll grant that Jordan's KI kicked into high gear pretty early -- the crunch-time NCAA
championship-winning shot he hoisted as a Tar Heel freshman against Patrick Ewing's intimidating
Georgetown squad is evidence par excellence. Still, the drive and ability to bury that dagger in the
Hoyas' heart was not foreordained by Jordan's DNA alone. That Silly Putty, as evolutionary biolingist
Steven Pinker calls it, was shaped as well by circumstance and choice. And it continued to be
impressed upon in his sophomore and junior seasons at North Carolina, and moreso after he left
school for the NBA.
I submit that something so seemingly irrelevant as Isiah Thomas even helped to influence Michael
Jordan's KI, given the beatings MJ took in his early years from Detroit's "Bad Boys." Certainly at some
point beyond that, the seasoning of Jordan's Killer Instinct was such that no one -- not even the clever
and irrepressibly annoying gnat John Stockton -- could penetrate the armor of it.
Clearly LeBron is not so bulletproof. Yet.
So, KI is not purely instinctual, and my guess is LeBron is far along in building his own KI. Maybe the
basic superstructure is up and the crowd-repellent moat is now filled. (After all, he did cut his former
agent off at the knees, even after the dude had brought Nike, Etc. forth on a gold platter. How's that for
a cold flash?) But maybe the gun turrets aren't complete. Maybe the dungeon is still in blueprint, and
the torture chamber has yet to be envisioned.
Who knows? Every year we see a different LeBron. Once open and gregarious, now more distanced
and wary. The Nike ads that aim to sell us on his character were once open and unaffected and
playful; but over time became cryptic, highly stylized and even a little pretentious. One year he's an
indifferent jumpshooter, the next seemingly fixated on draining 18-footers. Controlling the ball more
every season, yet stubborn in his pleasure in a well-timed assist. (In the three un-clutchy games
mentioned above, he had 25 total assists, and is currently ranked 17th in the league for total dimes.)
He's not the same LeBron we red-carpeted into the league, and by the time he turns 22 next
December he'll be yet another incarnation of the LeBron we've only just come to know.
Will he ever have the Killer Instinct? That's like asking if he'll ever blow out a knee. Certainly the
circumstances are in place for that to happen. His joints prob'ly already ache on a nightly basis, and
playing hard year-round at the highest level (NBA, Team USA in 2004 and for the next three summers)
is a sure-fire way to tendenitis, torn cartilage and degeneration. It will happen in a snap -- say, one
night the lumbering Zydruna Ilgauskas pulls down a rebound and LeBron along with it, shredding his
ACL -- or it'll happen over time with the wear and tear those knees endure.
For my part, I don't think LeBron needs to be like Kobe Bryant to be one of the best of all time at what
he does. Kobe is selfish, humorless and not much fun. As far as I can tell, his KI is pathological -- to
the degree that it makes life difficult for him on and off the court (family feuds, his shaky marriage, the
rape thing, and his general inability to make friends among his peers). (The same could be said for
MJ in his third incarnation as a Washington Wizard. Not a happy season. Not a happy man.)
To milk the metaphor, I'd rather see LeBron's knees develop their inevitable infirmities rather than risk
blowing them out too soon.
Given the gilded-cage life of a professional basketball player, flush with untold wealth and freedom,
yet burdened with irrational expectations and unnatural limitations, no doubt KI has been lurking
inside LeBron James for some time now -- and it won't take much to break it out and set it loose. But
I'm willing to wait a while longer for that.
Right now it's still about more than just "King" James for him. If he continues to grow, and plays some
dazzling ball -- more amazing every year, we should be careful what more we ask for. Especially if by
calling out that Killer Instinct we create a monster.