LeBron James and the ascension to greatness
Growing up, I hated Michael Jordan. And I regret it deeply.
The career of the “Greatest of All Time” is an exceedingly rare and precious thing. By definition, there can only be one in all of history, and, arrogant though this line of thinking is, Jordan’s probably was that career—it casts a deep and seemingly inescapable shadow over anyone attempting to eclipse his accomplishments. Even Halley’s Comet will stroll through the neighborhood every 75 years or so; the greatest basketball career in history has, in all likelihood, come and gone forever.
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The Standard: Michael Jordan won six titles and five MVP awards during his hall-of-fame career.
When you look at it statistically, taking into account all people who have or will ever live, it’s astronomically unlikely that any one human being would be alive during such a singular moment in history. Yet I was there, an avid basketball fan throughout Jordan’s reign. And I couldn’t stand him. Out of sheer spite for his unprecedented success, I failed to properly appreciate just exactly what I was seeing. Too late did I realize my mistake, and my retroactive love for Jordan is now confined to a YouTube-mediated kaleidoscope of fragmented memories. I promised myself I would never take greatness for granted again.
Which is why I have struggled so mightily to love LeBron James, even though I don’t.
Look, greatness is polarizing. It’s probably only possible to take an extreme position on people like Jordan and LeBron; I imagine that most people either absolutely love them or vehemently hate them, and LeBron in particular has given us plenty of fodder for vitriol. But it isn’t “The Decision” that has made it so difficult for me to bask luxuriantly in LeBron’s breathtaking talent. Hating LeBron for exercising free will is really just small-market sour grapes, a manifestation of the hopelessness of fans in places like Portland, Indiana, Minnesota and, now, Cleveland.
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Breaking Through: LeBron James won his first NBA championship last season after nine years in the league.
Instead, there is a subtlety to my instinctive dislike for LeBron that begins on the court. I’ve never loved to watch “King LeBron” play basketball. He is an athletic miracle, a genuine freak of nature capable of some truly staggering feats whenever he steps onto the hardwood. LeBron is an electric dunker, an exceptional defender of five positions and an unselfish and gifted passer. When his jumper is on, it rips the net with a velocity and viciousness that makes you certain that he has placed that ball and all its accompanying spin in the mathematical center of the hoop. But all this precision bleaches out any semblance of aesthetic appeal from his game. It’s like watching the robots shape-shift in Michael Bay’s soulless Transformers movies: too fast and too clean to be beautiful.
Jordan’s game, by comparison, was as graceful and delicate as it was athletically transcendent. He could overpower when he had to, but he possessed a litheness that was manifest in a flawless midrange game, smooth and fluid, moving like liquid through cracks in the defense. Jordan became even more fun to watch as his athleticism waned, as he developed and eventually perfected an unstoppable turnaround and a mastery over the pivot foot that allowed him to create space at will. If LeBron is the straight line between two points, Jordan is the arc.
LeBron also fails to embody those intangible elements of sport that are so critical to a fan’s comprehension of greatness—abstract but unmistakable notions like killer instinct, a refusal to lose, the will to win at all cost in the biggest moments. These are cliches, to be sure, and the serious contemplation of them in a 24-hour sports news cycle can seem a bit overwrought—even absurd at times. But they are important because they are the only aspects of professional athletics that the fan can intuitively understand. Most fans will never know the feeling of flying through the air in the NBA, but they can grasp passion. It is the part of themselves that they recognize in the game, and they demand it as one of the conditions of greatness.
It’s totally unfair to argue that LeBron is devoid of passion, and his career is already full of memorable, fortitude-asserting “clutchness.” It’s just that he doesn’t personify our emotional understanding of the game in the same pure way that Jordan did. LeBron’s accomplishments have appeared all but preordained, and that very sense of inevitability feels totally independent of him. We don’t get to witness his struggle against impossible odds because the odds are in his favor. We don’t ever see him “digging deep”—his talent is so apparent, so completely literal. We see nothing of LeBron in his achievements. So we see nothing of ourselves.
I’m projecting, of course. The argument over the “Greatest of All Time” always comes down to what we mere mortals are willing to invest of ourselves in the accomplishments of strangers. And LeBron’s potential to inspire that investment and assert that greatness is infinite but elusive. I hope he taps into it fully in the years to come, because I’m trying to like him. I can’t afford to waste another unlikely brush with