Just because LeBron James has nothing to prove doesn’t mean the expectations have disappeared. On top of his own ambitions- a title for Los Angeles- 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. Eight straight NBA Finals appearances. Three NBA titles. Three Finals MVP’s. Four regular season MVP’s. Two Olympic gold medals. 7th All-Time in scoring. 11th All-Time in assists. The first to have 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, 7,000 assists. But still that is not enough.
For a small cohort of Los Angeles Lakers fans, LeBron isn’t enough. They have been activists, vandalizing artwork with LeBron’s picture. It’s an unattractive look for a city that depends on the star culture to keep sports franchises afloat and yet it has nothing to do with stardom because LeBron is the biggest of all stars. It has to do with the familiar refrain of LeBron having to prove what no one else ever had to.
Kobe didn’t have to prove he was not Magic. Magic didn’t have to prove he was not Elgin. Bird didn’t have to prove he was not Russell. DRose didn’t have to prove he was not MJ. But LeBron has to prove and make comfortable the stars that came before him. He is denied the luxury of individualism, of being himself.
Walking into the Kobe vacuum has its cracks and valleys and pitfalls. Any other superstar would have been given a grace period. LeBron is not playing dress up and trying on someone else’s clothes that don’t fit. He is a star and a champion.
He has earned all of what he has received. But Basketball Los Angeles isn’t like any place he has ever been.
After Jerry West was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1960, the franchise moved to Los Angles. West and Elgin Baylor made an instant splash. West with his scoring and Baylor with his Kobe-before-Kobe dramatics. Both played for Los Angeles their entire career. Kareem came to Los Angeles after winning the Bucks a title. He was a college star in town and very familiar. As a Laker, he began his career when he was 28 years old. Magic Johnson was the prize in a coin toss between the Lakers and the Bulls. The Lakers won. Magic was 20. The Lakers drafted James Worthy, traded for rookie Byron Scott. They drafted Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, traded for Kobe Bryant on draft night. Shaquille O’Neal, their biggest free agent splash before LeBron James, was 24 years old when he came to the Lakers. When the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, he was 28 years old.
When Karl Malone came to the Lakers he was 40 years old. Fans never forgave Malone for what he said about playing against an HIV Magic Johnson. His one year was taken as the last days of Malone. He wanted a ring. He had a Kobe Bryant soap opera-ish spat. One year later, he was forgotten.
LeBron is 34. He is not in his full prime even as he is still playing with an exceptional efficiency, accuracy and dominance. He is coming to town as a man who has achieved multiple times, fully formed in his NBA bio and resume. The majority of his career, the bulk of it, is behind him. He knows what he knows.
Age matters in this often vapid culture. Los Angeles has spent the better part of their L.A. history drafting young talent and developing that talent. The fan base raises the star, the star raises the fans. The equality of give and take over time cements the legend as emotional participants in fans lives. We know them. They know us.
LeBron is new. He doesn’t know us and frankly he doesn’t have to. He has come into town to meet out his own agenda. Winning on the court is part of it but entertainment business is the other part.
The Kobe cult fanatic just can’t swallow the two pillars of LeBron James. He is an outlier to everything that has come before.
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.
This will be LeBron James 16th year in the league. In his regular season(s), he has averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, shooting 50% and playing 38.8 minutes. Last season, he played all 82 games. The season before, he played 74 games. The year he delivered a title to Cleveland, he played in 76 games.
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.
|15th Year||Minutes||Points||FG%||Offensive Rating||Title?|
|LeBron James||36.9||27.5||54.2%||118||No (Warriors)|
|Michael Jordan||38.8||28.7||46.5%||101||No (Spurs)|
|Kobe Bryant||33.9||25.3||45.1%||111||No (Mavericks)|
LeBron James in 2018-19 will have played longer in his career than Michael Jordan played in his. Jordan began to dwindle after his sixth title in 1998, his Wizards numbers depressed from the Michael we couldn’t get enough of, the black basketball Jesus.
LeBron is still extraordinary. But nowhere near beloved. Kobe Bryant isn’t beloved either but he is given his due, particularly in the city that fetishizes him. One of the curses of being a basketball nomad like James- you cannot build up affection and empathy and ride or die. You are seen as a mercenary. A legend. But still someone waiting for a better opportunity. Fans buy in. Sort of.
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 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 up for it 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 a Kobe Bryant Los Angeles is waiting.
The LeBron James crime was a loyalty breach eight 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: L.A. fans love Kobe too much to let him go, to release him as past. Kobe raised an entire Los Angeles generation. 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 and in this city, by default. But it is not his fault.
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 for L.A.. Then a basketball long term vacation. Legacy always takes care of itself.