Imagine the year of LeBron James, the ecstasy and agony. Reaching an elite pinnacle in a sport that has only two men above him on the scoring least was a heady moment. Witnessed on national television on a Saturday night, the veneration of the James career was richly deserved and the night ended, as it should have, with a congratulatory phone call from Kobe Bryant, whom James had just passed on the leader board. Not twelve hours later, the lowest of lows, Bryant’s death sucking all the oxygen out the room. Suddenly, where James landed on the scoring list was inconsequential and temporarily irrelevant.
Trying to make sense of the Bryant helicopter tragedy and mining his painful emotions, LeBron James posted a tender reflection on Instagram. He used the word responsibility but contextually it wasn’t really true. Kobe’s legacy isn’t the responsibility of LeBron James. Kobe took care of his career. The legacy that is in front of LeBron James is his own. Life changes in an instant and James had to negotiate a way to feel Bryant’s presence but not carry grief’s freight.
In his seventeenth year, James has repeatedly been asked questions about Bryant, as expected. It still feels odd that Kobe is no longer on earth. But here is the symmetry. In his first year, James was questioned about Bryant as well. It was 2003 and Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Preternaturally mature, James deflected any kind of criticism and said he supported Kobe because the NBA is a brotherhood. That brotherhood was tested in January and February with a level of trauma that was considered unthinkable before that Sunday morning’s foggy Calabasas fugue.
Trying to find meaning in something that was so obviously abnormal was the challenge LeBron James met. James particularly is the center point of all things normal. How he handled Kobe’s death determined not just how the rest of the players in the NBA fell in line but how the Lakers marched towards an NBA title, their 17th if they win it on Sunday.
Six months ago it was so fragile within the Lakers ecosystem, the likelihood of everything falling apart wasn’t far fetched. But LeBron James leadership skills, his inner fortitude that allowed him to set aside whatever personal feelings of sorrow he was carrying and to be a tower of light that the team and organization could rest upon in their weariness, carried everyone through.
LeBron was the symbol everyone trusted, a bridge from the past and into the future. He led everyone. Work now. Cry later. Trust me.
He has navigated the Lakers from under a tsunami, dragging bodies from emotional paralysis, and this 2019-20 season miraculously will end with a title. Questions begin anew about LeBron James as the undisputed greatest of all time. He will have 4 rings. He will have participated in 10 NBA Finals. He may have 4 Finals MVP’s to accompany his 4 regular season MVP’s. He will have led the league in scoring and assists in different years. He will have won a title for every team he has played for and the first title for Cleveland is still historic four years later.
LeBron James is 8th All-Time in minutes played, 8th All-Time in Assists, 4th All-Time in field goals, 5th All-Time in triple-doubles, 2nd All-Time in PER, 2nd All-Time in Offensive Win Shares. With a title, he will have guided a historic franchise through an emotional abyss and ended their ten-year championship drought.
Michael Jordan was dramatic, spectacular, unstoppable, brilliant in the moment, clutch, competitive. But Michael Jordan never had to compete or lead with the kind of traumatic stress that faced King James. It was a pivotal moment in James career. A circumstance no one asked for had James in the position of true north. He was being asked to stand tall in his Gettysburg moment.
It was Lincoln who said in the Gettysburg Address “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln was eulogizing dead soldiers and LeBron had to eulogize a dead friend. In that, LeBron and Lincoln have more in common than it may seem on the surface. Simply, leaders lead.
A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be. In the bubble. Surviving a pandemic. Shaking off competitors. Remembering the fallen. Becoming a champion.
Going home with a ring.