100. 61. 755. 2,105. 56. 11. 4,256. Name your own. The relationship between a sport and its most transcendent numbers isn’t complicated, but it’s not a one-way affair, either.
The sport lends the numbers meaning and context and hot-blooded narrative; the numbers give the game shape; an objective anchor comprehensible and quantified, if not quite always all-encompassing.
When the relationship is working, one number can do a great many things: signify both some single remarkable thing and fit it with context; speak with some spare poetry about an accomplishment; put a face on something insurmountable or unprecedented. This is how it works, when it works. And then sometimes a number is just bullshit.
LeBron James has a host of notable numbers to his credit, and may own many more by the time his career ends around 2040. But the number he bore some weeks ago, when he managed to play 254 minutes at the universe’s highest level of basketball without committing a single foul – of the offensive, defensive, spilled-Jager-bomb-party variety – should not be one of those numbers. Because if this number tells a story at all, it’s not an especially compelling one, nor one that says much good about the NBA circa now. This is one of those numbers, in short, that’s mostly bullshit.
Associating a mere lack of transgressions with greatness – fouls, in this case – bastardizes the visceral weight we’ve learned to lend the feats of Rose, Wilt, or Joltin’ Joe. Most is in general a far sexier qualifier than least, or in this case, zero. That is unless we’re talking about no-hitters or perfect games or scoreless innings, of course, which we’re not. We’re talking about the cold ludicrousness of the fact that LeBron James played 254 minutes without being whistled for a foul.
Two hundred and fifty-four minutes is, in basketball if not in cosmic terms, a long-ass time. You can tell that just by counting the letters it took to type that. The mere phrase “Two hundred and fifty-four minutes” is longer than most Hemingway sentences.
It is also enough time for you, the reader, to accomplish any one of the following things:
Again, long-ass time. And yet, the reaction to LeBron’s record setting feat, which spanned nearly a fortnight in earth time, seemed to run a disproportionately quick course. A flurry of reactions ranging from the laudatory to the outright offended, and then… silence. We just stopped talking about it. Which is maybe a reasonable enough thing to do, given that the number and the achievement is both dull and ridiculous. But let’s give it maybe a little more time. Because it’s just dull enough and ridiculous enough to deserve it.
Did we stop talking about it, maybe, because we knew it was wrong? Even when McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were taking their respective dope-muscled runs at Maris and Aaron, our fear and anger at the possibility that they might be cutting a few corners was tempered somewhat by two, borderline-unimpeachable facts. The first was that a lot of other baseball dudes – including pitchers – were taking the same shit, and the second was that it is in general simply fun to watch, even a little guiltily, as Herculean feats fall at the feet of new heroes.
With LeBron’s record, the guilt is a little closer to the surface. There was and remains a psychic undercurrent of staged nepotism to this record’s fall – here’s proof, if we want it, that “star treatment” in the NBA has hit an absurd zenith. This was less a record to laud than a fraud best forgotten, something like Mark McGwire’s wince-inducing home run tally, which voters for Baseball’s Hall of Fame seem quite happy to continue ignoring.
But the principle is largely the same: No one is that good, or this good in this way for this long. Even the best baller on the planet – and that’s LeBron right now, who may arguably be the best that ever lived by the time he’s done – is human, though his brand of rinse-and-repeat greatness and stunning feats seem always to suggest otherwise. Even being the most fundamentally sound defender in the world does not and cannot negate the fact that your 400-plus colleagues and not-quite-peers are also incredibly good at what they do. They’re the quickest, the fastest, the strongest, and if LeBron is the best they’re mostly close enough to, say, draw a charge or a block or a reach-in from him at least once a game, let alone once every two weeks.
LeBron’s record rings hollow precisely because its achievement depends upon a more closely entangled third party – in this case a trio of on-court referees – than records in almost any other sport. Might Joe DiMaggio have benefited from a generous corner or two? Sure. Did Eric Dickerson’s offensive line get away with a jersey grab or junk kick here and again? Possibly, probably. But in neither of those two sports do officials wield the kind of consistent, second-by-second influence enjoyed by their parquet peers.
Of course LeBron James committed fouls in those 254 minutes. They just weren’t called.
Which gets to the rancid nut of it, the real reason why this record reeks so badly. More than any other sport, basketball’s biggest problem is one of fan perception, particularly when it comes to the role and influence of its officiants. I wrote a little bit about this a while back for the Times, and argued for a kind of hybrid “call your own” foul system. The crux of my case being that the N.B.A. still hasn’t fully recovered from the credibility crippling Tim Donaghy scandal, and that the league’s refs are hugely flawed even when they’re honest. It was an unlikely suggestion, admittedly, but what better way to reinstate some semblance of honor than to have its most controversial duty adhere more to the game’s playground roots and ethics. There is no way that LeBron would or more to the point could play five-plus games in a row without getting called for a foul under those rules.
The idea was meant less as a panacea than as a modest proposal: a way to show the fans that – as is seen to be the case in football, baseball, hockey, soccer, and other pastimes – the players were in control, and that the referees were merely there to maintain order, not define and redefine and re-redefine it. It was just an idea, but if it’s not a solution this problem it’s at least worth acknowledging that the problem exists.
More to the point, this is a record that says nothing much good about its owner, and many not-good things about the league in which he plays. When a sport’s most transcendent star can go 254 minutes without being called for a foul, it only reinforces the creeping suspicion that David Stern’s NBA has staked too much on subjugating truth to narrative, and narrative to ratings. The narrative in the NBA right now is of a superstar redeemed, a once-in-a-generation talent exorcising the ghosts of stupid youth to embrace his superheroism: a really buff Spiderman with an all too human hairline. His penance paid, LeBron can now enjoy as free a reign as is feasible without seeing Stern tipping the Vaudeville hat completely.
This is perverse in its own right, but more so in its ramifications. Two days after Dwayne Wade was suspended for literally kicking Ramon Sessions in the nuts during a December 26th tilt in Charlotte, the Heat released a public statement in which they both defended Wade’s reputation and not-so-subtly suggested that the league has made a policy of standing idly by whilst other teams “take privilege “ with Miami’s players. Meaning stars, of course.
To square this kind of martyr’s song with LeBron’s 254 foul-free minutes requires either tremendous mental gymnastics or whatever laser cut the Pyramids. The idea that James, Wade, Bosh and the rest get no ref respect is ludicrous, of course. But that’s what makes the whole thing so fascinating – the naked arrogance, and the implicit admission that winning in the NBA is less about the Xs and the Os than the Jims and the Joes. Last names Capers and Crawford, apparently.
Last year, my friend (and Classical colleague) Robert Silverman answered a ref-blurt of mine with what remains, to my mind anyway, the most compelling context for understanding the uniquely delicate role of referees in basketball. Sports and life, Robert said, are doomed to be unfair; referees, like the people you interact with either directly or tangentially every day, are fortune’s unpredictable agents. Like the guy riding a little too close to you on the freeway, NBA refs can pump the brakes and let traffic flow, or they can wreck your shit. There’s not much you can do to prevent or guarantee either outcome except keep driving.
Refs aren’t agents of order, in short, so much as they’re (ironically identified) agents of chaos. Not arbiters, then, but just characters on another of life’s strange stages, a place where people win and lose and smile and cry and even the best laid game plans can be gasoline soaked and set alight by Bennett Salvatore.
Which necessarily makes LeBron our Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro or Daniel Day-Lewis: the king of his craft, the leading man. That’s why it’s so hard to stay mad at him, even in the wake of such a transparently ridiculous “record.” He’s the best.
But even the best players are only as brilliant as their script. LeBron’s has, this record and last year’s title notwithstanding, not been the easiest or most linear of scripts. Prep-to-pro, the Finals failures, The Decision – these are not easy roles. And yet he is there at awards season every year, because he’s great and he’s earned it and he continues to earn it. Just not for this 254-minute epic. This time, we fed him too many lines.
Jim is a regular contributor to Knickerblogger, the True Hoop Network's Knicks affiliate blog. His work also appears regularly at the New York Times' Off the Dribble NBA blog and ESPN. A lifelong hoops lover, Jim has always insisted on wearing glasses during games, a life choice that has earned him the occasional chant of Ram-bis and cost him hundreds of dollars in repairs. He currently leads his old man league in techs and three pointers attempted. Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.