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Vince Thomas

Hasn't LeBron James suffered enough in his road to becoming a champion?
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Winning not only trait that defines a champion in the NBA

Posted May 18 2010 2:08PM

What is a champion? One definition is "a winner of first place in a competition," but that's a little too simple for me -- not everyone who wins a championship should be considered a "champion."

Champion, according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, is defined as "warrior, fighter ... one who shows marked superiority," and, my favorite, "one that does battle for another's rights or honor." In a sports context the "other" would be teammates, a franchise and fans -- and we can look on a basketball court and tell which of the players are "doing battle" and doing it with the purpose.

The concept of being a champion has been on my mind a lot in the playoffs. It's one of the reasons I could have sworn that the Spurs would advance past the Suns and one of the reasons I wasn't ready to hand the Cavs the East title. Not when they had to get through a team of former champions in the Celtics.

The Cavs hadn't won anything, and had few players that I'd consider champions (we'll get to LeBron). Boston's roster was not so vastly superior to Cleveland's that the Cavs should have been doomed to yet another early ouster. The Celtics' mental makeup and sense of purpose was their distinct advantage. Playoff basketball is as much a battle of wits and mettle as it is one of skill. Usually, the team with the champions advances (unless, in the Spurs' case, injuries and age cause things to crumble).

When you take a look at the four remaining playoff teams, Phoenix and Orlando are talented and skilled. But no team that features Channing Frye as a key player will win a championship. Amar'e Stoudemire -- the most physically gifted big-minute player (behind Kobe) on either Phoenix or L.A. -- should use his athleticism to help the Suns not get manhandled on the boards. Instead, the dude had three rebounds in Game 1.

And Dwight Howard -- bless his heart -- is filming goofy Superman/Clark Kent interviews in the midst of a championship run.

So I think we're going to have a rematch of the 2008 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers. If so, Boston won't let Kobe, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol run roughshod like they are doing against the Suns. It will be a battle of champions.

Of course, for the second straight postseason, the presumed Kobe vs. LeBron battle was busted up. I guess the Celtics weren't cool with just letting LeBron and his Cavs advance to the Finals because the world supposedly predestined it.

On the Turner Broadcasting campus hangs a huge LeBron James billboard advertising the playoffs. There's a also a 10-passenger van with LeBron's image on the side, advertising the playoffs. The message on the marquees seemed clear: "Hey, it's the playoffs, folks -- LeBron's stage."

Linking the most marketable athlete in the world to the playoffs is a good way to get casual fans to watch games. The problem is, the dude is never on the grandest stage when it counts. For the past two seasons, with his team as the postseason favorite, other teams have told LeBron, "Not so fast, homeboy."

Last year it happened despite LeBron playing out of his mind. You think Kobe's last six games are sublime? They aren't touching the 41-8-8 LeBron averaged in the first five games of last season's East finals against Orlando. You couldn't fault him for that series loss. He played like a champion.

This spring? Not so much. Apathetic, lethargic, disinterested -- his performance in pivotal games and moments of the Boston series are jarring. It was the opposite of champion basketball. And it's been begging the question of whether or not LeBron will be a champion.

One thing is for sure: Stars have to go through some serious humiliation, hurt and defeat before they ultimately prevail.

This is not a foreign concept in sports. The only guy that came into the modern NBA and started collecting rings was Magic Johnson. Magic was only 20 years old when he ran up in The Spectrum in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals to win the title and treated a bunch of grown men like kids. Darryl Dawkins or Caldwell Jones should have clubbed Magic before they let him swagger into their house and snatch the trophy.

Thankfully -- and I do mean thankfully -- Magic's trials came. The next season, he had an unfortunate injury and suffered a bit of team ostracism. In the 1984 Finals, Magic's on-court meltdowns in Games 2, 4 and 7 of that series made folks wonder if he was a champion. Those years indirectly made Magic more of a champion, not less of one.

That's what LeBron needs. Virtually every all-time great deals with pain and humiliation en route to glory.

LeBron now has two straight seasons of playoff hardship. The natural order and process has taken place. Now, with roughly seven-to-10 All-Star years left in that indestructible, Greek god body, this champion can get on with winning a few championships.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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