When people say the name Joyce in connection with the Cleveland Cavaliers, they generally mean Dru Joyce II, the man who coached LeBron James in Akron. But the writer James Joyce said something relevant to the 2014-2015 Cleveland Cavaliers, whose season ended Tuesday with J.R. Smith pouring in three desperate three-pointers in the disappointing last seconds of the NBA Finals. Joyce wrote the relevant words in a letter to his schizophrenic daughter Lucia in 1935. “In certain cases,” he wrote, “absence is the highest form of presence.”
As I fight off the inevitable hangover of another Cleveland season that’s ended with a certain absence, namely the absence of trophy, I keep thinking about that line of Joyce’s. Friends and relatives are moving on, sending messages like, “On to live-texting the Tribe games? (Sad trombone).” One cousin observed that “crushing disappointment” is almost comforting at this point. At least it’s familiar. “It’s like an old jacket.” Someone else on the text-chain added, “Like an old jacket that makes me feel terrible about myself.”
And that is the real problem. No matter how irrational it is to think so, my teams are telling my fortune, they’re answering the question: are all my David-and-Goliath battles worth it? Are all those people who’ve said I’m not good enough right in the end? And after this season of so much adversity, so much perseverance and triumph, and ultimate failure, it’s tempting to think: will, desire, resiliency, even supreme talent, are just not good enough. You can put all the pieces in place, but you just can’t win when you’re cursed, as The New York Times put it. We can have a team owner finally willing to pay for a title, we can play hard and play smart and play right, we can lure the greatest player in the world back home with the all-star help he always wanted, and a lightning bolt will only cut that help down, if not at the knees then at the shoulder. If we have 7 fighters left on the roster who can win 3 quarters of a game against anybody, our opponent will play 10 guys and wear us down till we collapse in the fourth.
That opponent. Those Golden State Warriors flying around our giant center Timofey Mozgov like little planes around King Kong. Could they gall a Cleveland fan much more had they been invented on paper by David S. Ward, the screenwriter of Major League? They suffered no injuries. They call themselves “Golden State,” as if to rub in your face an idea of utopia—sunny California hills crawling with tech billionaires. Their star Stephen Curry earned his MVP, but his cool, doll-like gaze at the press podium seems to embody a certain kind of smugness that can’t even be imported to Northeast Ohio.
The Cavs’ journey was by contrast no Napa wine tasting. Injuries ate their roster from the beginning of the regular season all the way into the Finals in a way that invites garish comparisons—injuries ate the team, say, like a python inching its jaws up the body of a still living, unlucky cat. Games were played in a swoon of mad adjustments to disappearances and casualties, as in a war. The Cavs never stopped fighting.
And this is where that James Joyce quote comes back into my mind: absence is the highest form of presence. If a lost championship is an absence, it’s also a sign of adversity, if a sign of adversity, also then a sign of struggle against it. James Joyce had tried to tell his daughter that there are weird possibilities of the positive inside even the darkest of negatives. The Cleveland Cavaliers mined those possibilities with shocking success. They played the game as life should be lived, indomitably. A championship could symbolize the Cavs’ beautiful achievements, sure, but the absence of one symbolizes it just as well. I can’t help finding presence in this particular absence. I’m emulating the Cavs. They found presence in absence all year.
The injuries created voids, but new personnel like Mozgov, our seven-foot Russian center, filled the voids in surprisingly effective ways. Injured players disappeared from the court but still exerted a strong influence on it. Anderson Varejao, who tore his Achilles tendon in December, stayed indirectly present by coaching Mozgov, his replacement, with the same energy he’d used to rebound when he had his jersey on. The Kevin Love injury seemed to pull the team together and stir their sense of fight. It fueled Tristan Thompson’s maturation into a Dennis Rodman-like rebounding machine and may even have persuaded Love to sign long-term with Cleveland having seen his critical importance to any title run. Kyrie Irving was still there even when he was in the hospital with a fractured kneecap. Thanks to defensive skills honed in practice against Kyrie, one of the toughest covers in the game, replacement Matthew Dellavedova stayed with the league’s best guards throughout the playoffs. By virtue of their close friendships, missing teammates boosted each others’ morale in even more intangible ways. Kevin Love’s remarkably good attitude after his devastating injury must have lifted his teammates prior to the Bulls series. His post-op thumbs-up pic on Instagram lifted me.
Absence has furthermore shaped some of the Cavs’ central figures in ways much more profound and personal than anything that happened this season. Maybe it prepared them for some of the adversity, or maybe it hampered them. Maybe both. Eight years ago, for example, when J.R. Smith was 21, his close friend Andre Bell died in a car accident. J.R. was behind the wheel and pled guilty to reckless driving. He’s been haunted by his friend’s death ever since. For much of the playoffs, J.R. played like a man in pursuit of redemption and did wonderful things. But Andre’s ghost seemed to catch up with him in the Finals. “There is a lot of guilt,” J.R. told ESPN. “I went to numerous counselors to talk about it. The anniversary is [June 9], so it’s really tough this time of year.”
Kyrie Irving’s mother died when he was four, an event that’s shaped him as a person and a player. Plain Dealer writer Chris Haynes observed of Kyrie’s mother, “Elizabeth may not be here physically, but she’s very much present in her son’s life and that will last forever.” The dead can still affect the living powerfully through mechanisms of love and memory. And the experience of loss can make a person stronger. Kyrie’s teammate Tristan Thompson told Haynes, “I think losing a family member forces you to grow up a little quicker and you can see that in his game. He’s a special person.” That is presence from absence.
Of course, at the center of the Cavs’ melee between presence and absence was LeBron James. Should anyone doubt the impact of absence in LeBron James’s life, in February of this year he posted four Instagram videos of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in which the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) expresses his rage and sadness that his father didn’t want him. LeBron’s comments read, “I shed a tear til this day every time I see this episode. Every single time!” and “This hit home for me growing up and I couldn’t hold my tears in. Til this day they still coming out when this episode come on.”
A year earlier, in a GQ interview, LeBron drew an explicit connection between his father’s absence and his own success: “Like, ‘Wow, Dad, you know what, I don’t know you, I have no idea who you are, but because of you is part of the reason who I am today.’ The fuel that I use—you not being there—it’s part of the reason I grew up to become who I am. It’s part of the reason why I want to be hands-on with my endeavors. And be able to put my guys that’s with me now in position … allowing people around me to grow, that maybe wouldn’t have happened if I had two parents, two sisters, a dog, and a picket fence, you know?”
It’s not possible to understand LeBron James’s self-coronation as the King and the Chosen One outside this context of his early years. When there is no king, no queen, no pilot, you have no choice. You either take the helm or go down with the ship. “A dirt-poor fatherless nobody alone in his bed at night, hoping for his mom to come home, which she didn’t—for a couple of years,” writes Jeanne Marie Laskas of GQ. “All that, and now all this.”
LeBron is one of those self-made men who was forced to be his own father or else self-destruct. And on the basketball court he quickly developed a passion for doing exactly what his father did not do for him: that is, be present, support, help, lift others with his charisma and talent and by his own example. He is a father of three and repeatedly compared his young 2014-15 teammates to his kids. Playing in the NBA Finals without two of those all-star teammates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the fatherless kid was asked to play father to everyone else and he answered the call with one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the NBA Finals.
There were times LeBron clearly resented being asked to do too much with too little help, a situation exactly parallel to that of his childhood, need that be pointed out. Before LeBron left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, every Cleveland fan could sense his mounting frustration with the burden of carrying the Cavs by himself. Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley of the Miami Heat had the talent and championship experience to give James some fathering in a basketball sense. That was all he needed to lead the Heat to two championships. You could see similar frustration earlier this year when the Cavs lacked defensive help. Mozgov’s arrival to protect the rim, looming behind the perimeter defenders like, well, a father behind his kids, was the turning point in the season. Mozgov was an invisible presence in so many ways, a presence in absence, on both sides of the floor; on offense, he dragged defenders out of the lane by gravity like a planet dragging its satellites, opening space for LeBron to penetrate deep into the paint.
James Joyce’s epigram calls on the hidden magic in the universe to console us in our losses, but it doesn’t tell us exactly how to move on from here. For more practical advice, we must turn to the other Joyce, LeBron’s old coach. An Akron native, Dru Joyce II has himself sworn off being a Cleveland sports fan ever since Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996. Speaking with Harvey Araton of The New York Times, he recently said of sports, “There are other, more important things.” Joyce tells his young players that basketball is “a vehicle, not an ultimate destination.”
Dru Joyce II is an admirable man, and not because he coached LeBron and not because of how many championships LeBron has won or not won. He’s admirable because he’s a father-figure in a community that desperately needs them. He shows up. He’s there. And he taught LeBron James not to repeat his father’s mistakes. It’s not easy sometimes just to show up. The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto reports that when some celebrities at a party advised LeBron to stay single, Joyce contradicted them straight out and told LeBron: “The best thing you can do for your sons is marry their mother.” His words give the sporting motto “just do it” a new and higher meaning. LeBron listened. He wasn’t going to inflict on a child even a little of what his father had inflicted on him. Deriving this kind of presence from absence is what the 2014-2015 Cavs were all about. In this case, the absence of an O’Brien trophy may be the highest form of presence.