The indelible images of athletes are focused on the extremes. Crystallized to memory are the catches that you just couldn’t believe, the freeze-frame on the undeniable score over a defender, the front page of a tabloid after a stunning collapse. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, those images are penned not only by the photographers who shoot, but the camerapersons who film and announcers who narrate.
Add the uniforms they wear with the passions of the cities or towns they play for and there’s an extra layer of emotion to a fan’s recollection when that image appears.
When these players retire, we largely recall those moments that made them saints and sinners for their respective teams. Jerry Rice will always wear that 49ers scarlet and white while splitting the safeties in Super Bowl XXIX. Of all the teams he built his legendary career with, Reggie Jackson hit three homers in Game 6 of the ’77 Series in Yankee pinstripes. Billy Buckner is rarely recalled for being a very good player for the Dodgers or Cubs, but for the most infamous error in baseball history.
(Safe to say that right now, your minds are flicking through these pictures?)
In watching the playoffs over the last month, and really the last few seasons, new memories have formed based on someone once thought of as sports’ ultimate choke artist. Are we at the point now where it’s harder to remember that LeBron James once wore the colors of the Cleveland Cavaliers?
On the surface, it’s an insane question to ask, let that be understood. Undoubtedly, our friends and family in the Cleveland area feel the burn every time his name is mentioned. In fact, all they see is James sitting across from Jim Gray or the #23 jerseys lit aflame in the aftermath of The Decision.
Yet, as each playoff foe is vanquished and another Larry O’Brien Trophy comes into view, the days of dancing on the bench, sporting multiple fauxbacks and looking for someone else to make the shot for Cleveland are fading and fading fast.
Consider what took place and what was said about LeBron pre-Decision. He was the wunderkind with the high-wattage smile who pulled his hometown team to unseen heights in his first four seasons, including the nearly forgotten 2007 NBA Finals. He was the centerpiece that management — basketball and otherwise — hitched a wobbly wagon onto. He came up short with the help they gave him. His heralded unselfishness turned into post-seasonal allergies to the fourth quarter.
Then, a few months after The Decision, he returned to Ohio with the Miami Heat, dropping 38 points, eight assists and five rebounds while taking the venom spewed at him in stride in the process.
We know that first season after joining the Heat wasn’t perfect, as any- and everything related to being a choker flooded the media. Fans took what was projected by sports media and unloaded their best (or really, worst) jokes and considered it some form of schadenfreude when Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals. Few images captured the glee of a nation enjoying James and the Heat lose more than the brilliant shot of him sitting underneath the Mavericks’ basket, chewing his mouthpiece in disappointment.
Then 2012 happened. So much could have been said about that playoff run — including the Finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder — and the regular season before it. While his incredible Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals is one of the greatest elimination-game performances in NBA history, nothing sharpens our sight and recollection more than James’ destruction of Jason Terry earlier in the year.
And we know what happened last spring in the best NBA Finals in a long time. There were many moments of that classic series, and arguably, Ray Allen’s game-tying 3-pointer in Game 6 is the best of them all. Not far behind are LeBron’s shot that sealed Game 7 and his “I ain’t got no worries” quip during the trophy presentation.
And even if there are some bumps en route to a fifth Finals appearance and a third title, it may not be so different in 2014.
Today, not only do we speak and write of LeBron James differently, but the signature photos and camera shots have changed as well. A Google image search of his name right now is all the proof you need. A few scattered pictures of his Cavaliers days and Olympics exploits show up, but this is what happens when someone not only wins in sports, but wins big.
Those snapshots that told us he “only played for three quarters” are becoming harder to find.
(Unless you’re a Cavaliers fan. We understand.)