The King And I: The Stories No One Sees
I entered the world on March 27, 1986, one year and three months after Lebron James started dunking on nurses in the hospital nursery. That’s where any similarities between us end.
For what it’s worth, I too attempted to dunk on nurses. When they would come to check my vitals with warm, caring hands, I would grab the nearest basketball and try to stuff both ball and nurse into the wastebasket. Without the ability to control my neck, bowels, or appendages, I was a (non) walking turnover. Nurses would pluck the ball from my hands with ease; I would scream at the world’s injustice. It was years before I stood a chance against their defensive prowess, and by that time it was too late. I spent my childhood on carpeted floors with a wobbly Little Tikes hoop, battling my older brother — two knockoff Scalabrines shooting teardrops and pivoting to the point of dizziness — for basketball supremacy of the household.
I retained dreams of playing in the NBA until I was 12. One morning I woke to discover I was a short, chubby red-headed boy and those dreams died. Still I balled. My friends and I spent years playing backyard games of elimination and 3-on-3 jungle ball, tossing each other to the pavement without thought for bone or limb. Church basketball was life. We would step into gymnasiums that smelled of melted vanilla ice cream and battle grown men in knee braces and protective goggles. The carnage was immense. I quickly discovered these men (all in their mid-forties with 7+ children and wearing white t-shirts completely soaked in sweat) to be the taproot of human anger. Drives to the lane risked decapitation, jumpshots the likelihood of rolled ankles. No inch of hardwood was safe. Every night I would hobble home, living proof of the old proverb “Hell hath no fury like a Mormon dad.” And every morning I’d be back, relishing the chance to stutter-step and be assaulted by middle-aged white men.
Lebron was drafted by Cleveland in the summer of 2003. He debuted against Sacramento on October 29 in an avalanche of hype and intrigue, posting a veteran’s statline (25 pts, 9 ast, 6 reb, 4 stl) as a teenager. I fell hook, line, and sinker. His basketball IQ spoke to my inner traditionalist, his athleticism to my inner caveman. Lebron could jump over a classroom of third graders and whip cross-court passes that arrived before teammates realized they were open. His potential was endless. My family, a collection of kind individuals who care nothing for sports, were forced to sit through many one-sided dinner conversations. “Just wait until he has a jump shot,” I would mutter into my hot dog. “Imagine him with a post game!” I would shout at my water glass. My parents would nod with eyes glassed over, wondering how soon was too soon to eject a teenage son from the house. Lebron ended the season as the third player in NBA history to average 20 ppg, 5 rpg, and 5 apg as a rookie, improving Cleveland’s win total by 18 games. Expectations grew, as did the amount of people hopping aboard the anti-Lebron train. I readied my arguments. Nobody understood the amount of hope, hate, and transcendent basketball coming over the next 16 years, least of all me.
At 19, I became a city league basketball warrior.
It seemed a natural decision. On a team of my high school friends, I paid Spanish Fork City $50 to abuse my body and mind for minimal payoff. I treated every game like Game 7. I dove for loose balls, battled for position with backcountry pig farmers, tried to pretend every gym didn’t reek of pig shit. We’d win half our games and be relegated to a season-ending tournament of all the pisspants squads. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Winners received a three-foot sub from Subway and free t-shirts that dissolved after three wash cycles. Losers were forced to sleep nights in the pig pen and eat leftover Subway from the trough. One season culminated in a championship match against a team of car mechanics. They were our archrivals and I hated them so bad I refused to drive my car to the game. It was a back-and-forth affair. In a tied game with the clock winding down, I slipped a pass to my friend between two defenders who were literally leaking oil and he hit a game-winner as the buzzer sounded. Ecstasy. My mouth tasted Subway ham as I leapt onto my friend’s back while he screamed “SAY MY NAME, BITCH!” over and over. I wore my championship t-shirt until it disintegrated off my back and even today, I consider Subway to be the meal of champions.
Simultaneous to my city league debut, Lebron began his ascent. His second season (27 ppg, 7 rpg, 7 apg, 2 spg) was spectacular. His third season was even better (a league-leading 31 ppg) and ended in Lebron’s first playoff appearance. I watched Cavs-Wizards in round one like a proud parent, losing my mind when he capped a 45-point Game 5 performance with a game-winner and screaming “SAY MY NAME, BITCH” at the television. Cleveland lost in seven games the following round against Detroit, with Larry Hughes (11 ppg) finishing the playoffs as their second-leading scorer. Despite the loss, I began counting the days until Lebron was both league MVP and NBA champion, convinced the time was near. 2007 fortified my belief. At Detroit in Game 5 of a 2-2 Eastern Conference Finals, Lebron pieced together one of the most memorable stretches in NBA history. He scored his team’s final 25 points in a 2OT victory and clinched Cleveland’s first NBA Finals berth one game later. Unfortunately, Cavs-Spurs was the mismatch everyone thought it would be — San Antonio (a -500 favorite) swallowed Lebron and treated Cleveland like the car mechanics they were. It was a sweep. For the playoffs, the Cavs second-leading scorer was Zydrunas Ilgauskas at 12 ppg.
The arguments surrounding Lebron grew in volume and noise. Nuance was abandoned. Everything Lebron did (and trust me, for those Cleveland teams he did everything) was refuted with stone-age logic like “BUT WHY DIDN’T HE WIN?” or “WHY DOES HE PASS TO OPEN TEAMMATES IN CRUNCH TIME?” I argued in circles with everyone, touting the things I loved (his two-way game, sublime passing, and basketball intellect) and questioning what others hated (his desire to make the correct basketball play trumping his desire to score in isolation). Lebron’s game fulfilled me on levels both aesthetic and spiritual, and I couldn’t understand how so many felt differently. 2008 fueled both sides of the argument. Cleveland lost in Game 7 to the eventual champion Boston Celtics, Lebron scoring 45 in a losing effort, Ilgauskas again finishing the playoffs as Cleveland’s second-leading scorer at 13 ppg. The He-Can’t-Win crowd lapped it up like spoiled milk. I melted into a puddle during every argument and doubled down in two areas: one, Lebron could become the greatest basketball player ever; and two, in a team sport even the greatest need help.
2009 and 2010 were more of the same. Lebron won his first MVP and Cleveland won 66 games, then lost to Orlando in the conference finals. Again, arguments were supercharged. Lebron was a one-man wrecking ball against the Magic (38 ppg, 8 rpg, 8 apg, 1 spg, 1 bpg) and hit one of the biggest shots of his career to win Game 2. But the Cavs lost the series. I would hammer my head against the wall thinking of Lebron’s supporting cast (Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, Delonte West), wishing Cleveland’s front office could erase the past six years of mistakes and stop making Lebron pay for their sins. 2010 featured another Lebron MVP, another 60+ win season, more garbage (late-stage Antawn Jamison and later-stage Shaq) plopped onto the roster, and another early playoff exit to Boston. The narrative I hated so badly, both for its unfairness and single-minded belief in one person’s ability to control every aspect of a basketball game, exploded. “HE’S NOT A WINNER! HE’S NOT A WINNER!” I have never argued a subject more than this one. Every innocuous chat about basketball devolved into a mad referendum on Lebron’s ability (and for some, willingness) to win. It was insanity and somehow, against all odds, it got worse.
The summer of 2010 was a turbulent time.
I was challenged to a fight by a man twice my size during a city league game. I politely declined. He responded by screaming “MEET ME IN THE PARKING LOT!” into my face. I tried to explain there are zero people on earth I could beat up, much less him. He was confused at first but concluded I was properly emasculated, so we went our separate ways. That same season, I was nearly tossed into the bleachers by a Polynesian gentleman. I was playing peacemaker during a fracas and had the unfortunate job of holding back a man 15x stronger than myself. He was so incensed I dared place myself between predator and prey, he grabbed me by the biceps, plucked me off the ground, and started marching me towards the bleachers. Alarm bells clanged in my head. I knew the bleachers were only used for family member seating and/or trash disposal, and I knew which category I was in. I was powerless. I scrunched my face together and closed my eyes, body stiff as a board. My life flashed before my eyes, a string of memories glued together with Subway subs and ringless Lebron. In my head I penned the final line of my obituary — “Killed by a Polynesian bleacher toss while doing what he loved, playing basketball with no stakes against opponents who lusted for his blood” — and prepared for the worst. At the last second, one of his teammates ran and bear hugged us both, shouting “IT’S ME! IT’S ME! DON’T DO IT! IT’S ME!” The bloodlust slowly filtered out of my aggressor’s eyes. He set me gently on the floor and I blubbered out thanks for sparing my life. I returned home that night and flipped on ESPN, listened to Stephen A. Smith blubber about Lebron’s free agency, and thought, It’s good to be alive.
Weeks later, Lebron announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. People’s heads exploded. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in the street. The collective vitriol that came from The Decision — and the subsequent, ill-advised welcome party that spawned the infamous “Not one, not two, not three” quote — scorched a reaction part hornets nest, part insane asylum. Former players pounded their chests and said they’d never do the same. Lebron was painted as betrayer, ungrateful, coddled, and everything between. His popularity, already a polarizing topic, plummeted. Lebron would later admit he wasn’t prepared for the venom his first season in Miami generated. Every arena was a viper’s den, every opposing fan bristled like he had stolen their spouse and children. His first game back in Cleveland crackled with toxic electricity. Fans hurled taunts and insults during Lebron’s pregame chalk toss, booed every time he touched the ball: once hero, now villain. The ragtag collection of ex-teammates were no match as Lebron scored 38 and Miami routed Cleveland. Nobody cared. Fans everywhere were infuriated by Lebron’s choice to play with better teammates. As the season wore on, the rage became personal. Every fan felt slighted and not just in Cleveland. The entire NBA paradigm was stripped to the essentials: those who loved Lebron, and those who did not. The He-Can’t-Win debate was now a war.
Miami won 58 games and cruised through the East. Lebron pounded Philly in round one, vanquished his nemesis (Boston) in round two, and toyed with MVP Derrick Rose in round three. Only Dallas stood between Lebron and his first championship, Miami a -180 favorite to win the series. The Heat took games one and three, the Mavs two and four, setting up the biggest game of Lebron’s life: Game 5 in Dallas, the world finally in the balance. I buckled down at home, sick with nervousness, ready for The King to take his crown. It was not to be. Miami lost by nine and the majority of the basketball world cackled in glee, dancing circles around a perceived disappearing act by Lebron. It’s an incredible testament to Lebron’s skill that in this game, one many will point to as the lowest of his career, he finished with 17 pts, 10 reb, and 10 ast. But he looked disinterested at times, lethargic at others. Was he sick? Was the moment too big? Was there even an explanation? Dallas won the NBA title in Game 6 and while Dirk wept in an empty locker room, Lebron walked off the court for an eighth consecutive season without a ring.
I continued to bleed for city league basketball.
My face was opened up during the second half of a vicious championship match (losers bracket, of course), an elbow splitting the skin above my eye. It was a river of blood. I left a trail of red stumbling from court to bathroom, the 20 minutes of cleanup time all I needed to wrap a headband-bandage over the gash and continue playing BECAUSE I HAD TO HAVE THAT SHIRT AND SANDWICH. We won despite my lack of vision and a papery t-shirt never felt so earned. My dad super glued the wound shut and my head throbbed for the next few days. I didn’t care. Championships weren’t given and I was willing to sacrifice anything — flesh, blood, dignity, ANYTHING — to receive a sandwich I could purchase at any time for $5.
For the third time, Lebron James would win MVP in 2012. Naysayers laughed and prepared for another playoff failure, gloating as Miami fell down 2-1 to Indiana in the conference semis. Lebron responded on the road in Game 4 with a masterpiece (40 pts, 18 reb, 9 ast, 2 stl, 2 blk) and the Heat advanced in six games. Boston, Lebron’s personal tormentor, loomed. Miami dispatched them in Games 1 and 2 — the NBA Finals were so close I could taste them. And then Boston won Game 3. And Game 4. And Game 5 in Miami, with Garnett and Pierce burying Lebron in a mountain of shit-talk and letting him know he was inferior to everyone in attendance, even Big Baby. I watched the clock expire with a heavy sickness in my stomach. I can’t believe it’s happening again. Game 6 loomed.
No one in the history of basketball has faced more pressure than Lebron on June 7, 2012. Media and fans alike were feasting on his failures. Skip Bayless spent the entire day being filled with helium on ESPN, screeching out half-truths and downright falsehoods about Lebron’s shortcomings. A loss seemed inevitable — I prepared for the fallout. Amidst the frenzy, Lebron was the eye of the storm. He stepped onto Boston’s court and in 45 minutes terminated the entire building, squashing Celtics defenders like ants, muting 20,000 voices with each flick of the wrist. The destruction was vast and unsparing: 45 pts, 15 reb, and 5 ast in a 98-79 Miami win. Lebron shot 19/26 from the field on a steady diet of jumpers, relying on a skill many continued to question. Miami returned home for Game 7 and I couldn’t take the pressure. The first half was a horror film: I covered my face, peered periodically through my fingers, shrieked after every Pierce jumper. Boston led by seven at the half and I swore I’d never watch another game. Things shifted in the fourth quarter, Lebron (31 pts, 12 reb) the steady hand and hammer, Bosh (19 pts, 8 reb) the sharpest nail. At long last, Lebron was going back to the NBA Finals.
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t emotionally prepared. Miami traveled to Oklahoma City as +140 underdogs for the series to face a young Thunder team that seemed sure to dominate the NBA for a decade. I was a wreck. The optimist in me, battered for the better part of nine years, dared dream: what if it finally happens? The pessimist in me, nurtured and fed past the point of obesity, breathed fire: you don’t always get what you want. Miami lost Game 1 and I thought, this series will be the death of me. I contemplated buying a mortuary just so I could be with people who felt how I felt. I tried to understand how the NBA Finals could take an otherwise healthy human to the brink of death from stress and heartbreak. I cannot emphasize this enough: I WAS A WRECK. Miami won Game 2 100-96 (Lebron with 32 pts, 8 reb, 5 ast) and I could breathe. Barely. It was like the exercise in grade school where I had to huff through a tiny milk straw so I could empathize with people who had asthma — that was the amount of oxygen entering my body as Miami returned home for Game 3. Lebron finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds in a 91-85 victory, my stream of oxygen widened from tiny milk straw to sizable soda straw as Miami prepared for Game 4. Again they won, Lebron magnificent (26 pts, 9 reb, 12 ast), Miami one game away from an NBA title, oxygen intake upgraded from soda straw to garden hose. I awoke the morning of June 21 and prepared for a moment nine years in the making.
I have no children but I know what it means to be a parent: you argue with people about how terrible your child’s teammates are; you watch them grow from nothing to something, then fail, and fail, and fail; you watch them win an NBA title and sink, covered in goosebumps, into your couch with a soft gasp. Is it weird my surrogate child is older than me? Absolutely. But it doesn’t diminish the impact Game 5 carried. Lebron was at his indescribable best, his fingerprints everywhere. He knew he was untouchable and for those who believe in destiny, it was his night. As the clock ran down on a blowout victory, Lebron danced with his teammates on the bench, arms bouncing in jubilation. Oxygen supply: garden hose now fire hose, connected to a fire hydrant, filled with every molecule of air and euphoria in the entire universe. It was intoxicating. I howled as Lebron accepted the NBA Finals MVP trophy, exhaled as he hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy, and felt a weight lift. Finally.
A few years ago, I bid farewell to my basketball career.
This sounds more momentous and poignant than it actually was. I turned 30 and discovered my body to be a mass of bruises, dicked-up kness, and countless rolled ankles. A lightbulb went on. Is one free Subway sandwich per year worth getting clotheslined by angry farmers? Talk about a crisis of faith. I pondered my future over a $5 chicken breast footlong (THAT I PAID FOR) and determined golf to be a better competitive pathway for middle age. Just like that, I was a golf dickhead. I stopped playing city league, said no to all pickup games. I threw away my basketball shoes and ankle brace. My body began the slow process of recuperation. There are times I miss the complex yet simple beauty of the game — five players working in unison to throw a small orange ball through an orange rim, again and again — and there are times I realize basketball is an excuse for people to take out their anger on others. That, I don’t miss.
As my basketball arc fell, Lebron’s continued cresting. He again won MVP in 2013 and Miami again advanced to the NBA Finals, this time as -240 favorites against San Antonio. I prepared for victory. Lebron was at the peak of his powers and everything seemed possible. Not one, not two, not three. He squashed Tiago at the rim in Game 2, rescued Miami from the dead with a sublime 8-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of Game 6, set the stage for Ray Allen’s backpedalling three to force overtime and eventually Game 7. On the biggest stage, in the largest possible moment, Lebron again turned in a masterpiece. His jumpshot, questioned time and again during the early stages of his career, was his sharpest weapon: 37 pts, 12/23 from the field and 5/10 on threes, 12 reb, 4 ast, 2 stl, in a 95-88 victory. He hoisted his second NBA Finals MVP trophy and I laughed maniacally at home. The future seemed filled with endless championships. And for the first time, I started believing I was watching the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Spoiler alert: the future was not filled with endless championships. In a Finals rematch in 2014 (Miami a +105 underdog to San Antonio), team triumphed over individual. The Spurs easily dispatched Miami in five games, turning in one of the greatest team performances I’ve witnessed. The Heat, chasing whipped passes and black/silver ghosts all over the court, looked decrepit and old. Lebron entered the summer as a free agent and much to everyone’s surprise, reversed The Decision. His return to Cleveland was announced with the following words:
Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.
Lebron cautioned his hometown — in the midst of a 49-year championship drought — winning would not be easy. And it wasn’t. The Cavs made the NBA Finals (+170 underdogs to Golden State) but lost Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the process. Lebron dragged Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov as far as any human could drag two dudes named Delly and Timofey, eventually succumbing in six games. For the series, Lebron averaged 36 ppg, 13rpg, 9apg, 1spg, though Andre Iguodala was named Finals MVP because traditionalist Sports Men will not vote for a losing player. Cleveland entered the 2016 season without a professional sports championship in a half century.
It’s hard for me to comprehend what took place over three weeks in June 2016. I might never comprehend. Words sometimes fail me. The experience was more spiritual than tangible, an event I felt rather than watched. It was Lebron at his absolute finest and in the moment, it felt like the culmination of an arc: the greatest at his peak, ending a championship drought in his home state against the greatest regular season basketball team ever. Cleveland entered a Finals rematch against 73-win Golden State as +180 underdogs. That number grew to +1100 as the Cavs fell down 3-1. Lebron (41 pts, 16 reb, 7 ast, 3 stl, 3 blk) and Kyrie (41 pts) went nuclear on the road in Game 5, sending the series back to Cleveland. Lebron (41 pts, 8 reb, 11 ast, 4 stl, 3 blk) went nuclear at home in Game 6, setting the stage for the most anxious and unnerving night of my life. June 19, Game 7, Cavs at Warriors.
I watched the game alone. I couldn’t join my friends’ watch party because the moment was too personal to share with others — either all the euphoria would be mine, or the anguish. I sat on a creaky leather recliner. I chewed gum incessantly and drank water in hopes of cleansing all anxiety from my system. Neither tactic worked. The game began, every possession apocalyptic. I cursed missed field goals, tried to will GS turnovers into existence. I nearly passed out in the third quarter. With 5:37 to go, the Warriors led by 4. Please, I muttered at home, please, please, please. At 5:24, Lebron is fouled on a jumper and converts all three free throws. 4:52, Lebron cans a three. 4:39, Klay Thompson ties the game at 89. No one scores for nearly four minutes. The Block. Kyrie’s 3. Kevin Love’s defensive stand. The buzzer. Me at home shaking, Lebron on the court weeping. “CLEVELAND, THIS ONE’S FOR YOU!” The apex of an arc, the flash of a comet across the night sky.
Lebron joined the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018.
His final two years in Cleveland ended in Finals losses (as +1000 underdogs in 2017 and +700 underdogs in 2018, both to Golden State) and for the second time, Lebron left his hometown. No one was angry. No one burned his jersey. Cleveland had a championship and that’s all anyone cared about. As a Utah Jazz season ticket holder, I was ecstatic at the prospect of seeing Lebron in person twice per year. When the schedule came out, I gasped: March 27, LAL at UT, the best birthday present I could imagine. I told everyone Lebron was coming to Utah for my birthday. Everyone. I would greet strangers at my office and introduce myself, saying, “Do you know Lebron plays the Jazz on March 27 and it’s my birthday?” Most were bewildered, and that’s before I’d pull up Lebron’s basketball reference page and start force-feeding them his stats.
On Christmas Day, for the first time in his career, Lebron suffered a major injury. A strained groin kept him out five weeks and the Lakers plummeted in his absence: 21-14 before the injury, 6-11 after it. I was shocked. Lebron was invincible, untouchable, an unbreakable machine. And suddenly he wasn’t. Many theorized this was the beginning of the end, the first sign of Lebron moving into the twilight of his career. I refused to believe. I refuse to believe. Lebron was six months removed from another transcendent playoff run, a one-man show dragging Cleveland through the East and scoring 51 points in a Game 1 Finals loss at Golden State. And yet on March 27, with LA plummeting from the playoff picture, Lebron was nowhere to be found. The Lakers held him out as a precautionary measure — he didn’t even travel to Utah. I ate the saddest piece of cake the world has ever known and celebrated my 33rd birthday with Alex Caruso. It was the worst birthday ever. EVER. I’ll never celebrate my birthday or anyone else’s again.
The Lakers finished the 2018 season 37-45 — Lebron played in 55 games, the lowest total of his career. His minutes played count (regular season and playoffs) is reaching astronomical heights, moving into territory inhabited by only Malone and Abdul-Jabbar. Virtually no one from the 2003 draft still plays in the NBA (sorry Kyle Korver), much less with the expectation of being the best player. Maybe he still has it in him. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the Lakers offseason acquisition of Anthony Davis will allow Lebron to age gracefully, playing less regular season minutes/games and toggling into superman come playoff time. Maybe this is the beginning of the end and 2018 Playoff Lebron is the last supernova I’ll see. I don’t know and honestly, I’m not ready to find out.
It’s surreal being old enough to trace the rise and fall of an arc.
My sister was married on June 1 of this year. Two months before the wedding, my dad underwent major neck surgery — two days before the wedding, emergency shoulder surgery. No one was sure if he’d be able to attend. Wedding day arrived, the ceremony on a silent stretch of grass at the foot of the Wasatch mountain range. A storm hovered but did not fall. Temperature just right. I rose as Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” began playing, not fully prepared for the next minute. They walked side by side. My sister clothed in white, face trembling, smile refusing to leave her face, tears shimmering in her eyes. My dad shuffling at a quarter of his usual pace, neck in a white brace, arm in a white sling. I didn’t have an epiphany. I didn’t think of the way her laugh triggers mine, or the way he ran up a mountain to a white cross day after day after day. I just watched two people I love walk together in time and space. I listened to Dylan hammer-on and hammer-off. I felt a slight breeze against my face and smelled storm clouds shifting, dark, fresh, familiar. It was perfect.
I’m still not aware of the aging process. I’m both awestruck and terrified by the way each body breaks down, quick for some and slow for others. I cling to my body’s vitality like driftwood, even as certain activities — city league basketball, the bite of a hard-won footlong — pass me by. I do everything I can to preserve what I have and know eventually it won’t matter. Even for an athlete as gifted as Lebron. Even for a broke-ass city league baller like myself.
Years back, my sister-in-law showed me a poem. It’s about baseball and verbalizes my passion for sports in a way I never can. I’ve read it a million times. My breath still catches on “to try to go home again.” I feel a sense of reverence each time it ends. It’s the simplest thing I’ve ever read about sports and love, and the supernatural feeling that comes from tracing an arc from beginning to end. I think about it when I see the first flicker of light fading from Lebron’s career. I think about it when I watch my sister read her vows, or see my dad in pain. I think about it when I fall asleep at night and dream of all the ways this ends.
by Linda Pastan
When you tried to tell me
baseball was a metaphor
for life: the long, dusty travail
around the bases, for instance,
to try to go home again;
the Sacrifice for which you win
approval but not applause;
the way the light closes down
in the last days of the season —
I didn't believe you.
It's just a way of passing
the time, I said.
And you said: that's it.
There is beauty in the stories no one sees.
June 19, 2016. The pressure. It’s a vacuum sucking air from lungs and chopping breath to short gasps, a weight I can’t lift, a mountain I can’t climb. I’m going to die. Game 7 doesn’t begin for ten hours. I eat sparingly. I talk nervously with friends and family in the morning, retreat to solitude as gametime inches closer. I feel sick. I can’t think of what the night may hold: ecstasy stronger than a drug, dismay deeper than an ocean. Opening tip, my heart pounds like a drum. Every possession is armageddon. I can’t remember what it was like before this, to take breaths light and easy and free. JR Smith misses a three and I smash a wooden table. Steph makes a layup and I bury head in hands. I spend commercial breaks unmoving, jaws chomping madly against flavorless gum. Halftime is eternity. I stumble around my apartment in a daze, praying to god and the devil and Lebron and anyone who will have me. THE PRESSURE. It tightens in the third quarter, Kyrie and JR erasing a 7-point deficit. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I can’t dream. I’m caught inside a vortex of time and expectation, one molecule of chaos vibrating faster and faster until implosion. I’M GOING TO DIE. Lebron rises in the fourth. A jumper. Another bucket. Three free throws. A three to take the lead. Iguodala drives to the hoop with under two minutes, tie game. My heart can’t take it. I need this game to end because it means too much, and I can’t explain why, and I just want to feel the deep, buried calm between inhale and exhale. Lebron streaks into the picture, a freight train whistling at light speed. He pins ball against backboard, the force knocking me from chair to floor. I can’t rise. I need an undertaker to arrive with shovel and bible and bury me in this very spot, mutter sweet words and be done with it. One minute later, Kyrie buries a three. I rise. I’ve never been this alive — every hair standing, every inch of skin afire. 53 seconds later the buzzer sounds. My mind can’t process what my eyes see, Lebron crying and screaming and cradling the basketball in one giant arm. I’m trembling. I can’t sit or stand. I walk outside into the cool summer night, sky black, deep, and comforting. A breeze swirls. Leaves rustle against one another and for the first time in hours, I breathe deep. My chest floats in the rise and fall. One breath flows into another, then another, then another, and on a night I can’t forget, I slip through the veil from chaos to calm.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)