I’m almost the same age as LeBron James. When I was in high school I read the Sports Illustrated cover story about his impending reign as an elite and very rich professional basketball player. The year I graduated, I watched the kid, just one year older than me but somehow distant and special in his #23 jersey, attempt his first ever NBA shot: an unmistakably adult step-back jumper. He drilled it, and I was hooked.
I believed in his potential because I wanted, and probably still want, to believe in people and players’ ability to exceed the current bounds of possibility. Or forget transcendence, I just wanted to see the best basketball possible. That’s why I’m disappointed. The Mavericks were marvelous, but there’s only one player who can author moments like LeBron can.
Michael Jordan was already cresting by the time I had any real awareness of how and why he was so dominant. I just missed out on his greatness. I soaked in the legend like everyone else, but he was an article of faith, a symbol to be challenged by Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. I couldn’t understand him other than to know I looked awesome and played better in his shoes, and that he was the best ever.
LeBron was my chance to be fully aware and invested in an all-timer. He was my opportunity to live in the time of a myth and to have it be real.
I’ve never understood people who get off on LeBron’s failures. Why would anyone ever root for mediocrity? Why do people want to see the greatest talent since Jordan underachieve?
Personal offense seems like a bizarre reaction to LeBron’s life. We know he didn’t have it easy coming up. Gloria James had LeBron at 16 in one of Akron’s worst neighborhoods. He did not have a relationship with his father. Since he was 14 he has had to be on guard for people trying to take advantage of his bright future. Buzz Bissinger’s book was admittedly an extended puff piece that reveals little about LeBron’s internal struggles, which he has, if he’s human. Though James’ quotations and interactions with the media, while uniformly cordial, are rife with invitations to parse, dissect and evaluate his psychology, James remains a stranger to me.
I’m pretty OK with that. I don’t need to know LeBron, or even like him as a person. But I loved watching him play basketball. I loved seeing a player snatch a rebound off the rim, sprint dribble up court, his eyes flashing from side to side, then deliver a perfectly weighted dime to an onrushing teammate. Or maybe just take it himself, absorbing whatever contact was offered then gracefully finishing using either hand. And not just once a game, but over and over to the point where you sat back further in your chair and chuckled at the subtlety of his skills and the sublime fury of his power and pace.
LeBron James dominating the Eastern Conference Finals at age 22:
In the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, I loved seeing an athlete of seemingly limitless ability shadowing basketball’s top perimeter scorer on one end, and lighting up the league’s best defense on the other.
I watch basketball for a variety of reasons, but at the core I’m an NBA fan because I like to be thrilled an entertained. Few if any player can provide either like LeBron James. So if you rooted against him, fine, there are no rules for rooting. It’s an inherently subjective and irrational exercise: LeBron left his job and snapped at reporters, Jason Kidd punched his wife. Villian/hero whatever.
I didn’t need to like LeBron off the court because I appreciated his capability (a word LeBron is annoyingly fond of– we get it, you can do anything, please do it) to be uniquely great. He possesses a combination of physical ability and mental acuity that only a handful of players have ever approached. He’s set individual records and a new pace for career achievement. I expected excellence from him in the Finals not because I think he’s a great guy, or made the right decision about where to work, or respects the history of the game. I expected him to kick ass against Dallas because since I started watching ball with a critical eye, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.
But LeBron James failed. He went limp before the submission hold was ever applied. I watched him give in, but to what I’m not sure. That’s what makes his precipitous fall so hard to accept. James was defended by utterly conventional means and struggled to stay with a smallish, older shooting guard who boasts an even more absurd forehead-to-headband ratio than his own. He had ample opportunities to assert himself–in the words of Nuke Laloosh, to announce his presence with authority. Weren’t these the moments James had relished his whole career?
It was bizarre behavior. He appeared to simply not give a crap about trying. Everyone understood that James needed to dominate at least stretches of the game for the Heat to win. It’s inconceivable that someone as cerebral and aware (if not self-aware) as James would did not recognize what was required of him. After playing so hard all season and in the playoffs, forfeiting all passion doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Using an athlete’s post game quotations to bludgeon him with his own words is a common practice despite the fact most players are quite obviously spouting mindless clichés to get through the ordeal. Purporting to know a player through this perspective alone seems irresponsible. But in LeBron’s case, his play over the second half of the Finals forces us to offer psychological commentary. Whatever was troubling James was happening inside, where we cannot follow.
I watched Game 6 with a friend who told me that after James and the Heat failed to answer the bell in the third straight 4th quarter, I looked like a child burying his dog with his hands. No shovel, very sad. That’s just a bit dramatic, but I was certainly a little more crestfallen than I maybe should have been considering all there was to be happy about after such a competitive series with so many great moments, particularly from the Mavericks.
Twitter tells me I have more sympathy for LeBron than most, but I don’t feel sorry for him or his legacy so much as for myself, the fan. I suspect he has some issues to work though, perhaps with a sports psychologist, but as he noted after his unceremonious exit, his life is pretty damn good.
My connection to LeBron James was never about personality or signature shoes or his difficult childhood. He was little more than a conduit to the best basketball on Earth. It was a leaden disappointment when in the Finals, for whatever reason, that line went dead.