It’s June 21, 2012, and LeBron James is standing amongst his teammates on the bench, the final three minutes of Game 5 of the NBA Finals ticking down. His Miami Heat have throttled a young, upstart Oklahoma City Thunder team, blowing them out in their decisive fourth win. Just as the Thunder’s championship chances deflate, a balloon hopelessly shrinking, something else grows in size and wattage: Lebron James’ smile.
A smile we haven’t seen in years, at least nowhere near a basketball court.
He jumps up and down, chanting and laughing and soaking in the moment. It is, to the crowd and the TV audience, utterly contagious. The legacy of the King, born out of the gyms of Akron, Ohio, and a weight around his neck his entire career, has finally lifted. He has defeated, at least temporarily, the narrative that has dogged him his whole career. He is free.
As someone who remembers reading that first Sports Illustrated cover in February 2002, the one calling James “The Chosen One”, even as a high school junior, I felt as though I’d followed him every step of the way. I remembered the pressure to be Cleveland’s EVERYTHING his first years there. The constant calls of “not good enough”. It didn’t matter that he drug a hopelessly overmatched Cavalier team to the 2007 Finals, and it wasn’t enough that his Miami Heat super-team had lost in the 2011 Finals the year before. The narrative became so suffocating – he had no clutch gene, that he would disappear in key moments, that he didn’t want to be a leader – that James no longer appeared to enjoy basketball. It didn’t matter the stats or how well he took care of his superhuman body; he would always be compared to Michael Jordan, an unfair and pointless comparison. It would never be enough.
In the face of all of that, I watched random Heat games on TV not as a fan of the team, but as a witness. Those who knew basketball did their best to warn us all: that James had reached new gears, ascending to the new heights of his basketball powers. I knew something special was happening. I had to see it for myself so I could tell my grandchildren one day. Still, it was never enough. The failures of the past, though not entirely his fault, would not be forgiven by anything but an NBA Championship hoisted above his head. That’s the myth the sportswriters wrote.
But when the finals seconds ticked off the clock of that Game 5 and James finally won that championship? Pure, unbridled joy. “You know,” James said after the game, “my dream has become a reality now, and it’s the best feeling I ever had.”
I felt the same way with Damon Lindelof as his incredible The Leftovers eased its way toward the series finale. I could tell – from the word of mouth of many television critics I greatly respected – that this show was approaching or operating on a level of greatness we don’t often see. It was something to behold. And behold it I did, soaking up 27 episodes in a less than a week, a flurry I would happily absorb again.
In between episodes and reading the recaps on AV Club, Vox, and UPROXX, memories hit me of watching those third season LOST episodes (to my memory, the best season the show had to offer) one week at a time with my college friends. We would huddle in the dorm lobby, watch with gasps, laughs, and groans, and spend the entire following week discussing what everything meant and what we thought would happen. But the mystery slow began to unravel, and we all grew weary of it. We lost faith. By the time the 6th and final season rolled around, I found myself on the outside looking in. I felt like the answers would never come. Only more questions. But I buckled in, caught up with the mysteries, and watched that finale.
I had never been more enraged at a work of art in my life.
Many people felt the same. We felt cheated. But LOST had also guided itself into a narrative corner it could not transcend, just like LeBron found himself on a Cavaliers team in 2007 that he could not possible maximize any further, leading him to take his talents down to South Beach.
From there, it felt like something of a creative stumble, a walk of penance through the desert. Lindelof took the brunt of the blame (along with co-showrunner Carlton Cuse). Still smarting from the LOST finale response, Lindelof went on to write several movies, all of which suffered the same problems as LOST: maintaining a game of mystery until the very end, at the expense of characters acting stupid and being impossible to relate to, only for the secrets to be a collective wet fart.
So my only hope with this Leftovers finale was that Lindelof would get some that same moment James had in 2012, when the clock would be ticking down, and he would feel like the veil, the dark harness, had been lifted. Just like James had become a much better, decisive, and efficient basketball player playing alongside the Big 3 and with a class organization like the Heat, Lindelof appeared to be emboldened by his collaboration with novelist Tom Perrotta and his fantastic writer’s room. His decisions had purpose. When he withheld information, he knew exactly why they were doing it. I saw confidence and wisdom in his representation of the show that I never saw with LOST.
I have no way of knowing how Lindelof feels about his show now, but I know many, many critics and viewers (myself included) loved it. It tied the show up as only it could. Even better – it pushed itself into the pantheon of all-time great finales with Nora Durst’s finale monologue, leaving the audience to guess if she told the truth or not. And while I am highly mindful that an entire writer’s room worked together to create this special, final episode of television, Lindelof’s name, fair or not, will always be associated with it.
LeBron will likely never get the credit he deserves, and neither will Damon. There will always be someone hungering to take them down, another false narrative propped up for clicks and retweets. It will never be enough.
But for now? It’s time to celebrate. Greatness, long so elusive, has been achieved.