They Can't All Be Winners, Part 11: Cleveland Cavaliers

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I’m far from the first person to observe this: it’s remarkable that one of the most celebrated plays in the history of soccer ends in a miss. Actually, there are multiple plays in that vein, but I’m talking specifically about Pelé’s dummy against Uruguay in the 1970 World Cup, when a through-ball rolled toward him, the goalkeeper rushed out, and from the little menu of available moves floating above the Brazilian’s head, he chose fbjsdfowosd!, sprinted past the ball, sending an entire stadium the wrong way, leaving himself a bit too steep of an angle on net, and put the shot wide. Those seven seconds have their own Wikipedia page.

The famous status of Pelé’s non-goal is a veneration of the idea he had, the instantaneous invention. This is a post-prime-but-still-otherworldly Pelé running onto a pass with just the keeper to beat. Anything is in play: a lob, a toe-poke, a shimmying rounding maneuver. Then, at once, Pelé reveals to us the overwhelming, just-before-the-coaster-crashes-downward feeling of anything. He does what no one else would think to do. Its final result is sort of beside the point. (Though, sure, it would have been even cooler if Pelé had knocked his shot into the vacant goalmouth.)

As a general rule, American sports fans don’t build legends around failures. When we do, it usually involves the universal sign for choking. We appreciate the spectacular, but only when it works completely: when the basket is converted, the save is made, or the shot lands in-bounds.

I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to LeBron James’s doomed virtuoso performance against Golden State Warriors in last season’s Finals and its widespread acclaim. From around the time he started shaving, LeBron has been framed by public perception. He was the last Next Jordan when he was in middle school, and for something like the first seven years of his professional career, he was chasing a greatness that exists only in sneaker ads. Ever since it became apparent that LeBron would fail in that endeavor—when he crashed out of the 2009 playoffs in a weirdly aloof blaze, then left for Miami—his every stumble has been interpreted as a referendum on his un-Jordan-ness. Leaving Cleveland to play with Wade and Bosh was a coward’s move. His substandard 2011 Finals proved he wasn’t a killer. The Spurs took the Heat apart in 2014 because the team of company men were morally superior to the one stocked with mercenaries.

(I realize this is privileging the dumber elements of our sports discourse over the more thoughtful stuff that exists beneath its unpleasantly shouty surface, but half this country votes Republican and J. Cole is a very popular rapper. Just because something sucks doesn’t mean it’s not A Thing.)

What made LeBron’s most recent failure so exhilarating, beyond the obvious fact that watching LeBron exhaust his talents for six games is exhilarating by itself, was how it seemed to enchant all but the grumpiest contrarians. After the Warriors lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the media filed out of The Q or flipped off their televisions like movie critics exiting a theater having just seen a film that boiled their insides, straining to think in language instead of guttural feeling-sounds. It Didn’t Work Out, But God, How Fantastic Was LeBron? articles abounded.

This sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Not with LeBron, not with any athlete. We valorize the winners and pick at the losers’ flaws. The vanquished are forgotten and sometimes denigrated. The best they get is a polite tsk-tsking that, oof, it’s a real shame everything they did, magnificent as it might have been, didn’t matter at all.

Of course, Pelé’s achievement was seven seconds, and people still talk about it. LeBron had to kill himself for two weeks in order to earn his plaudits. It’s not like anyone’s building a statue to a particular herculean lay-in attempt that glanced off the rim. But there was something wonderful and rarely seen in the LeBron hosannas, something Europeans and South Americans have understood for a while: the zero-sum nature of games need not define them. There is so much more to delight in than results. A performance can be insufficient, and perfect all the same.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks |Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards

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