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LeBron moving into Wilt company -- not a good thing for the King

by | National Columnist

James is just one loss away from another season that ends without an NBA title. (AP)  
James is just one loss away from another season that ends without an NBA title. (AP)  

Oh, I think we know what comes next here.

Well, we actually don’t know what comes next. The Miami Heat could win in Boston on Thursday and then back home Saturday. That is neither far-fetched or even unlikely, no matter how much head-scratching and rampant angst-ering you want to immerse yourselves in, Re: Game 5.

But let's say the Celtics win the Eastern Conference finals, leaving the Heat in the showroom again. That's when we know what comes next.

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LeBron James' fault. The Wilt Chamberlain of his era takes another beating for not being Bill Russell.

Spare us any details of how it isn't his fault -- especially not actual facts. Nobody wants facts anymore, not when he or she has the safety of preconceptions. People have made up their minds, and they will change them only when their brains are replaced by the menacing aliens who have already gotten their silicon-based tentacles on Doyel.

If the Heat go down, James will move into a world only Wilt Chamberlain ever really understood -- as the force of nature who had few true defenders and a reputation for never being the last one standing.

Chamberlain was indeed that force of nature, dominating his world even more than James has ever dominated his. Except of course for Bill Russell, in which he always won the personal battle but never the one that mattered.

Chamberlain eventually got one in his eighth year with the best team the NBA ever made, the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, and then again in 1972 after Russell had finished collecting his 11. But his legacy was as the all-powerful, underappreciated giant who couldn't finish.

This is James' ninth year. He has been the league MVP three times (to Chamberlain's four) and the rookie of the year (like Chamberlain, he could win it only once), and now he is Chamberlain's equal in the worst category of all:

The Best Player With Naked Ring Fingers.

There is no true parallel for James other than Chamberlain. Maybe Elgin Baylor, who actually never won one, or Oscar Robertson, who won near the end of his career as the IT staff to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but neither of them was the focal point of the entire league the way Chamberlain was. I mean, they changed the width of the foul lane and the goaltending rules because of Chamberlain. Michael Jordan never got to change a rule -- although like any superstar he did benefit from their interpretations.

But we digress. Chamberlain's career never got its full due because he couldn't close, or more precisely, his teams couldn't close. It was only the one in Philadelphia, with six Hall of Famers when you include Alex Hannum, that even afforded Chamberlain the respect he did get.

Which brings us inexorably to James, in the same space in a different time, pending one more loss to the same team that haunted Chamberlain. He has been defined as Chamberlain has, and as only Chamberlain has. Fairly or not, that's the deal, and it's not his to accept or decline.

Of course, there is a way out here. The Heat win six more games. That seems obvious, and it is, but for those who hadn't escaped the safety of the womb by 1967 -- or really 1957 if you're counting sentient thought -- the release in Chamberlain's career when they finally beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and then the San Francisco Warriors for the title was nationally palpable.

In order to do that, Chamberlain needed an extraordinary team around him so that he didn't have to go 50 and 30 every night. That was 1967, the Hal Greer-Chet Walker-Lucious Jackson-Wally Jones-Billy Cunningham-off-the-bench team that concluded as one that 50 and 30 didn't work nearly as well as the box scores said it did.

But that is the great and alluring lie of basketball -- that it is a jazz song that only needs a great solo. It isn't. By that definition, Chamberlain was Miles Davis and John Coltrane as one, working with the University of Kansas marching band. He did great. The songs didn't sell.

Ultimately, as Russell showed better than anyone ever, the score that matters isn't the box score, but the final score. He has as many rings as Jordan and Kobe Bryant combined, and like them he was the centerpiece of his team. In that way at least, he remains the individual zenith of a sport that works only as a team operation.

And more to his regret than his satisfaction, James is Chamberlain. The dominant force on a number of very good teams, but not yet the chief contributor on a great one. When it happens, if it does, there is an excellent chance he might drown in the tears of relief, but the wait must be killing him.

And six wins seems right now like 6,000.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com.


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