It’s the elbow, stupid.
It really is.
Ever since Tuesday night when LeBron James and company looked like the Star Wars crew at the end of The Empire Strikes Back – beaten, defeated, ready to give up – Cleveland’s best athlete has been taking a nationwide pounding. They’re calling him a quitter. They’re accusing him of throwing Game 5 against the Celtics. They’re saying he can’t wait to get out of town and join the Knicks.
Heck, we’re calling him those things right here in Cleveland. We should be ashamed. Ever since he received his first Cavaliers jersey, LeBron James has been nothing but positive toward the city of Cleveland. He’s carried us through some dark moments and given us our greatest hope for a title. And now in his darkest moment, when he’s trying to play through an injury that would probably sideline him for weeks if this were the middle of the season, Cleveland fans are abandoning him. Instead of supporting LeBron, we’re abandoning him.
LeBron is not quitting on the team or the city, folks. The answer is really quite simple. It’s the elbow.
Remember the 2008 AFC Championship game between the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots? Chargers superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson sat on the bench wearing a parka most of the game, his expression hidden by his tinted face mask. New England won the game. He was heavily criticized after he left the game, especially when it was revealed Charger quarterback Philip Rivers played with an ACL injury that required surgery and several months of rehab. Even though Tomlinson gave it a go at the beginning of the game, sitting on the bench away from his teammates has overtaken his legacy.
Now, LeBron is doing the opposite. He’s trying to avoid the LT2 legacy. LeBron is gutting it out and not making excuses. Instead of praise ala Willis Reed of the Knicks starting Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals with a torn leg muscle, our reaction has become a LeBromination. Because LeBron is masking his true feelings, we think he doesn’t care. It’s 180 degrees the other way.
We know this because LeBron has been telling us this for the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t exactly take a Doc Jensen dissection of Lost to figure out what’s keeping Cleveland from its championship hopes this time around. Yet no one’s reading between the lines.
It started after the series finale against the Bulls on April 27. LeBron gave us the first hint of what the future held with this postgame comment:
“It bothers me because I don’t know what it is. Hopefully it doesn’t continue to bother me. But I’m not concerned. Cleveland fans have nothing to worry about. They have no reason to panic. I don’t think it’s that serious.”
That quote was LeBron’s big mistake. He told Cleveland sports fans there was nothing to worry about, which would be like Greece’s president telling his country’s citizens that the current economic meltdown is like being 10 cents short for the pop machine. Tipoff is enough reason for a Cleveland sports fan to panic. LeBron’s elbow falling off? Worse than Terminal Tower toppling over and flattening The Q. Still, we believed him because we need something to believe in. False hope will do.
Reports quickly followed about an MRI that revealed no damage, and another that merely showed a strain.
After the Cavs struggled against the Celtics in Game 1 of their playoff series, we heard this from LeBron regarding his elbow:
“Throughout the game it loosened up. I have a no-excuse policy. This team has a no-excuse policy. … We’re about coming out and competing against the Celtics.”
There’s the money quote. LeBron is not denying there’s something wrong with his elbow. He’s implying there’s something seriously wrong with his elbow. And he’s saying it’s not an excuse for his performance. LeBron is old school. He knows the game’s history. He knows the great players don’t hide behind injuries. They tough it out. And that’s what he’s doing. If you’re healthy enough to play, you don’t use your health as an excuse.
It certainly can be a reason though.
After being whipped by the Celtics in Game 2, this was what LeBron said about his elbow:
”I’m going to continue to try to be the player I am and not use this elbow as an excuse. I’d never use an injury as an excuse. It’s just two games. I understand the burden and the pain Cleveland fans have. I don’t feel pressure at all. I’m looking forward to Game 3.”
There it is again. The elbow is obviously a problem. But LeBron won’t use it as an excuse. He won’t even use it as a reason, even though it obviously is the reason why the Cavs are about to sink to the bottom of Lake Erie.
Then LeBron went out and whipped the Celtics from the start in Game 4. He scored 21 points in the first quarter and thoroughly demoralized the Boston crowd as the Cavs dealt Boston its worst home playoff loss in history, 124-95.
All that talk about the elbow? No big deal. It was probably just a little pain. LeBron wouldn’t let it stop him.
Until Game 5. After the convincing performance in Game 4, LeBron put up probably his worst performance in his biggest game. He looked disinterested. His jumpers were straighter than Fausto Carmona’s pitches. He heard the boos from the home crowd, all because his elbow doesn’t work right. All because he was trying to play through a devastating injury to bring the home fans what they so desperately want – a championship.
Now he’s being hammered from left to right like a soccer ball. What should be hailed as the most gutsy performance by the premier athlete in the NBA is being called a gutless try by a quitter. We should be praising the hometown man trying to bring the hometown fans what they desperately seek. Instead, we’re turning against LeBron because our previous relationships have ended so badly we can’t possibly believe he’s doing anything but quitting on us.
The quotes have become more obvious the last couple of days. The blog Fear The Sword claims that LeBron is playing with a torn elbow ligament that will take six to eight weeks to heal. A shot to numb the elbow helped him perform in Game 4, but that remedy is only available every 10 days, the blog claims. Then Plain Dealer Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst tweeted this Wednesday:
LeBron also talked about elbow, hinting about plans, severity: “The elbow is an issue I’ll deal with in the offseason.”
So in ironic Cleveland fashion LeBron James has been accused of being a quitter at exactly the time he is giving his most to the team. At precisely the time LeBron is doing anything he can to help his hometown team to their precious championship people are claiming he is turning his back on us in order to head to the Knicks. At the exact moment that LeBron James needs his fans the most we are giving him the least support.
This truly is a turning point for Cleveland sports. It’s going to become the moment we as fans look back on with greatest shame.