Commentary

LeBron's legacy on the line in Game 6

Whether he stays or goes, night could define him forever in Cleveland -- and beyond

Updated: May 13, 2010, 2:40 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

LeBron James is a comic-book figure stripped of his cape, an emperor stripped of his clothes. He has more to prove in Boston than any enemy force since the '85 Lakers hit the parquet floor after their Memorial Day emasculation in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Lakers took Game 2, won the title, ended decades of Celtics dominance and left Red Auerbach to light an exploding cigar. So here are the defining questions confronting James on Thursday night:

Can a superstar who played a timid and indifferent brand of basketball in Game 5 unleash the fury of his otherworldly powers in Game 6?

Or will the Chosen One remain the Frozen One on the perimeter and stand there as all of his hometown dreams slowly bleed to death?

James was locked in a state of denial following his no-show in Cleveland on Tuesday night, when he cried "uncle" as clearly as A-Rod did after getting ripped by Dallas Braden's grandma.

Just as Tiger Woods quit on the golf course when he realized he wouldn't make the Quail Hollow cut in Charlotte, James quit on the Cavs for the very first time, all but whistling Sinatra and Jay-Z tunes on his (apparent) way to New York.

Funny, but LeBron sure did play like a Knick against the Celtics; his demeanor was soft and his aim was crooked. He looked like a man who was a million miles away, or at least 465 miles away -- to the east.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLeBron James will be remembered for his performance against the Celtics -- no matter what jersey he's wearing next season.

The fans booed him for it, and the whole bizarre scene left a beaten and battered Knicks fan base with something real to root for. Spike Lee put a public face and voice to the sentiment, telling ESPNNewYork.com on Monday that he was suspending his Larry Bird-bashing, leprechaun-loathing, Red Sox Nation-nuking ways to cheer for the green and white.

The idea? The earlier LeBron exits in these playoffs, the quicker he realizes he can lose the conference semis in New York just as easily as he can lose them in Cleveland.

Following Lee's lead, Knicks fans haven't been this fascinated with a playoff game staged in Boston since their team shocked Bird's Celtics some 20 years back. Meanwhile, Cleveland fans haven't been this terrified of a postseason result since the last time John Elway stood on the other side of the ball.

At its core, Cleveland is a football town, something Art Modell found out the hard way. So Elway's daggers hurt a little more than Michael Jordan's.

"That town has known a lot of heartbreak," said Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager of the Giants who had watched his Browns lose three conference championship games to Elway's Broncos.

He was the GM there when Cleveland celebrated the arrival of a Youngstown product, Bernie Kosar, in 1985. He could only imagine how Cleveland would curse the departure of an Akron product, LeBron James, in 2010.

"Sports means so much to that city," Accorsi said. "It's one of those workingman's towns, like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, that are so proud of their teams and take everything so seriously and personally."

Especially when big-city corporate raiders threaten to steal one of their own.

"I know when I was in Cleveland," Accorsi said, "there was a real New York complex there."

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. And yes, the Knicks are out to get LeBron James. It doesn't matter that James didn't look any more like a max player in Game 5 than Eddy Curry does on a nightly basis.

The Knicks will pay him whatever league rules will allow -- a sum considerably less than what Cleveland can offer -- and let Madison Avenue cover the difference.

Only Thursday night in Boston isn't about the Knicks as much as it's about the Knicks' blue-chip recruit. An entire sports nation will be watching James, and how he reacts to the immense pressure of the moment, the same way it watched an accused big-game gagger, Peyton Manning, walk into his first Super Bowl.

Manning won that title, and James isn't being asked to do anything more than send a second-round series back to Cleveland. But LeBron needs to understand something when he takes the Game 6 floor:

Whether or not his heart already belongs to Seventh Avenue, he owes it to his team, his franchise and his city to attack the Celtics and the rim with the same spirit that made him the world's greatest ring-free athlete.

James can't assume the role of weakside observer, making like the man on a busy corner watching the cars zoom by. He can't nervously nibble on his nails while the season, and the entire Cleveland program, goes poof in the Boston night.

LeBron can't worry about his aches and pains, not when his standing as a global icon could end up hurting a whole lot more than his elbow. Go ask Jordan, Kobe, Magic or Bird how many times they won a title without at least one body part raining on their parades.

So this is LeBron's hour of reckoning, his all-or-nothing shot to make his Cleveland experience whole. If James refuses to put up a fight, if he plays Game 6 like the distracted and distant mess he was in Game 5, the Knicks will still take him in a New York minute.

That doesn't mean LeBron's legacy won't arrive in a package marked as damaged goods.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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