Now that we’ve had a few days to digest LeBron James’s first championship, it’s an appropriate moment to examine this moment in the context of his entire career. It’s a neat little 10 year capsule: from discovery as a high school wunderkind to his recent coronation.
When I look at that decade, I’m struck not just by the dramatic swings, but how and when those swings occurred.
Why did LeBron James matter so incredibly much to American sports fans?
There are plenty of ways to answer this, but the answer may simply be: it’s a well constructed story.
Okay, I need to level with you (as if the image above wasn’t a big enough clue). I’m about to make a comparison that may just be a bit too much of some of the people who read this, but bear with me: this is eerie.
To answer the above questions, I think we need to go back to William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest storyteller ever to use the English language (WHO DIDN’T EVEN EXIST!!… OR DID HE?!). He used something called five-act structure for many of his great plays, and a ton of awesome movies like Iron Man do the same.
I’m going to suggest that James has been so compelling a public character not just because of his obvious and fantastic talent, but because his public performance has hit all the marks of an enthralling five act play. It’s the kind of drama that could make even Tim Duncan compelling to a casual observer.
Take a look…
(Suggested puns include [but are not limited to, that’s what the comments section is for]: LeBromlet, Lebeth, LeBras You Like It, Midsummer’s Night James, and my favorite: Titus LeBronicus.)
Act 1 (2002-2004): Main characters, key conflict introduced.
ROMEO AND JULIET: The audience finds out that the two teenagers love each other, that their families want to kill the other, and also a bit about most everyone else who’s going to be in the play.
Consider the rise of “The Chosen One.” Key players: LeBron James, Gloria James, high school friends (such as a one Mr. Maverick Carter). Key Question: Can LeBron James, the most hyped player ever, reach the top of the basketball world and cash in on his unprecedented combination of talents, or will destiny be derailed?
It’s a great tease! And look, he delivered:
Highlights from his first year in the NBA include:
- 25 points and 9 assists in his first game (including making his first shot)
- 13 30 point games
- 22 games with 8 or more assists
- 41 points and 13 assists against New Jersey
- Wins Rookie of the Year
Act 2 (2005-2009): Key conflict deepens and we learn something new about main characters.
HAMLET: The princely protagonist pretends to be crazy and proves he is the smartest dude in Denmark. But wait! Could he be a bit too calculating for his own good?
By age 21 James was leading the NBA in PER. At 22 he took his team to the Finals for the first time, singlehandedly demolishing the proud Pistons in one of the most conspicuous “passing of the torch” moments in the NBA history.
This is the part of the movie where Peter Parker is zooming around New York City, just havin’ a ball with his newfound abilities.
Wow! I can dunk all over Rasheed Wallace’s noggin! Yippee this is fun!
This phase of his career lasted until about 2009, when he won his first MVP award and lugged his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, in which he averaged 35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG and .510 FG.
At this point it truly felt like a matter of when, not if LeBron would win a title. He had never truly faltered in the postseason, his 2007 Finals against the overwhelming Spurs was excusable. Sure, some criticized his late game decisions, wondered about whether he passed too much and the like. Still, his regular season totals were just silly — no contemporary even approached his production — and he played with a joy that wasn’t innocent but perhaps approached carefree.
But if the movies have taught us one thing, it’s that it’s all fun and games until you’re wrestling in an illegal cage match, thus setting in motion a chain of events that ends with your beloved uncle being shot by the very man you had the power to stop.
Here’s where it starts to go downhill.
Act 3 (May 2010- June 2011): The plot thickens. Herein lies the BIG TURN that sets up the climax.
MACBETH: Macbeth has his buddy Banquo murdered, then starts to publicly lose control when his Banquo shows up to a celebratory dinner as a ghost sitting in Macbeth’s chair. Macbeth, in the throws of Nixonian paranoia, prepares for the war that will eventually be his undoing.
LeBron, hubris firmly intact after winning a stunning 66 regular season games, is crushed by the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. Reasons were sought and excuses were made, but really the whole scene at the end of that series was so bizarre, so not in keeping with his entire professional career to date, that it seem more like an anomaly than a sign of things to come.
Then The Decision (hey, have heard about this part?). Seeking what many view as an “easy out,” an opportunity to shirk the responsibility of his gifts, LeBron heads to South Beach.
Some said it was a sign of the apocalypse. Others giddily anticipated James-Wade-Bosh would offer a peek into basketball heaven.
However you felt about The Decision, almost everyone thought was the low, the plot point from which James would rally. Really, this was James tripping over himself, and it would take another 12 months to complete his fall.
During the 2011-12 season, James himself spoke of trying to “be the villain” and of reinventing the character that performed each night to unrelenting boos. One must assume James has a private persona, but we only know him as an improvisational public performer. The characters he could play on the court: defensive stopper, lights out scorer, point forward — these were one element of his performance. Slapping his hands together to send a plume of powder over his head, miming a photo shoot with teammates, scowling after a skywalking dunk — these antics were what really defined the “character” he played in the NBA. And this part of his on court persona pretty much died when James moved to South Beach.
Ironically, though he probably assumed his move would grant him more power over his career (ie- win a ring), James seemed to lose the agency he had enjoyed in Cleveland to define his own public image. Now, for the first time, he seemed to be blatantly responding to what strangers wanted him to be.
Still, it all looked worth it when he returned to the finals against the seemingly overmatched Mavericks.
The ghost of 2010 Conference Semifinals LeBron, the on James thought he vanquished by pounding Boston and Chicago in the playoffs, is … ON THE COURT AND WEARING CURRENT LEBRON’S OVERSIZED HEADBAND!
The loss destroys the character he has built for the last ten years. He’s no longer the best hope for a Jordan-esque career and he looks far from happy-go-lucky when he loses his cool in the Game 6 postgame presser.
This was the real bottom, when LeBron lost his confidence and sense of purpose on the court as well as the faith of his fans, including yours truly.
I’m not sure whether James intended to help me write this when he said it, but here’s how he explained that moment a year later: “It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person.”
I don’t think this is what Joakim Noah meant when he famously called James and the Heat “Hollywood as hell,” but it really is too perfect.
ACT 4 (July 2011-April 2012): Decision time. Characters ponder the events of the first three acts and plan their next moves (ie, set up the climax).
JULIUS CAESAR: Caesar is really, really well-stabbed by Act 4, so now Brutus (who we learn is a deeply reflective man — he reads!) and Cassius do lots of arguing, almost killing, and planning to cement their rule of Rome.
There’s a reason the fourth was always Shakespeare’s shortest act, his 66 game season. They are generally boring from the standpoint of real action. We want to get to the good stuff (more killing, please), but Act 4 is also important because there’s one more climax coming and it needs to be properly set up.
Now that LeBron James has been kicked down destiny’s stairs, all the way to “rock bottom,” what does he do? (Cue montage).
First, he shuts it all down. Goes back to the bat cave and retools. Hits up Yoda for some new tricks. Well, actually he picks up a new skill from the Postmaster General of retired NBA players, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Then he unleashes one of the greatest seasons ever and hints that he’s been working on the ol’ post game, foreshadowing his Finals performance. His percentage of post up possessions doubles from a season before, hinting that, though he’s already put in two MVP seasons, things are different this time.
And yes, while James changes his game, there also seems to be something at work internally. He gets married, moves his family to Miami and seems to play with actual joy and very adult focus. He’s locked in and having fun.
Again, in LeBron James’ own words: “The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals, you know, and me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me.”
James, we learn, is a reflective dude after all.
But would it matter at the moment of reckoning?
ACT 5 (April 2012-June 2012): Conflict! Climax! Catharsis! Prophecies come true and big questions set out in Act 1 are answered.
TITUS ANDRONICUS: Lots of murdering/unwitting eating of family members. Basically an absurd bloodbath. But the deaths allow for a “New Rome” (a good thing), which is basically the payoff in the event you need one following a mother eating her two sons baked as pies.
Before Act 3, the question we had about LeBron was “Will he be an all-time great talent?”
We learned that the answer was, unequivocally, “yes.”
The new question was “Can he be an all-time great competitor?”
James answered in a manner befitting a classic sports movie.The Heat fell behind in a series three times in the playoffs, and three times James responds with a transcendently spectacular performance — his Game 6 in Boston being actually unbelievable.
James exorcised all those ghosts who had vexed him in Boston and in the Finals (this almost never happens in Shakespeare, for whom ghosts are pretty much unbeatable).
His post play was the skillset that launched a thousand columns.
He looked as though he had undergone some emotional recalibration during the offseason, so people who didn’t like him before could justify coming around.
And at the end of it all, America’s sweetheart Kevin Durant joined Kevin Garnett’s tough guy Celtics, the glitzy (by location only) New York Knicks and gritty Midwestern Pacers in a bloody heap while James displayed the drenched sword above his heaving chest.
Suffice to say, it’s total slaughter
James fulfills his destiny.
Rise, Fall, Redemption, a wedding and, just maybe, living happily ever after?
Turns out James’ career is a comedy after all.
Here’s what LeBron, bracketed by the Larry O’Brien and Finals MVP trophies, said at the podium: “You know, I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. You know, my dream has become a reality now, and it’s the best feeling I ever had.”
Dreaming of future moments the eve of a great battle? That’s about as Shakespearean as it gets!
There’s no arguing that the arc of James’ professional career is gripping, and in some ways, right out of the movies. But I wonder how much the way James was covered influenced those events. Could the desire for a perfect narrative have produced one? We know (from his and his teammates own words) that he heard, internalized and acted based on media and fan criticism — what degree were we shaping James, and how did his play shape our reactions?
The tension surrounding whether James would/could claim his destiny had been building since 2002 and become nearly unbearable by Summer 2012. However you felt about James, it’s hard to deny the satisfying catharsis that came from watching him win. It was over, and the audience was ready for it to be over.
Kevin Arnovitz captures that dynamic with his pitch-perfect post on how LeBron’s championship would allow the basketball world to move on.
Move on we will, satisfied with the payoff after years of discussion, arguments, heartbreak and hope. And so will James. This is no tragic play, in which our must hero die before the curtains close. This perfect five-act segment will soon be just an episode in James’ ongoing career. Perhaps, like Jordan’s early struggles, the second decade of his career will completely alter our understanding of his first 10 years.
Who knows? More immediately, let’s cheer our luck. We fans will move on from the Thunder-Heat Finals with something almost as great as a gripping sports story: the promise of a thrilling sequel.