Sunday, June 24, 2018

Light a Match: LeBron James keeps our fires burning

"Can I stand up and light a match?" exclaimed Sean Elliot during LeBron James's first game as a pro.

LeBron had just swallowed up his second straight steal against the Sacramento Kings in the now-defunct Arco Arena. Rather than delight the crowd with an immediate sequel dunk off of a fast-break, he stopped and flicked the ball to a trailing Ricky Davis who threw down a slam of his own. In this one play, LeBron showcased many things that have come to define his nearly two decades since.

As the Kings took the ball down the court, Elliot was amazed that James lived up to "all the hype." The hype surrounding James had been Biblical. Proclamations about him in the years prior were frequent and on night one the world gathered to find out if the prophecy was hersey or gospel. He was already gaining converts.

Also on display was LeBron's incredible basketball mind and defensive prowess as he anticipated every move of the King's Doug Christie. There was his unfathomable athleticism in an enormous body that contorted in a flash and went over a Brad Miller screen to poke the ball away. Then there was the on-court selflessness as LeBron handed a would-be dunk off to Ricky Davis, who believed, in a telling lack of self-awareness, that James would be Robin to Davis's Batman.

Hidden in that assist was the assurance that LeBron has always been pivotal to his teammates’ success. His supporting cast doesn't succeed without his allowance for them to do so. He is magnetic, like the center of a solar system that demands his teammates and the entire association to orbit. He earned it by his greatness and unselfishness, but as Ricky Davis and later Dion Waiters and Isaiah Thomas would find out, being banished from LeBron's universe can be painful. And lastly, with Elliot's proclamation of desire to worship as if at a legendary rocker's show, there was LeBron's ability to control our attention, something he's held for the last 15 years.

From night one, LeBron has dominated our conversation and propelled into motion themes that could run two decades. At each stage of LeBron’s career, we’ve debated where he is on the pantheon and tried to pinpoint where he’s headed.

Is he the best prospect of all time? Would he ever be the best player in the league? Could he ever win a title? Was he better than Kobe? And now, finally, is he or can he be the greatest ever? The fact that LeBron has answered these questions and continually chipped away at one question mark, leading to a larger and greater one behind it has added a fervor to the dialogue around hoops. LeBron’s career has perfectly aligned with the rise of basketball blogs, content and NBA Twitter which has made the discussion one that everyone can have, all the time.

So, let’s look at how the masses viewed him at the various signposts of his rise until now. With free agency starting in a week, we sit on the edge of our seats waiting for another decision to be made. We can rest assured that his coming choice will be one that keeps the masses' flames ablaze. Why? Because LeBron has fixated our eyes on him each step of the way.
My first encounter with the King was in my seventh grade middle school cafeteria. I sat down with my tray of food and looked down at my best friend's ESPN magazine. I asked who was on the cover and he responded "LeBron James. He's going to be the best."*

The next year, I was fortunate to see rookie LeBron in person during his first stop in San Antonio. I didn't know that he'd one day be a rival to my beloved Spurs, but I didn't care. I was caught up in the hopeful yearning of the masses. I also saw Carmelo Anthony twice. A lot of people then might have said that James was a false idol, and Melo was the one deserving our attention. That wouldn’t have been a radical thought. But, the difference in the games atmosphere’s were stark: Carmelo live was nice, but seeing James was a pilgrimage.

Before the game, as LeBron was shooting left handed corner threes during warm-ups, two friends and I snuck down from the nosebleeds and somehow got court-side, right behind the Spurs media. The Spurs radio announcer is a family friend of ours and he was on a commercial break, so I tapped him on the shoulder and asked "can you introduce us to LeBron?" It was an absolutely ridiculous, ludicrous request, but it's how all of the basketball populace has acted toward LeBron James for 16 years.

I share that personal story because it's truly baffling that someone has been so relevant as a figure in my life for so long. I think that provides us a lens to see how enduring of a shadow he’s casted over the entire NBA. He's been the center of the basketball conversation and consciousness for most of my engaged fan-hood. He was who my generation wanted. We only caught the tail end of Jordan (my one non-Wizards basketball memory of Jordan is the Byron Russell shot). Vinsanity was fleeting, Allen Iverson's edges were too sharp; and Kobe was like Phish, or WideSpread Panic, a revival for a few, but clanging gongs to the rest. A legion of basketball fans desired to see someone who could just nip at the heels of Michael Jordan in the conversation as the greatest ever.  In the clip from the first game you already see Sean Elliott wrestling with whether the Messianic prophecies of LeBron as "The Chosen One" could perhaps be true. He's been a traveling Mecca to droves of basketball fans since that very first night on the road in Sacramento.

His first Sports Illustrated feature asked, “is he the heir to Jordan?” Literally anything less than the career LeBron has had and he's looked at as a failure who was unable to live up to billing. Only he and Tiger Woods have achieved the greatness in sports that the masses projected onto them. Bill Simmons wondered in a February 2007 column if LeBron had peaked too soon?

"Could we end up putting him in the "Too Much, Too Soon" Pantheon some day, along with Eddie Murphy, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and every other celeb who became famous too quickly and eventually burned out?"

That was a question worth asking, because it's not surprising that LeBron enamored us initially with his unique set of skills and talents. But with the strength of a demigod, he's managed a run that's already outpaced Jordan in games played, minutes, and Finals appearances. He's continued to ascend, forcing us to collectively wonder if his Magnum Opus remains not yet written.

While in Cleveland, the initial response to LeBron was a "wow," a jaw drop. How could someone be this good and so young? His combination of athleticism and size and skill is unbelievable to this day. Simmons asked in a January 2005 column, "over the past three months, have you seen anything to make you think that we're not watching someone in the early stages of becoming the greatest basketball player ever? (" He got so good, so quickly, averaging 31 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists per game just at the time he could legally drink a Michelob Ultra, sorry, red wine.

But, then the realization set in that LeBron is not Michael Jordan, and the first backlash came. I remember LeBron James passing up a game-winning shot once so a guy named Flip Murray could take an open corner three at the buzzer. Flip missed. The takes came in droves: He was "fool's gold", not like Mike. But, as LeBron continued to drag unqualified supporting casts deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs, it became obvious that LeBron was more Magic than Michael. If he had been a Michael counterpart, would we ever have allowed him to get into Michael's conversation? Or would he always have felt like a cheap replica? LeBron has never once given into being a counterfeit copy of Jordan.

In 2009, (LBJ was 25), LeBron was heading towards his second MVP and was firmly in the top 30 players of all time. Most would have agreed that he was soaring towards the top 8 players ever. But, he arguably slid backwards in the rankings over the next year and a half following the LeBacle (his last series in Cleveland) and his identity crisis against the Mavericks in The Finals, which are undoubtedly the two biggest blemishes on his career, along with The Decision television spectacular. If James wins that Mavericks series, he's 4-5 in The Finals instead of  3-6 and his only two losses are against dynasties, The Spurs and The Warriors. That reads a lot differently.

Miami was LeBron's turn to wear the Black Hat, but while with the Heat he was also able to elevate his play.  He developed a low post game, blunt force efficiency, learned to be a champion and found just enough Jordanian psychology to allow him to never have a repeat of the 2011 Finals. He might have lacked Michael's absolute addiction to winning, but Miami showed LeBron's addiction to being at the center of the basketball universe, another form of winning. In becoming the villain, he remained at the forefront of the conversation, even if now the crowds wanted to see him fail (I found myself among them).

As he left Miami, I had him ranked as the 7th best player of all time, narrowly edging out Wilt, Hakeem, Shaq and Kobe, but still behind MJ, Magic, Bird, Duncan, Kareem and Russell. His decision to return home to Cleveland reinforced the messianic narrative but at it score was  a savvy basketball decision that served as the hidden foundation underneath. His return from Miami completed his face-turn and turned him from "Goliath back into David."

LeBron joined a Cavs team with Kyrie Irving that acquired Kevin Love, but didn’t yield playing time to young talent or rest on his laurels. . Now, we marvel at the fact that after 15 years (it's technically 18 seasons if you count how many playoff games he's played) LeBron hasn't skipped a beat. He's never seen a reduction in minutes and he's gruelingly played 91 percent of his teams regular season games during this Cavs stint. The sheer magnitude of his body of work is becoming his most convincing case in the GOAT argument. He brought Cleveland its title in legendary fashion and gave the Cavs faithful plenty of memories and a wealth of riches.

Though the prodigal son brought Cleveland its elusive championship and fulfilled his promise to the city that drafted him, his return home was a sign that he'd changed the league for good. By going to Miami, he created a new universe and other players and teams had to learn to survive in the reality he created. LeBron launched the player empowerment era in which players would act in their own best interest based on basketball and cultural fit regardless of loyalty optics or financial gain. When James toppled a 73-win Warriors team in 2016, Kevin Durant and the Warriors joined forces so that they could stay standing in LeBron's wake. Durant probably never makes the decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join forces with the Bay Area had LeBron not paved the road for Durant to do so six years earlier. By empowering Durant through his own Decision, James may have guaranteed that his chase for Jordan’s ghost never be completed.

LeBron's creation of this era of empowerment caused Kyrie Irving to leave home, in order to find his own path. Like flipping the ball to Ricky Davis, LeBron has always tried to maintain control over how and when his teammates and his organizations operate. The positives of this are that LeBron has always made his teammates better while they shared the court. The negatives are that it led to his tension with Pat Riley in Miami and his convincing Cleveland to shell out poor contracts to Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Tristan Thompson, depleting Cleveland's flexibility and sending Irving towards the door. With the Warriors' creation and Irving's departure, other players are following James's lead.
One day, we might look at all the marks left on the game during LeBron’s time here and see that the most enduring one was the empowerment of its stars. Because of the world LeBron created, the Warriors are here and Cleveland is no longer a viable basketball solution for someone who has to be at the forefront of all discussion about basketball. Therefore, LeBron has another decision to make.

We know he values narratives, but this time the choice is less obvious. There isn't a perfect basketball fit, as there seemed to be in Miami and then back in Cleveland. Nor is there an optics decision that could sway opinion one way or another, in the way taking his talents to South Beach elicited hate and "Coming Home" resonated with bleeding-heart loyalists.

The Lakers are the business choice and could potentially break the addiction our basketball culture has to Ringz above all else. But, unless he's able to create a superteam with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (and even then that might be a clunky matchup against the Warriors), a trip to LA might signify that the championship or Ghost Chasing portion of his career is finished. Is he willing to relent this soon? And although the Lakers may be LeBron’s best chance to become the first billionaire athlete, it’s equally possible that they are  too much of a brand. . LeBron could go to LA and win over the dens of Mamba disciples, but he also might find multitudes of Lakers faithful who will never look at him in the same way they saw Kobe.

San Antonio or Houston could allow him to play in a system rather than being the system. LeBron's one deficiency may be that he's never really learned to play off of the ball which has caused an over-dependence on him, and his team's lineups collapse without him.  However, neither of these two teams would be his final career stop and with his hyper-focus on legacy, does LeBron really want to one day have five team jerseys in his Hall of Fame exhibit someday? Some have speculated that this could be the beginning of "mercenary LeBron." But, does renting yourself out as a hired gun or contract worker ultimately diminish your value? These are things he will think about.

Bill Simmons lays down how going to Philadelphia is LeBron's path to surpassing Jordan. I have to agree, because it's the only one that: 1) gives him a chance to bring another struggling franchise out of the muck; 2) allows him to be a part of a system to some extent, evolving into an off-ball player while Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (maybe with Kawhi Leonard or Paul George) take the offense into their hands.  There's always a chance LeBron continues to defy science, but Philadephia also allows him to transition into an older, wiser player who doesn't have to play 40+ minutes a night. 3) Philadelphia is his best chance at rings--a lot of them. Their young players will be in their primes until LeBron is in his mid 40s and will ultimately outlast the Warriors dynasty.  And, 4) Philadelphia certainly isn't Hollywood, but it is close to New York and the proximity to that market will allow him to keep building his empire. Though all options will keep our intrigue for LeBron high, Philadelphia's tank holds the most gasoline because it gives him a clear path to becoming #1 of all time; allows him to take the last step in his career evolution; and still keeps the dream of being an active billionaire athlete alive.

LeBron said once while standing on a championship podium that whatever people say about him off the court  doesn’t matter, because as a kid from inner-city Akron, he's "not even supposed to be here." Now I know LeBron realizes how he has defied the odds, and an enduring part of his legacy will be how he's helped thousands and thousands of kids do the same. But we know that LeBron cares about the narratives. He's too smart and too calculated not to care. And he's admitted it. His next decision might be the murkiest yet, but he'll still be at the basketball world's center. All we will be able to do is stand and strike a match. After nearly two decades, his greatest testament is that we're still standing.
*Said friend remains my best friend, but has gone from the ultimate LeBron apologist (who engaged in lengthy Facebook debates about LeBron versus Kobe & Kevin Durant) to his ultimate naysayer. I guess a guy from Austin, TX can take personal offense to someone leaving Cleveland, Ohio to work in Miami Beach.

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