Both teams are already legendary, with doubly legendary cast members. But only one can be remembered on the bright side of history in 2014. Does Tim Duncan capture his elusive fifth ring? Or does LeBron James close out his 20s in the most epic of fashions? Who’s it going to be?
His face swollen, eyes nearly compacted shut, Muhammad Ali stared down the barrel of mortality’s gun.
“It was next to death. When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.”
Joe Frazier, all but clinically blind at this point, was possessed. “I couldn’t see the punches coming no more. My eyes were both closed at the end. But I wanted to go on.”
These were the thoughts of two men, directly on the heels of their third and final bout, atop sports’ Mount Olympus. Frazier defeated Ali in their first date in 1971, famously dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Three years later, Ali walked away victorious in the rematch.
Ali’s 14-round TKO in the “Thrilla in Manilla” 20 months later signaled the end of an era with a thunderstorm of jabs, hooks and haymakers, the culmination of two larger-than-life figures on three stages better equipped for Greek and Roman gods.
Frazier’s sadistic yearn to silence Ali — the greatest shit-talking savant sports will ever see — permanently drove him. Sleepless nights became the norm. For Ali, a man of countless principles and even more catchphrases, it was manifesting his own self-anointed declarations of greatness. For both, it was about reserving mantles in history.
The kind fathers share with their sons who, in turn, tell their sons about the night two icons placed everything on the line for eternity’s embrace. The kind kids, like yours truly, scour through hours of footage, pages of documentation and years of barbershop talk because, in the finest of descriptions, God revealed Himself in a boxing ring, if only for a short period of time.
The generation before speaks of the heroes of yesteryear like Ali and Frazier because of the comfort that resides in unlocking a memory bank. Colloquialisms take them right back to whatever living room, whatever bar or whatever hole-in-the-wall establishment they were in on October 1, 1975, when two of the finest athletes heaven molded from its own clay tasted victory and fled from defeat. Punches were landed. Sweat dripped. Energy was drained. Pride beamed. Memories were immortalized.
In modern terms, the 2014 NBA Finals represent a battle with “bookend” tattooed at every conceivable angle. Ironically, it represents the third meeting at the summit between LeBron James and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and perhaps basketball’s greatest, most lovable and equally most feared mad scientist, Gregg Popovich. And for the 12 people who aren’t aware, the ’14 installment marks a rematch from the same match-up 12 months prior.
A rematch, if one invests in destiny, was the only plausible pairing. Regardless of who crawls away victorious in whatever amount of games, the NBA’s history wins.
It’s the third installment of the trilogy between the aforementioned quintuplet of future Hall of Famers.
It’s the opportunity for Duncan and Pop to complete a task nearly unfathomable in American sports, win championships 15 years apart.
It’s the chance for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli to climb further toward the apex of the unofficial title of “Best International Player Ever,” a distinction Dirk Nowtizki holds with an iron grip and the spirit of Drazen Petrovic forever haunts.
It’s the chance for Erik Spoelstra — as if he weren’t already — to commission writers to pen his Hall of Fame speech with “Spoisms” like “stay the course,” “trust each other,” “stay in the moment,” and, by far the personal favorite, “That’s probably the best way to live in life is in the moment, and that will guarantee you’re in the moment.”
It’s the chance for someone on Miami to find Danny Green at the three-point line before it’s too late.
It’s the opportunity for guys like Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Chris Andersen or Boris Diaw to seal a win with a key rebound or basket (because it’s inevitable at this point).
It’s the chance for Chris Bosh to live something kids in their driveways only fantasize about when counting down an imaginary clock in their heads for a hypothetical final shot. Bosh, for the second consecutive summer, squares off against his childhood idol with a chance to break his childhood idol’s spirit. For the second consecutive summer.
It’s the opportunity for Dwyane Wade — a healthy Dwyane Wade for the first time in what seems like forever — to firmly establish himself as the game’s third greatest shooting guard in history behind names like Jordan and Bryant.
Speaking of Bryant, it’s the chance, many already vehemently feel, for Tim Duncan to officially stamp himself ahead of Kobe for “player of the generation.”
It’s a chance for LeBron to close out his 20s completing a task that seemed closer to biblical expectations a decade ago: far exceed the hype; alter the trajectory of basketball; and redefine what greatness looks, feels and dominates like.
It’s the chance Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs have yearned for since the greatest shot in playoff history from Ray Allen drove the final nail into their casket. And LeBron’s elbow jumper in the waning seconds of Game 7 poured dirt on top of it.
It’s the confirmation the Miami Heat can provide that the Spurs did not let last year “slip away.” They seized what was rightfully theirs.
The Spurs and Heat aren’t Frazier or Ali, and Game 1 doesn’t exactly compare to the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Not yet, at least.
No one man has ever won a title by himself. Not Russell. Not Wilt. Not Kareem. Not Magic. Not Bird. Not Jordan. Not Shaq. Not Kobe. Not Duncan. Not Wade. Not LeBron. Much won’t change in 2014 either.
The provocative angle, nevertheless, is LeBron vs. Duncan, and for good reason. Moments after the Spurs swept through James’ Cavaliers in 2007, Timmy prophetically confessed to his younger superstar counterpart, “This is gonna be your league in a little while, but, uh, I appreciate you giving us this year.”
Seven summers later, Duncan has defied Father Time. What resembled his curtain call four years ago now frequently looks like the greatest power forward ever who still has two or three more years left in him (and keep in mind he played all four years at Wake Forest). He and Popovich are the closest thing in basketball to vampires. He’s not the Duncan who once won back-to-back MVPs in the early 2000s, but he doesn’t need to be. The only thing Duncan needs are four more wins.
Embracing the realization that more career years nestle themselves comfortably in the rearview than in front is a “come to God” moment. It causes the most stoic and iconic of men to temporarily take on new identities. Passion promotes paranoia, beautifully when harnessed. It’s the reason why Duncan’s straightforward comments didn’t necessarily embody “trash talk.”
“We’re excited about it. We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.”
That’s desperation. Desperation from a man willing to leave every ounce of energy left in his 38-year-old frame in the AT&T Center and America Airlines Arena. Desperation to never feel the sense of betrayal in his own game he felt leaving Miami last June. Desperation to prove to himself his words to James were merely a joke with a delayed punch line, not an accurate forecast.
For LeBron James, his desperation assumes a slightly different identity. He’ll never win certain segments of the population over. The ones who feel his talent is overrated because of a weaker conference, laughable in several regards. The ones who will never forgive him for “running away” from his responsibility in Cleveland to “team up” with Wade and Bosh. And the ones who nearly break into hives whenever LeBron’s name is mentioned alongside the truest icons in the game’s lineage.
Which sucks, because, you know, he’s already one himself.
LeBron is the game’s greatest player and the hardest code to crack. Yet, he knows, and anyone who follows basketball knows, if any team has come the closest to immortality, it’s Duncan and Popovich’s Spurs. Their games represent a chemical imbalance of heart-throttling entertainment and a chess match between some of the NBA’s most brilliant minds, James being one of them.
A three-peat is motivation enough. Nevermind the Heat being underdogs or Duncan’s comments. James has long since appreciated the NBA’s history. He’s already created his fair share this postseason by becoming the second player in history to win 100 playoff games before turning 30 (Magic Johnson). And his Heat are the third team in history to advance to four straight Finals.
Pending James and Miami capture four wins before Duncan and San Antonio, admission into one of the Association’s rarest fraternities is granted: the hallowed “three-peat.” The same fraternity Pat Riley trademarked in the ’80s but still awaits his official coronation. The same fraternity that puts him in arm’s length of the man he still adores, but is ultimately chasing, Michael Jordan. The same fraternity which, if he’s able to capture Finals MVP for the third consecutive year, puts him in a university with only two graduates: Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
That and having four MVPs, (potentially) three titles, (potentially) three Finals MVPs, eight first-team All-NBA nods, five first-team All-Defensive teams, two All-Star Game MVPs and two Olympic Gold Medals all before turning 30 isn’t a shabby way to close your 20s and stamp yourself as one of the five to seven best players ever.
LeBron James is boxing with titans. Tim Duncan and the Spurs are titans in every sense of the word.
At some point over the next two weeks, much like Ali and Frazier’s third battle, there will come a crossroads in the series where both teams will have expended everything in their gas tanks. They’ll admit to themselves, similar to Ali after the fight, “If I had taken the punches he took, I’d have gone home much earlier.”
How San Antonio responded from a backbreaking LeBron triple-double or Rashard Lewis three in the closing seconds is beyond Miami’s comprehension. How Miami survived a Danny Green onslaught or gargantuan second-half run to rise from their corner with fire in their eyes and pain in their blood is incalculable for San Antonio.
Fighting for immortality is supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to make you question yourself. It’s supposed to make you channel a monster only permissible to emancipate when the straits are their most dire and the magnitude of the situation is its most dangerous.
Bruises heal. Scars fade. Arenas eventually clear out. But the label of champion — especially the ilk LeBron, Duncan, the Heat and Spurs are chasing — is immortal.
Living with no fear of an expiration date is only reserved for the gods.