There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.
— Malcolm X
By Ken Brock
From almost the moment the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics announced their blockbuster trade last the summer, the basic outline of this NBA season seems to have been determined. The plot is by no means clear; indeed, the story, if you mark the end of the NBA season in June, is not even half over.
For a time, it seemed as if this drama might be wanting for any real drama through several acts.
Now, however — as the Celtics begin a west-coast road trip with the revived Lakers, and the Cavs travel to San Antonio to take on the Spurs dynasts — the plot has thickened.
The Celtics have lost three straight games — at home — to .500-ish teams or worse. Suddenly a team marked by young athleticism seems weary at making shots. And a vaunted defense can’t keep other teams out of the paint. (The Magic outscored Boston 23-2 near the rim during a second-third quarter spurt on Sunday.)
Cleveland has lost five games out of six, the lone win coming over Orlando, and 9 of its last 12. The Cavaliers have also weathered at least two team-crisis meetings in a month, and a public airing of complaints by Isaiah Thomas and against Kevin Love, some of them by a player who seems to be getting a lot of attention in Cleveland these days, “Unnamed Source.”
The team’s season motto hashtag — #AllForOne — seems like a sick joke to many Cavs fan. “All for one?,” one quipped on twitter. “I wonder who ‘the One’ is.”
The “gift” of adversity
In different comments and with different body language, Irving and James have both dealt with team woes over the last several days.
In recent comments to the press after another tough Cavs loss, James took one approach.
“It’s been very challenging,” he said. “Just from the simple fact of how many guys have been in and out. This is a difficult year for our team. Seems like I say that every year, but this one has been even more challenging.”
Only days later, it was Irving’s turn.
“We’ve got to hit some adversity,” Irving said. “We need it as a team. There’s a lot more adversity down the road. We have to be able to weather the storm. We need hit something like this in order for us to grow. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Indeed, after making those comments to the press, Irving reportedly told Jayson Tatum after a tough loss to Orlando to view the team’s recent struggles as a “gift.” A gift?
“Yes, a gift…. We need to come back together.”
It’s dangerous to parce words with too fine a cutting tool. And it’s interesting to note that both Irving and James, in their slump-assessing remarks, included a “got to” imperative about where their respective teams go from here.
Still, the difference in approach is clear. For LeBron, there’s a weariness, a resignation. “Seems like I say that every year,” and, indeed, it does seem that way.
Kyrie, by contrast, almost seems to be calling the hurricane on, reverse-King-Canute-like. “We need it.”
If Kyrie is Malcolm X, LeBron is… who? Seneca, the stoic philosopher? If LeBron seems ener-vated, Kyrie seems… ener-gized.
Chutes and ladders
The whole season has been that way. Chutes and ladders for both teams — but seemingly, with Irving and James never too far apart, whether in standings or streaks. And always, seemingly, with an eye on the other.
“It’s like a divorced couple, they haven’t really stopped thinking about the other one yet,” a Cavs observer comments. “But more so from LeBron.”
When Kyrie put up a 35-point-plus performance to lead the Celtics to a close win in Atlanta on Nov. 6 — extending Boston’s win streak to 8 games at the time — LeBron responded with his famous Arthur meme minutes later.
James’s critics mocked him, but it was just 3 days later that the Cavs launched out on a 13-game win streak of their own. We felt at the time — and still do — that Kyrie’s fast start, and that of the Celtics, helped spur LeBron on to one of the most productive first-half he’s had in years.
“Kyrie isn’t just making his current teammates better — he’s doing it for some of his former teammates too” — it’s gotta be in the twitter feed somewhere.
By the same token, the Cavs began their current slide on Christmas Day, losing to the Warriors. It was only a few Boston wins and a one-game-in-one-week mini-break before the Celtics fell into their current 3-game slump.
All’s well that ends well –
or Hamlet, start to finish?
So many of the great works end in calamity: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet.
Ironically, the Cavs-Celtics, Kyrie-LeBron season began in one. The Hayward injury was gruesome to watch and seemed like a Katrina to Boston’s chances.
And yet, at least for the harrowing 10 minutes, it proved a unifying moment for fans and players of both teams. LeBron and Kyrie shared a post-game hug that seemed more than genuine — it seemed, in all the richness that Millennials impart to that word, “real.”
Many have observed that in some odd way, that injury may have helped the Celtics — and certainly, it was part of what produced the rapid emergence and development of Tatum and Brown.
And it also gave the Celtics an early taste — early? 5 minutes in — of the blessing that adversity can be.
Now the challenge for both teams — and both men — is to make that blessing work in their favor…. to make what Malcolm X called “the seed” grow and bear fruit.
It doesn’t just happen. It must be earned.
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