“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.
Ethan: We’re headed for a historical Hindenburg on the order of Karl Malone’s MVP! And nobody seems to care, nobody seems to question it. So far, LeBron James has been the League’s best player. Yes, I could cite Chris Paul, but damn if you didn’t convince me otherwise. And I’d put Dwyane Wade second on account of Dirk Nowitz-knees. Point differential says: The Heat are a vision realized. Advanced stats say: James and Wade are liquefying competition. I say: Where is the MVP buzz?
It’s as though society is resigned to rewarding lesser talent out of “moral” obligation. Amar’e? Well apart from not featuring defense, rebounding, and playing on a top ten team, he’s the perfect choice. I could make a case for Stoudemire, but like a drunken text–it would be lower case, sloppily conveyed out of wee hour mania. Derrick Rose had to melt icy veins to make inroads towards my heart, and he’s bound to ascend higher than a Mt. Everest kangaroo. But, is Rose tangibly better than Dwight Howard? Kevin Durant?
All I know is, the smoldering heap that was Cleveland is validation enough for LeBron’s talents, and Wade’s soaring like he’s got talons for feet. Shouldn’t these guys be one and two for MVP? And if not, what does that say about this increasingly mysterious annual prize?
Beckley: Woah, Ethan, take a breath. We’re less than half way through the season, and the NBA’s fandom still needs time to heal. From what, I’m not sure, but we need it.
Phase One of this recovery process, Pure Outrage, is nearly passed as windbags half-heartily exhale their last invaluable pieces of advice. Now LeBron inhabits Phase Two: Embracing Villainhood. It’s not just LeBron who has accepted the black hat cliche, but the society of NBA meme generators.
It’s understandable, because at some level it’s just fun to have someone to root against. And the more he wins, the more insufferable he’ll be to those who must suffer his greatness. It’s in part by being the best that he inspires the negative energy that prevents him from being openly recognized as such.
So what if posterity eventually validates James’ self-coronation? The MVP trophy is about now (except every time it isn’t), and at present LeBron’s not putting up the stats he did last season. How are we supposed to argue for someone who is averaging fewer points, assists, steals, blocks and minutes per game while shooting a lower percentage from the field and turning the ball over more (all leading to a lower PER)?
Because he’s shooting better from three? That only works if you play in Chicago.
Voters and fans seem to favor narratives of improvement. Like when Kobe became a good guy and “got it” (“it” being a 7-foot Spaniard), or when, in the mid 2000s, voters decided that white guys could also be really good at basketball.
Is it enough that LeBron is the best if you can’t prove he’s any better than he was last year? And if we know he’s the best, why do we care one bit whether he gets another piece of metal?
Ethan: The villain status relies on how LeBron’s been framed by people who aren’t LeBron. His recent quote was:
“I enjoy it. & I’ve kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me.”
We wove this paradigm around the King and all the King’s men. Society turned against James, making him the “villain,” but his evil status is fueled by success…until it isn’t. What I mean by that is: If LeBron fails, he becomes a pathetic non-villain. And if he wins, he’s the bad guy until he’s accrued enough victories to be the good guy. To paraphrase a younger, bushier tailed Beckley Mason, “If someone is a winner, we need to make him our winner.”
As Dan Gilbert once insanely said: “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” Obviously, I disagree. LeBron can rise to heights of angels so long as he succeeds in the underworld.
In the meantime, he’s thrown the MVP discussion into a purgatorial holding pattern. While James hasn’t gotten better, nobody else has closed the gap. Don’t we already have a Most Improved Player award?
But what about Wade in this race? Is he a villain? An underrated afterthought? D-Wade and LeBron are back-and-forth on a per diem basis when it comes to PER. The MVP discussion might be a referendum on how much you hate LeBron versus how much of that LeBron hate has seeped into a generalized Heat hatred. A pure James hater might want to tweak the King by deeming him a prince. But a Heat hater wouldn’t want to reward LeBron’s teammate.
Beckley: As the slightly lesser player, Wade could have perhaps still raised the Podoloff, but not as the lesser story. If LeBron’s 2011 tale has the weight of Moby Dick, Wade’s is Baby Beluga.
But here’s a lullaby for LeBron lovers: if there’s one thing America cherishes, it’s a story of redemption. It’s the twisted truth that in politics and sports, it’s better to be Born Again than to never have sinned.
Some have linked Kanye and LeBron for their Dark Side of celebrity appeal, but Kanye doesn’t get booed every time he touches the mic. Unlike in the realm of entertainment, where intentionally being a ridiculous, asinine personality is a celebrated part of being a star, athletes are expected to marry morality with competitive success. As we’re recognizing with LeBron, Most Villainous and Most Valuable are superlatives that in sport share a paradoxical bond.
Either he’ll stop playing so well, rendering him unfit for both booing and cheering, or he’ll keep inciting invectives by singularly eviscerating the competition and their teeth-gnashing, hair-rending fans.
I doubt most fans and writers really hate LeBron much more than James actively seeks the villain role. We’re all along for the ride on this narrative and feel the need to see the thing through. Kobe couldn’t shed his “black hat” or win his trophy until his team won the ring that binds us to respect. Even Jordan went through a version this before finally exorcising his demons by demonically exercising his game in the Finals. What I’m suggesting is that villainhood is a right of passage for stars like LeBron and that redemption is really just winning That Ring.
Do you buy this, Ethan, will it take a championship? Or are regular season rainbow threes tuning the strings for LeBron’s Redemption Song?
Ethan: Unless a gold championship trophy waits at the end of that rainbow, the tune is discordant. Now picture a Celtic leprechaun doing a triumphant jig as “Shipping up to Boston” garbles “Redemption Song.” Translated to English, I mean: The King needs rings. It’s not enough to simply climb standings, James has to win a piece of jewelry that he could easily afford, would never wear, so that we fans can revel in the success that we did not achieve.
Our Puritanical streak dictates that we blame great players for team failures (If you really deserved it, God would have bequeathed a title unto you!). We praise the character of great players when those teams finally win a chip (God has rewarded you, you must be pure of heart!). That’s how it’s been since the dawn of sport.
But you’re talking regular season, and I know that because I just read the part of your section that wasn’t the last sentence. Well, until LeBron is redeemed through championship, sportswriters won’t offer plaudits–no matter how well James plays in the first 82. LeBron will have to wait till next season, which with the impending lockout, might arrive sometime after the public forgets about basketball–retroactively rendering this conversation moot.