Nearly all people I’ve read and talked to seem to be of the same mind: in the days leading up to the one hour “Decision” debacle, and in the announcement itself, LeBron James forever tarnished his legacy.
His farcical “breaking news” declaration and his lack of compassion for and awareness of his long-suffering fan base’s pain was shocking—especially for a man who has been a shrewd crafter his nationwide perception ever since he was 18.
Writers have taken the opportunity to shove LeBron’s entire existence into various conventional tragedies that describe a hero who would be king undone by his own hubris.
“LeBron is an egotistical guy who hasn’t won and therefore we should recast everything he has done in the light of failure, because this wasn’t just one decision, but the manifestation of the intrinsic weakness of his character.”
Some writers have already suggested the way in which this decision will factor into James’s NBA obituary. But anybody who has made their judgment about the effect that LeBron choosing to play with Wade and Bosh will have on his place in history fails to recognize an immutable law: that there is no history but revisionist history.
We see this all the time in literature. An author like Franz Kafka, who wrote in the early 20th century, gives birth to the adjective “Kafkaesque”—used to describe the darkly ironic situations characteristic of his work. Critics then use the work Kafkaesque even to describe novels and writers that wrote before Kafka ever put pen to paper. The effect is that what occurs or is learned in the future comes to modify our understanding of the past.
This is a pretty simple concept, but one that is often lost in the fever to judge.
How many people who turned on LeBron on July 8, 2010, remember when Kobe Bryant was universally reviled for his admission of adultery and putting a rape charge to rest by paying the plaintiff outside of court?
Kobe was embarrassed in front of the nation and seen as the catalyst of the destruction of the Los Angeles basketball dynasty. Remember Eagle? The absurd ring he bought his wife? The years of losing (2004-7 without a 50 win season)?
Perhaps because Kobe “Trinity” Bryant was never proven guilty and has a done well to publicize the closeness of his family and his devotion to only basketball and family, we have forgiven him.
But I’m guessing that if Kobe hadn’t been able to turn it around on the court, none of his devotion would matter.
As Kobe’s teams floundered in the regular season and playoffs, even his ridiculous 81 point outburst couldn’t quell criticism that he was a spoiled, selfish player who drove the best thing that ever happened to him out of town. If he wants to whine his way out of LA (as he was vociferously attempting to do off and on for three years), then let him go.
And it was OK to think these things because we all learned sordid details about what happened in a hotel room in Eagle, Colorado—and he was losing.
Then something happened. Kobe’s team somehow signed a top post scorer who was intelligent, made other players better, rebounded pretty well and could even play some defense. The Lakers were winners again, Kobe had “figured it out,” and suddenly there was a flash flood of stories designed to understand Kobe’s greatness in a way we could embrace.
Even though he was doing the exact same things on a 42 win team in 2006-7, now that he was a winner, he needed to be our winner. We needed to embrace his phenomenal work ethic, the way he would wake up at 4:00am so he could be back before his kids woke up.
Even attributes that had once been proof of his spoiled character: speaking Spanish and Italian fluently, liking soccer, were now all the more reason to love him.
Two championship’s later, a very serious rape charge might as well be a speeding ticket. Why?
Because he won. Because if we are going to be attendant to his greatness, we better figure in what legend to best frames his victories.
As always, America was ready for a redemption story.
I wonder if the way Protestant Christianity helped shaped our culture has anything to do with our desire for a person to show talent and potential, fall, and eventually rise again to ever loftier heights.
Our desire to witness greatness is so overwhelming that we crowned Kobe Finals MVP after choking in Game 7 and every fourth quarter of the 2010 series.
The flipside of this desire to witness greatness is just as blinding. Despite LeBron having the greatest first seven years of any modern player ever besides Michael Jordan, James’s inability to conform to the legends we wish to tell of him is upsetting. He has been as heroic as any player in the league, especially for the past four years, but he hasn’t been the right kind of hero because he hasn’t dragged his bad supporting players to a championship.
Kobe’s story should be encouragement to LeBron. We won’t hate a winner. Just can’t. Especially not one who is as outgoing, smiley and generous with the media as LeBron is.
Perhaps LeBron knew this when he decided to play with the best players for the longest time (do you really think Chicago could afford to pay Noah and Rose what they’re worth in two years with LeBron and Boozer on the books?).
Perhaps he knew that the ends would come to justify the means.
If Miami wins even two championships, history will only record the greatness of James, Wade and Bosh. People will focus on the way a group of players seized their own destiny and determined to play with their friends not for money but for rings.
The history of sports isn’t written by the winners, but it is written about winning. As for Lebron’s legend, as with all athletes, that’s all we’ll really care about.