LeBron James plays basketball more like a mythical creature than a human being. Over the last four years, he’s won the MVP Award three times. Suggesting he’s the greatest passer in the league barely even raises an eyebrow, despite the fact that he’s 6’8 and ostensibly a forward. He’s one of the league’s top defenders. And starting with his first game in the NBA, when he scored 25 points, he’s been able to put the ball in the basket with an ease few players have ever been able to fake, much less exhibit day in and day out. The only knock against his game is that he isn’t clutch, which is a pointless and chaotically uncertain measure of a player’s efficacy.
But. But! He hasn’t won an NBA Championship — and there are those who would say that that’s the only real barometer of success. Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, and John Stockton can empathize. Dirk Nowitzki could until just last year. Kiss the rings, etc. In the team-oriented American landscape, individual accomplishments in professional sports leagues that pay millions of dollars for your services mean little against the success of the club/squad/city you represent.
So LeBron James does not have it all. But he hasn’t been given anything that he didn’t earn. Qualms with how he arranged that mega-move to the Heat? He couldn’t have pulled off anything like it without the prestige and power that his abilities merit. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen know what that’s like. It’s becoming tired, but it’s true: if you still take issue with the trade to the Heat, and you aren’t from Cleveland proper, than you’re taking your emotional marching orders from ghosts.
So why do we hate LeBron so much? Capitalizing on whatever caused nature to form him into the perfect athlete, LeBron flawlessly became a Basketball Player in a way that no one else had done since Jordan. The public tends to look for heroes in basketball since the era of His Airness, despite the fact that basketball is in no way an individual game. LeBron has been the victim of this, because he had the gall to play well enough to make people think he could be as good as, if not better than, Jordan. And if LeBron fell into the sways of that narrative? Can you blame him? It’s not like he didn’t have a reason. Humans are inherently solipsistic, and when the entire world you exist in tends to be as solipsistic about you as you are, then you’re more or less doomed to getting lost in your own skull. It’s like designing and building your own house and then complaining that it’s too big.
Of course, “The Decision” was LeBron’s too-big bag that he placed on the backs of the public, and people lost their shit. I’m sick of talking about The Decision, and you should be too. Since then, LeBron has been better as a basketball player than he was before even after having inserted himself into the unique challenge of playing with two friends and no one else. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh chose to situate themselves as such, and it hasn’t worked yet, because it wasn’t a great plan —it wasn’t terrible, but, for being cast as the ultimate strategy to follow in this brave new iteration of the NBA, it had more flaws than you could count. It was a strategy, like any other: it could work, or it could fail.
The public doesn’t want LeBron to win a ring; they’d prefer it goes to the silver-spooned Thunder. Shall we talk about who deserves this year’s championship, for a second? Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Ibaka are 23, 23, 22, and 22 years old. As basketball players, they were essentially born into the perfect situation. If there’s a reason they deserve to beat the Heat, it’s because they’re a better team, a gallingly enjoyable group of athletes to watch, and that will play itself out on the court, like it did in Game 1.
Part of the reason why we love the Thunder so much and why we resent LeBron so deeply stems from this pre-shark-jumping status. Dislike needs time to fester and evolve, which is why the term “honeymoon” exists, and why dictators and tyrants tend to last any time at all. Agitators must sprout up from between the weeds, and they need to work with what life has given them. During the period in which we created LeBron James, the monolithic thing, there was no bashfulness about whether or not he’d one day turn heel, or a need to create some proper foils for him in the whole narrative of the NBA. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were predecessors; Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were others, foreigners. Derrick Rose just isn’t there yet, though he might’ve been this year, and maybe will be soon. And with that, I’ve exhausted the list of non-LeBron players who have won MVP awards since he entered the league. Last year was the first instance in which Kevin Durant seemed to be a legitimate candidate to oppose the King — hey, remember how he’s nicknamed the King? — and the Thunder were still problematic at that point, full of malfunctioning parts and not yet privileged with an ascendant Harden and Ibaka.
The real problem with LeBron is that the public thinks he has enough. He’s been successful beyond anyone’s stupidest aspirations, and yet, he’s still missing the only thing that anyone truly cares about. There’s a perverse satisfaction in that, like: how obscenely well-heeled and influential can you be and still be incomplete? In reality, LeBron James isn’t a divinely appointed emperor or some mistakenly deified clown. He “deserves” a ring as much as anyone else deserves one.