First Is Second When You Are LeBron James

Just because LeBron James has nothing to prove doesn’t mean the expectations have disappeared. On top of his own ambitions- a repeat title for Cleveland- he is consistently asked to validate the presumption of others who see great but repeatedly ask if LeBron James is the greatest ever? Having to prove his exceptionalism says volumes. LeBron has always been a complicated hero. But it also says something about the privilege of talent, or to be precise, to much is given, much is expected. For LeBron much has always meant give us more. More scoring. More last second shots. More titles.

The truth is we conflate LeBron in a way we never would dare with other gifted talents. Even when Kobe Bryant openly confessed to wanting to win more titles than Michael Jordan, we never created a permanent tsk tsk because of a teenagers exaggerated dream.

On the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, feted, fetishized, theorized to be the greatest player who ever breathed NBA oxygen, a rookie debut of 25 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists against a team who would win 55 games- LeBron James was never supposed to have the human flaw of having human flaws. We demanded that LeBron be the exception to the rule. Be perfect. And when he couldn’t rise to the level of myth we covered him in tar and ashes despite the evidence of his humanity. Six straight NBA Finals appearances. Three NBA titles. Three Finals MVP’s. Four regular season MVP’s. Two Olympic gold medals. 9th All-Time in scoring. 12th All-Time in assists. The first to have 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, 7,000 assists. But still that is not enough.

In 2003, Michael Jordan retired. In 2003 LeBron James was a rookie. Those of us who remember MJ beating Magic for championship number one, and Clyde Drexler for championship number two, and John Paxon’s shot against the Suns for title number three, made possible by a MJ assist, and the 72-10 team that crushed their opponents for title number four, and the Jazz whipping for title number five, and MJ’s walk off for title number six, LeBron appears, well, a notch below. MJ existed in a world without social media. It was word of mouth. I tell you, you tell someone else, they tell someone else, the six degrees of separation route to iconic, the eye test and blind allegiance.

LeBron was supposed to walk carefree into MJ, the ghost.  He tried. It was hit and miss.

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If you ask fans of LeBron James to name his greatest moment on the basketball court some will bring up the game in the playoffs where a young LeBron scored 25 straight points and upset the Pistons. Or, they will remind you about game 7 in Miami against the Spurs and LeBron’s jumper with 27 seconds left to ice the title. Or, Game 6 in Boston trailing the Celtics 3-2. It was a desperate moment. He lost the previous year in the Finals and was widely ridiculed. Now here he was on the precipice of disaster. But he went into Boston and single handedly ended the Boston careers of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. 73% shooting. 44 minutes. 15 rebounds.  45 points.

If you ask fans of LeBron James to name his worst moment off the basketball court, they don’t want to talk about it. They won’t until pressed, after a couple of drinks. It is a collective sigh followed by a unanimous “The Decision.”  The Decision is that one moment that forever set LeBron apart because he did one thing that people find hard to forgive, even three titles later. He hurt fans and he did it on camera.

It is so not true that winning changes perception. It doesn’t. Nothing about LeBron James has changed. He is the same athlete, the same talent, the same dominant force pre and post The Decision. All he has done differently is win. He has had better players. And he is more media conscious, aware of mistakes and how one moment can alter perception.

When you ask the Jordan-philes who acknowledge how great LeBron is why he is not better than MJ they will say Jordan never left Chicago to win with others. They will say Jordan never made fans in Chicago cry in disgust. They will say Jordan had the inner confidence to win with what he had. They will say Jordan never lost in the Finals. They will say Jordan won 6 straight Finals MVP’s. They will say Jordan spent his entire career friendless. They will say Jordan is Jordan. There can only be one. That, in and of itself, is the Jordan irony. Only he gets to be himself, to be judged against one man while everyone else has to meet his standard, not their own. It is not fair. But talking about fairness in sports when the external lopsided and virulently mean world seems to be tilting toward chaos seems, frankly, absurd.

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This is LeBron James 14th year in the league. In the regular season, he averaged 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, shooting 54% and playing 74 games, 37.8 minutes.

In Michael Jordan’s 14th year, he averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, shooting 41.6% and playing 60 games. Of course, Michael was 7 years older than LeBron James at the end of his 14th year.

It’s always get lost in the confusion that LeBron was a high school player who didn’t benefit from Dean Smith tutorials. He was extremely unpolished when he entered the NBA, learning as he went and even then he was special.

14th Year Minutes Points FG% Offensive Rating Title?
LeBron James 37.8 26.4 54.8% 119 ?
Michael Jordan 34.9 22.9 41.6% 99 No (Lakers)
Kobe Bryant 38.8 27.0 45.6% 109 Yes

A better comparison in his 14th year is Kobe Bryant’s. Kobe was a champion, driven to repeat. He averaged 27.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 45.6% shooting, playing 38.8 minutes. He won the title in 7 games against the Celtics.

Kobe, then, was the same age as LeBron now.
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Video is a luxury in this era and it can be a curse, particularly when the images remain stuck in the brain. Like glue.  You remember. You can’t help it. When Michael Jordan pushed off on Byron Russell to walk off with title number six, MJ’s moment of theater, drive and ending a story was phenomenal. When Kobe told Shaq in game 4 of the Finals versus Indiana, “I got this”, and then proceeded to score every point in overtime, after Shaq fouled out, that was Kobe’s star moment; he had arrived. When Dwyane Wade kept going to the line and going to the line and going to the line in the 2006 NBA Finals, some of the calls suspicious, it looked fixed. When Paul Pierce walked off the court in a wheelchair and then returned as if touched by a faith healer, and  he won the game for the Celtics, what could you do but shake your head at such a fake out. When Ray Allen hit the three in regulation and then blocked Manu Ginobli’s shot  in overtime, it was one of the most dramatic endings to a playoff game. When LeBron James blocked Andre Igoudala’s shot, erasing two points, setting up the dagger three by Kryie Irving to win Cleveland their first title, it was breathtaking.

Not breathtaking was when  LeBron James said, “I am taking my talents to South Beach”. Those words changed everything for him. Popular culture demanded his blood; the phrase has been mocked over time and still is used randomly today. It’s part of the urban vernacular when you want to ditch something broken and be dismissive about it to say “I’m taking my talents to ______” (fill in the blank).

LeBron has long made it up and mended fences with Cleveland. He has made it up to the basketball world by being extraordinary. He has been forgiven for his mistake. But he can’t  seem to cross that final threshold where Michael Jordan is waiting.

The LeBron James crime was a loyalty breach seven years ago. There is nothing about his game and what he has done in the years since to make anyone think he will not be, should not be, the sport’s greatest player. Except he did something people found offensive and it was on live t.v., in our living room, a brief reality show about the arrogant and the heartbroken.

This too: fans love Jordan too much to let him go, to release him as past. Jordan raised an entire generation to Be Like Mike.  Love that succinct lasts a lifetime, no matter who comes along next and how great he may be; that affection is eternal and it is part of the beloved past.

We reinvent the great parts of history, making them seem flawless.  That is the LeBron James conundrum. He is really number one in the world. But he is number two in many, many eyes, by default.

Nothing to prove for LeBron James? That’s what he says. I suppose he has a point, he has done it all, he has done more than anyone else except hoard titles. In the unfinished category, he has another title to win in 2017. Then a vacation. Legacy always takes care of itself.

 

photo via llananba