When I was in ninth grade, I had the pleasure of making my school’s junior varsity basketball team.
As I’m sure many of you can attest to, I can remember getting blown out in practice night after night by The Varsity.
Of course, one night was different.
JV vs The Varsity
Amazingly, I remember that night nearly as well as many of my actual games.
On one dark January evening, my JV team took it to our varsity squad. I remember hoisting up four consecutive threes and watching them all find the bottom of the net. Our big men played strong for the first time ever, and our varsity’s best player, James Reynolds, actually missed a few shots.
For one night, we were the kings of the school.
Naturally, order was quickly restored the next practice. And because we had the audacity to beat them once, our varsity made sure it never happened again.
But that was okay. The JV isn’t supposed to beat The Varsity, ever. It’s simply not how things work.
Nobody expected us to beat them – or even give them a game consistently. When we lost, it wasn’t because we choked. The Varsity was just better than we were.
All our coaches really wanted us to do was show flashes of competitiveness with maybe a moment or two of brilliance. As long as we could prove that we were going to get better in the long run, our coaches simply wanted us to compete and make sure we dominated our peers from other JV teams in the area.
The NBA, for the last 30-plus years, has worked exactly the same way.
NBA’s JV/Varsity Corollary
The Varsity – the old stars with more experience – always beat the younger guys, no matter how talented they may be.
Oh sure, you might see some flashes of greatness in the young guns, but they have never been expected to actually beat The Varsity – that is until LeBron James got to the NBA.
LeBron was more talented than any of his previous peers. He was bigger, stronger, more athletic … and oh yes, there was that whole “Decision” nonsense.
But let me ask a simple question: was LeBron really ready to be a champion before this year?
Think about Michael Jordan.
He came into the league in 1984 when Magic, Larry, and Isiah were at the peak of their powers. By 1987, he was averaging a RIDICULOUS 37, 5, and 5. The next year, he posted averages of 35, 6, and 6. He had to be ready at that point, right?
It still took him three more years to break through. The Celtics weren’t ready to give up their starting spots. The Pistons weren’t ready to throw in the towel.
As annoying as it can be, The Varsity always seems to hold on a little longer than what we would all like.
When Jordan put up 63 in a losing effort in the Boston Garden, he didn’t “choke.” The JV was just too young. It’s The Varsity’s job to kick their butts every night, and that’s what they were doing.
Of course, some people tried to paint the narrative differently. Some thought that Jordan was just proving to the world that he was a selfish player. Others claimed that his teams couldn’t win with him scoring lots of points.
But the fact was this: Jordan’s Bulls simply weren’t ready to beat the Celtics and Pistons yet.
It wasn’t until Year 7 that Jordan finally broke through.
It’s not a coincidence that at that point, Magic, Larry, and Isiah had all peaked. When that moment comes though, The Varsity knows. We all remember the Bad Boys walking out, bitterly refusing to pass the torch graciously.
LeBron Goes From JV to Varsity
Twenty years later, LeBron had brought the Cavs to the precipice of success. Unfortunately, he ran into some older Varsity players.
- First, Tim Duncan – a player drafted four years prior but who was eight years older than James – knocked LeBron around in the Finals.
- Then, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen took their turns forcing the JV kid to take his lumps.
- Then last year, LeBron was once again denied by a player who was six years his senior and a coach who was at the top of his game.
Over and over again, The Varsity flexed its muscles.
Unfortunately, we fans tried to rush things. We didn’t give LeBron time to grow. Instead, we criticized him for “not being clutch” and choking under pressure.
We should have been looking for the flashes of brilliance. We should have been focusing on his moments of greatness.
- The 48 Special.
- His ridiculous series against the Magic in 2009.
- His 45 point outburst against Boston in Game 7.
- His systematic dominance of Derrick Rose in the Eastern Finals of last year.
Just like Jordan, LeBron kept losing to the older guys. But also like Jordan, LeBron was showing us flashes of brilliance, and he made sure to completely dominate his JV peers.
- Derrick Rose? Toast.
- Carmelo Anthony? Done in 5 games.
- Dwight Howard? At this point, he’s a running joke.
- Rajon Rondo? He’s 0 for 2 against LeBron in the past two years.
- Dwyane Wade? He’s ADMITTED that LeBron is the better player.
LeBron was never supposed to be competing against Kobe, KG, Pierce, Duncan, and the rest of those Varsity players.
In fact, it’s amazing that he got so close to beating them so many times. You could even say that he got much farther at an early age than Jordan ever did.
Early in the third quarter of last night’s deciding Game 5, the Thunder started to show signs of life.
After coming out of halftime down ten, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka hit two consecutive well-defended shots to bring the Thunder to within five. LeBron tried to answer but was blocked by Ibaka on a play that easily could have been whistled for a foul.
Kevin Durant then exploded towards the other end of the floor but was stripped by Wade, who immediately got the ball back to LeBron. Instead of recklessly driving to the basket, he paused, gathered himself, and then wove his way into the lane to suck the defense in before hitting Chalmers for an open three.
After stopping another Thunder possession, Westbrook barreled into James near half-court, slowing what should have been another fast break for the Heat. Once again, James gathered himself, and surveyed the court.
Instead of responding like the typical JV player with an angry look at the refs followed by an out of control drive to the basket (that undoubtedly would have resulted in an offensive foul), LeBron once again methodically drove into the Thunder defense, waited for it to collapse, and hit Battier for another wide open three.
Danger averted. Lead extended.
For all practical purposes, it was game over.
It was the classic Varsity play. Calm, cool, collected, and game-winning.
We shouldn’t have doubted. As soon as KG and Rondo bitterly walked off the court and refused to pass the torch graciously, the writing was on the wall.
Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder never had a chance.
And you know what? That’s okay. We never should have put that kind of pressure on them in the first place.
After all, when the Varsity plays the JV, one team is supposed to win.