LeBron James: The man whose greatness made him impossible to hate
As we as NBA fans grow up, we do alongside certain superstars.
In one sense, we grow up alongside the superstars who are at their career apex when we are children. They are the ones whose posters we have on our bedroom walls, whose moves we emulate in the playground, whose apparel we buy, whom we used to guide our fandom.
There are also those superstars of comparable age to our own, whose career arc meanders along with our own development. As they grow, we grow; as we age, they age. And as they reach the twilight of their career, we have probably about reached the start of the middle of ours, an equally suitable point of self-reflection.
LeBron James is only five months my junior and thus has been the latter of these for me. Despite our very different career paths - him achieving greatness, worldwide celebrity, fame and fortune; me writing this - it is because of this proximity in age that I have been able to watch him and his career unfold, and use it as a case study.
Young LeBron was the saviour. He was the great one, the transcendent talent, the game changer. But due to the fickle nature of the human condition, with such acclaim from some comes resentment from others, and with such resentment comes criticism, both fair and unjust.
Punctuated by Charley Rosen's hilariously nitpicky analysis of one single solitary high school game, there for some reason had to be vitriol to temper the praise. On that front, I plead guilty as charged – while not as guilty as Rosen, there was the natural Englishman in me, the one who supports the plucky underdog, who had a problem with someone great knowing about it.
But his persona invited more criticism. James was an arrogant sort whose early career was an awkward juxtaposition between being a consummate team player and making sure everyone knew he was exactly that.
LeBron was considered great before he had ever done anything. And he knew it. And as Rosen demonstrates, this made him a villain. His greatness makes him a target by default – more exposure leads to that, inevitably and entirely correctly. But his persona invited more criticism. James was an arrogant sort whose early career was an awkward juxtaposition between being a consummate team player and making sure everyone knew he was exactly that. By being so good, by being so aware of it, and by playing up to type while also downplaying it, LeBron wanted to both have his cake and eat it. And to some, that’s not what cake is for.
Ultimately, LeBron was disliked for reasons that were sometimes based upon an unrealistic standard for greatness. I was guilty as charged here, too. I didn't like him, because he knew what talents he had, spoke accordingly, and lived his life as though he was constantly baying to a crowd and standing in front a camera. It seemed to matter not in my logic that he actually was. The greats should be allowed to know and acknowledge it – confidence and arrogance are not automatically conflated.
Time has moved on, yet LeBron is still disliked by some. This will always happen, and he pretty much left a life-long invitation for people to do such with 2010’s The Decision, a painfully protracted and unnecessary act of self-aggrandisement from which the only people to gain (the Miami Heat and their fans) were going to gain anyway.
However, the passage of time has changed the perspective on his person and his legacy, at least to one person of comparable age. At this point, and after two games of spectacular basketball in which he has his team brushing right up against the impossible, the question of LeBron’s respect level should by now be answered. Like him or not, this player is a great one.
If LeBron was a coward for going to Miami, he was extremely heroic in going back to Cleveland. The Decision had left the man in a position where he couldn't do anything right - if he won in Miami, it was asterisked, and if he didn't win, it was even worse. LeBron left Cleveland under about as big of a cloud as it is possible to leave under. But he didn’t keep on running from that cloud. Instead, he went back and fixed it.
Now in Cleveland, LeBron is getting as close as anyone has been able to get in this two year run from topping the mighty Golden State Warriors. He has done so by playing as well as he has ever played, by taking on the challenges he once ran away from, and by being everything people said he wasn’t This isn’t someone entitled, free-riding to the top, underwhelming along the way and never realising how good he could be. This is someone doing their damnedest.
LeBron has played some of the best basketball of his career at a stage in his life that he probably shouldn’t be able to do that. Consecutive forty point outings – consecutive efficient 40 point outings, no less, as opposed to the 2015 NBA Finals – have forced the series to a game 7 decider at a time many considered it over.
Once again, guilty as charged. Once again, I underestimated LeBron. The LeBron James of those 2015 NBA Finals proved that no man, not even he, could do it entirely alone. But the LeBron James of the 2016 NBA Finals is proving that he really doesn’t need much.
LeBron has played some of the best basketball of his career at a stage in his life that he probably shouldn’t be able to do that.
This is not the twilight of LeBron’s career, nor is it the beginning of the end. It is, probably, the end of the middle. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but there’s 13 years of both NBA and international basketball on those legs, and he has slowed down at times.
The chase-down blocks have gone, and the defense is increasingly gambly, since hiding off the ball and jumping passing lanes is one of the least tiring ways to have some impact defensively. But the fact that he is has hit the top and ever so slightly gone backwards in terms of his overall abilities and consistent impact as a player should not adversely affect our views on LeBron James, both now and on reflection.
The fact remains that he is still as good as anyone can be at basketball, when he needs be. His team just needed to be, and he delivered. LeBron may never win as much as Michael Jordan, his interminable comparison. Time is running out on him matching the six titles Jordan won, time has long since passed on being able to match
Jordan’s 100% NBA Finals series record, and the competitors around him are getting ever tougher to beat. But the very fact that James is still capable of (with all due respect to good play from Cleveland’s supporting cast, and of course with tremendous respect to Kyrie Irving’s own heroics this
week) basically transforming a series single-handedly puts him into that realm of company. He has long since been there, of course. But every year, it seems as though we try to take him down a peg. We never learn.
If the legacies of great players are defined by specific games and specific moments, these last two games should be ranked up there with pretty much any pair of great performances in NBA and NBA
Finals history. There is a risk that they will only be remembered as such if the Cavaliers win game seven and the series. We must not let that happen, lest we underrate the Great One again. And sorry, Charley, but he really is a great one.
The unstoppable force of the entire Warriors team met the immovable object that is the greatest player of the last 20 years. It’s a one game shoot-out. Game on.