Can we accept LeBron James as a choker?

“Success has many fathers; Failure is an orphan.” –David Shields

The onus will be on Miami this year, even more so since they appeared to snatch defeat from victory’s jowls. LeBron James looked like an altered entity in the 2011 Finals, not merely lessened in effectiveness, but wholly different in kind. He stopped going to the rim, and his infrequent journeys were sluggish, disjointed. I would not characterize it as a “zombie” affect, because zombies are driven by intense needs; you wouldn’t see a zombie hastily throw a brain back at Mario Chalmers.

In advance of the playoffs, I predicted that we’d label LeBron a choker, no matter the reason for his playoff exit. “Choking” is ascribed to those athletes we find fault in, whereas a beloved player–Steve Nash for example–eludes such pejorative diagnosis. I had long considered “choking” to be an unfair label, arbitrarily tagged upon the unlucky and unliked. I did not anticipate that James would go out and appear to operate with the competence-sapping fear that theoretically defines the choker. In Body Politic, David Shields analyzes why MLB pitchers endure epic collapses. He chronicles these mysterious cases of talent implosion and draws an analogy to his own life:

“Growing up in a maniacally verbal family, I placed too much emphasis on speaking; hence my stutter. A similar thing happened to many of these guys: they’re almost all hypersensitive, hypertensive types; they wanted it too badly and then they’re overstressed body rebelled…Mental meltdowns of this kind are not unrelated to stuttering–the blocked individual becoming self-conscious about a routine activity that everybody else takes for granted–and I think that’s part of why I’m interested in this phenomenon, sympathetic to it.”

The part of this I fixed on was “sympathetic to it.” Can anybody be sympathetic to LeBron James for choking? The world seems divided between those who frame James as “choker” so as to bash him, and those who seek a less loaded, more analytical explanation for recent playoff flameouts. What I don’t hear is: “LeBron James is a choker because he wants to win so badly. We should feel sympathy for him.” Granted, many feel that he is undeserving of sympathy, but it should be possible to find humanity in his failure.

We mock a choker under the presumption that failure unmasks the unworthy, like a test that reveals just how little you studied. Though choking is understood to stem from fear, people have a hard time accepting that fear of failure comes with wanting success.

Hate to make this analogy, but Shields reminded me of a recent table tennis implosion. I was oh so close to beating a friend, when I started wondering about my serve.

Am I serving in the proper legal manner? What motion am I using?

Once these thoughts entered, they couldn’t be chased away. The ball started spraying all over, sometimes out of my peripheral field. And the dread of possibly screwing this up hastened my demise. I just wanted it more. I just wanted it too much.

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