May 12, 2010 by David Gillaspie
LeBron James plays the biggest game of the year like he was asleep? Tiger Woods leaves a golf outing early? Two of the world’s most renowned athletes mail it in?
Say it isn’t so.
Before going to the tape, take a look backward at athletic disappointments. How many ‘sure things’ faded in the stretch?
My first pick is Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston. How did a hyped up light-heavyweight gold medalist from the Rome Olympics defeat a grizzled ex-con? Then do it again. From going temporarily blind to throwing a ‘phantom punch’, from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, those two fights changed boxing.
Where was Don King?
Next up, Super Bowl III, Colts vs Jets. You know how it turned out for Broadway Joe. Afterward the AFL and NFL merged; the owners of the Colts and Rams exchanged teams. The Colts coach jumped to Miami. The new Rams owner died mysteriously a few years later. Broadway Joe came under scrutiny for his associations with unsavory characters.
We like our sports clean and fair with the better team winning, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.
Did Lebron play up to his standards last night versus the Celtics? No. Will he stay in Cleveland? Who knows, but after last night’s performance, with the accompanying boo-birds in the arena, he made it easier to say good-bye. No one wants to see a guy shank his shots, turn it down on defense, and play an ordinary game.
The face of the future of the NBA can’t take a night off. If one part of his game isn’t working he needs to step up the other facets, like rebounding and assists. Did he have an off-night, or was he influenced by something darker? Don’t ask Michael Jordan, the man who beat up his teammates in practice if they weren’t bringing it.
When the most famous athlete in the world bails on his game because of a sore neck you have to wonder. What message is Tiger sending after he limped through a tournament on an injured leg and still won? When his swing coach quits on him you might ask what else might be broken besides his swing.
Once the will to win runs out it’s hard to be competitive. Once fear enters the equation you have to ask ‘what are they afraid of?’
Sonny Liston was fearless. Prison didn’t frighten him, but he lost to an upstart.
The Baltimore Colts were dominant but lost to what was perceived as the JV squad.
Tiger is viewed as the greatest golfer ever, but something unhinged him.
And now LeBron?
Sports scandals are nothing new. The Black Sox scandal of 1919. The University of Kentucky basketball point shaving in 1949. The steroid era in Major League Baseball. Tim Donaghy changing NBA games he bet money on while a referee.
It doesn’t take a personal appearance by Jose Canseco pointing fingers, or seeing a shrunken Mark McGwire in clothes that used to fit him, to know something is wrong. Steroids don’t make you forget how to speak English, but they did that to Sammy when he went before the US Congress.
We like our sports fair and clean, but not every contest shines like a high school wrestling match. When athletes, for whatever reason, lay down, we have the right to ask questions. Gamblers and bettors don’t influence every game. Bad calls aren’t always the result of crooked officials. But the question remains: What the heck happened?
Trust is the first casualty of uneven competition. When the superstars light dims in the glare of national attention, we turn away. We don’t want to believe they’ve been touched by age or bad decisions when they play the game. We want our guys to win, or at least give a good accounting of themselves.
The next time I hear about an ‘off-night’ won’t be the last. It happens. But an off-off night in the biggest game of the year? We’ll never know why, but we will know we deserve better. And we feel cheated.