This started off as a Lebron vs. Steph post. I was talking myself into how the league suddenly went from being Lebron’s to Steph’s. The much talked about come up of both stars. The programs they built (St. Mary St Vincent/Davidson). The way they look physically which, while on the opposite ends of the spectrum, define who they are .
After watching the first four games of the NBA finals, I still find myself conditioned to follow Lebron around the court. Everything is, and always has been about Lebron and even on the precipice of the greatest season in NBA history, I don’t find the Warriors run nearly as interesting as what this Finals will ultimately mean for the career of Lebron James. In the end, Lebron is too good and that’s his problem.
But hasn’t it always been this way? Even as, in some people’s eyes, Steph Curry has become the best player in the league, Lebron still is the most fascinating. His athleticism, his prowess, his ability to take over games are parts of the package that make him so appealing to basketball fans.
The most memorable athletes are polarizing figures. I thought of Muhammad Ali’s career this week as news spread of his passing. Billy Crystal said it best during his eulogy: “the world stopped. There were no wars. There were no terrorists.” Ali was a figure that drew the fiercest of passions. You could have a spirited argument about Ali the boxer. Ali the civil rights activist. Ali the draft dodger. Ali the Muslim. The one universal opinion was that his career as a boxer was memorable. As memorable for his successes as for his failures.
Lebron’s career isn’t over, but when all is said and done, it will be interesting how we ultimately view him. Its human nature to never appreciate something as its happening. I feel like with Lebron’s career everything has been taken for granted under the incredible pressure both he and the basketball world placed on his broad shoulders since the moment he entered the league.
By the time he was drafted in 2003, the world was already well aware of who Lebron was; All his firsts were universally broadcast as moments and special events. His first record breaking contract with Nike was billed as revolutionary and his first game in the NBA was a must-watch for people curious about the next big thing. Hell, his high school games were being broadcast on ESPN.
There are two very distinct factors involved in how we view Lebron and they conflict with each other: the way the internet changed and the rise of the statistical analytics movement.
Every year the Cavaliers got better, every year the basketball intelligentsia wanted more. Every year he raised the level of his game, it seemed never to be enough. When Lebron entered the league, Facebook was still an algorithm connecting dorms in Harvard and Twitter wasn’t a glean in the internet’s eye. The internet for all it does now, never connected the world of information in any field quite like Twitter does. Sports bloggers were gaining ground as giants and counter culture to the old sports columnists. The Mike Lupicas and Mitch Alboms of the world were finding that their voices were no longer necessary to tell us how to feel about games or moments. The rise of the blogger with the fan perspective was becoming more prevalent.
When Twitter came into the world in 2006, the internet had finally found a way to bring everyone together into smaller chat rooms making the world wide web, more local. It really would not have been successful had celebs and then sports writers endorsed the platform by participating. Regular everyday fans could interact with stars and sportswriters. Every year since Twitter’s arrival, the way we consume sports changed and the internet changed with it. Hashtags became a way to categorize your thoughts and subjects. Sports bloggers who took to the platform immediately found another way to widen their reach. SB Nation and Bleacher Report were two digital publications birthed from the Twitter age, gaining funding and important backing from multimedia giants like Vox media and Turner Sports.
But it was the fan who rose during the internet age to have more of a voice. Every business must respond to the changing of its climate. As smartphones and tablets became all the rage, it became clear that this generation preferred their information in their pockets rather than in print. As print shops were dying, so too were the voices of a generation who could capture a moment with their words. The 2000s featured the voice of the fan become more prominent. Fans wanted to hear the columnist feel the home team loss and share in their misery. That type of columnist became famous and many sports programs were shaped in the image of the conversation of regular Americans. Sports talk radio became more popular, PTI, and even the lowest form: First Take.
The other thing Twitter did was hasten the pace of both reporting and then reaction to sporting news and games. Today’s games are watched with one eye on the screen and one eye on any number of handheld devices- your phone; iPad etc. What did that do? It warped the conversation. Columnists who took time to adjust to the new age where print journalism was dying, had to calibrate their job title to include reacting to news as it was happening rather than rely on the benefit of time to gather their thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still journalists who refuse to take part in the Twitterati game. You know where everyday fans gather the “courage” to to hide behind an internet handle and fly off of it to try and get a reaction. I’ve noticed that more and more sports personalities like Amin Elhassin and Bomani Jones (two guys I follow and find to be funny and unrepentant in their back talk to the shallow end of the smart gene pool) can snap back at fans without fear of losing their jobs because maybe that’s also part of their job title now.
Lebron came of age during this rapidly changing time of the internet and that more than anything has warped our ability to properly understand and contextualize him as a player. He’s been the best player in the NBA for the last 13 years and had more workload than perhaps anyone in the history of sports. The demands on his body are great and so his physical frame, one to be awed, is sometimes taken for granted. He can go from playing an 82 game season, to playing four rounds of the playoffs to immediately traveling to play for the United States in international competition. Where does he get the time to rest and take a break?
That’s without taking into account the demands on his time to do commercials and be a top flight pitchman for a number of brands.
His body is kept in immaculate shape because he “gets it”. Many times the athletes fans project to be great never get there because they don’t understand the sacrifice it takes. They love the fame and fortune but never reach the levels we want because being a celebrity is more important. New York has two of those in Carmelo Anthony and Matt Harvey: stars who have the talent to be even better but are still caught up in the trappings of being a star.
Lebron’s skill level causes the most amount of polarizing discussion. Try and compare his career with Jordan’s and watch what happens to your mentions on Twitter. Lebron’s skill and talent inspire so much thought that it hurts the head to see where people go with it.
In today’s day and age where everything is watched, Lebron is perhaps the most prepared athlete. He has a stable family life, never implicated in any kind of wandering that had TMZ on his door. He goes to clubs but never does anything to embarrass himself.
He’s had one very notable slip up: the Decision. The one time he stopped being the robot everyone wanted him to be, he misplayed his hand so incredibly that the internet has never allowed him to forget it. So much so that if sports had a super villain in the modern times, 2011 Lebron and the Heat would be it. I never hated the decision to leave Cleveland: they had taken Lebron’s greatness for granted that they never adequately surrounded him with the players necessary to end Cleveland’s title drought. But the way in which he decided to leave Cleveland for Miami was so poorly done that when you consider every other PR decision Lebron has made since and before then, one has to be led to believe that this wasn’t Lebron’s doing and more so the people around him that talked him into it.
After winning two titles in Miami, he returned to Cleveland in an even more surprising fashion. I always knew Lebron would come back to Cleveland one day. After winning back to back titles and and going to the Finals four years in a row, there weren’t that many challenges left for Lebron except for the biggest one: reversing Cleveland’s title curse. In a stroke of PR genius and further evidence that Lebron understands the way in which this here game works he penned a letter to Cleveland and to the sports world through Sports Illustrated to announce his return to “the ‘Land”.
In his second consecutive Finals against what may be the greatest team record wise, Lebron’s legacy faces its greatest challenge. Many have said that Lebron looks tired. That perhaps its time to look at these next few years as the inevitable downturn for a player who has logged more minutes than any player in NBA history. Since his first SI cover fourteen years ago as a 17 year old, he’s been in the public conscience. Dave Chapelle once said “you can’t become un-famous, but you can become infamous”. Lebron has no upside thanks to his incredible talent, or rather what we think his talent is.
In an incredibly cruel twist to Lebron’s legacy, many will remember Lebron for what he could have done rather than what he did and that’s where the second factor that has played into his career: the rise of the statistical analytics crowd. No one athlete has benefitted more from the stat crowd than Lebron because nobody needs the defense more. Jordan will always be the GOAT to me, but I bet if I look at the stats next to each other, Lebron comes closer to Jordan than any of my generation would like to think.
But Lebron conversations can create such hate within even the closest group of friends that its almost impossible to do the comparison without being prepared to take hits to your own pride. Its completely illogical and yet its the curse of Lebron. There is no win-win situation for Lebron. Either his team wins or he loses the game. Every game, every season is a referendum on him as a man, as an athlete etc.
We lionize guys like Jordan because they were willing to compete in things like the Slam Dunk competition. We attach words and phrases like competitive drive and playing like a man possessed to Jordan. But for whatever reason those don’t apply to Lebron. Lebron’s manhood gets called into question more so than any other athlete ever. Lebron doesn’t participate in slam dunk competitions and its as if he committed the greatest sin of all: you’re not like Jordan.
The comparison to Jordan isn’t fair, but let’s remember that for people to use Jordan as the comp for Lebron is paying high compliment to King James. Its for a career body of work that has been followed and dissected more than any other athlete. He will never get credit for the two titles he won. Many fans will even laugh off the Jordan comp if this Finals series goes as most expect it to: a swift ending at Oracle on Monday. For James, there is no upside.
No matter how much of the stat community come out in praise of Lebron, their words and numbers fall on deaf ears. Nobody wants to hear that their eyes deceive them and that Lebron is somewhat in the conversation. My generation will always stubbornly hold on to the fact that Jordan could beat anybody because we carry on about Jordan as if he were more myth than man. He isn’t the guy who was routinely a douche bag to his teammates, and had a severe gambling addiction that may or may not have brought on his year and a half hiatus from the sport during the height of his powers. We remember his exploits because he was the first to do it.
He was the first shoe mogul. He built Nike to become the number one shoe company in the world. He was the first athlete to be widely marketed and have major companies create lavish ad campaigns around. Why? Because he delivered. We remember the push off and pose. We remember the return. We remember the Nike commercials who mythologized Jordan while he was still there. He won while we were erecting statues in his honor.
Lebron was supposed to be in the same mold, and dammit if he didn’t try. He played with fire and purpose and imposed his will when he wanted to. But we as a sports culture hold it against him when his team failed around him. I saw Skip Bayless, who has made so much money off discussing Lebron, tweet out that Lebron had been shutdown by Andre Iguodola. Unfortunately he came one assist shy of a triple double. If that’s shutting someone down, we may need to reassess the sports lexicon for poor Skip.
That’s part of the problem. There’s so much chatter orbiting Planet Lebron that its incomprehensible to have a genuine discussion about him. We almost have to wait for a decade after his career is over to properly understand what he did for the game.
Lebron’s problem is that he’s too good for his own good. One day we’ll all see eye to eye on him, but today is not the day. Not in today’s hot take climate. Not in today’s insta-reaction age where we have to understand what’s happening AS ITS HAPPENING. Where everyone has a voice, the smart and the not-so-smart.
Part of the problem in properly understanding Lebron is how he’s discussed. But mostly Lebron’s problem is that he’s Lebron. He’s probably too good to have a discussion today about him.